With Arsene Wenger generally deploying a one-striker formation over the past half- decade, it’s been rare to see Arsenal using a proper strike partnership.
You probably have to go back to Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor to find a classic strike duo – and it’s not like they were on particularly good terms, judging by their coming-together shortly after Adebayor left for Manchester City. Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, perhaps, was Arsenal’s previous top-class partnership up front.
That might have changed Arsenal recruited two proven centre-forwards this summer, with Alexis Sanchez joining from Barcelona and Danny Welbeck signing from Manchester United. They’re not dissimilar players – pacey, versatile attackers capable of playing on the flank, or through the middle.
Initially, with Arsenal playing a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formation, and Sanchez fielded out wide, it was difficult to consider them a proper strike duo. More recently, however, Wenger has fielded the two players in central positions, where they can play close together and combine regularly. It’s not far off a 4-4-2, a formation Arsenal haven’t played for some time.
"He’s persistent, he keeps going and they are [the attributes of] somebody I like to play alongside"
In terms of positioning, Welbeck and Alexis joined Arsenal hoping to play slightly different roles compared to their previous club. Welbeck’s frustration at being deployed on the flank at Manchester United became well established, and at Arsenal he’s finally been handed the chance to play up front, sprinting in behind the defence onto through-balls.
Alexis, however, had something of the opposite experience – at Barcelona he was deployed high up the pitch, and instructed to make runs in behind the defence to create space for Lionel Messi, and provide him with a forward passing option too. Alexis is actually a more creative player who likes becoming regularly involved in play, and that’s been obvious by his constant movement towards midfield, receiving short passes before dribbling past opposition defenders.
It means Welbeck and Alexis are a perfect combination. In general terms they’re on the same wavelength – technical but physical, plus pacey and versatile. Nevertheless, in specific terms they take up different positions – one wants to run in behind, the other prefers coming short, although they can switch roles if required. These days, strikers are so accustomed to playing up front alone, that when a manager deploys two strikers in tandem, they often get in each other’s way. So far, Welbeck and Sanchez haven’t encountered that problem.
“It’s a pleasure to play with Alexis,” Welbeck said following the 2-0 victory at Sunderland, where Alexis scored both goals. “He’s persistent, he keeps going and they are [the attributes of] somebody I like to play alongside.”
Arsenal’s late equaliser in the 2-2 home draw with Hull City, meanwhile, was a good example of their combination play – Sanchez provided the incisive pass from a deep position, and Welbeck was there to provide the crucial finish.
Their passing patterns in the 3-0 victory over Burnley were also telling. The passes Welbeck plays to Alexis are usually short and sideways. Welbeck drops off the front to come short, playing the ball to Alexis between the lines, and hoping for a return pass.
Indeed, those return passes are straighter and more penetrative, finding Welbeck in dangerous positions inside, or just outside, the penalty box. That ability to play an incisive pass gives Alexis the license to come deep, providing Arsenal with more depth to their play.
However, this isn’t a pure creator-finisher model, as we became accustomed to when Bergkamp provided through-balls for Ian Wright, Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry. The roles were reversed for Alexis’s opener at Swansea, when Welbeck made a good run into the inside-right channel and cut the ball back for Alexis to finish from point-blank range. That’s the type of switching we can expect from these two, because both are excellent all-rounders.
We won’t see this strike partnership in every game, particularly when Mesut Ozil returns to play his favoured number ten role – and Olivier Giroud is still waiting to make his comeback, too. However, the key feature of Arsenal’s squad for 2014/15 is the sheer number of attacking options, and the two summer striking signings means Wenger can use a proper strike partnership for the first time in years.
Copyright 2024 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.