There’s been a significant change in Arsenal’s attacking line-up in recent weeks. In the first half of the season, the primary striker was Alexis. Having primarily played from the left in previous campaigns, the Chilean was switched to a centre forward role.
Clearly, this was a very different approach from playing Olivier Giroud up front. Alexis is a smaller, nippier player who makes runs into the channels, whereas Giroud is better with his back to goal, laying off the ball for midfield runners.
It meant Arsenal worked the ball into the final third differently, and had more pace on the shoulder of the last defender. His performance in the 5-1 victory at West Ham United last month demonstrated his quality in that role perfectly - three goals, one assist, and a truly wonderful all-round performance.
Over Christmas, however, the games come thick and fast and Arsene Wenger needed to rotate. Rest Alexis? Of course not, the Chilean hasn’t missed a league game this season. But others did need a rest, and therefore, on Boxing Day, Wenger used Giroud up front instead. It might sound ridiculous now – but that was the Frenchman’s first start of the campaign.
Ridiculous, of course, because Giroud has barely stopped scoring then, netting in five consecutive matches against West Brom, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Preston and Swansea. He’s in the hottest form of his Arsenal career – which means Alexis has returned to the left flank.
This hasn’t been a problem. Alexis is perhaps the most versatile attacker in the Premier League. Up front, number 10, right wing, left wing – you name it. He would probably happily play in goal if Arsenal found themselves in crisis. The left-wing role, though, suits him well.
Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Burnley was a good example of his influence. It was notable, for example, that the most frequent passing combination involved getting the ball to Alexis, from left back Nacho Monreal. Clearly, Alexis receives the ball in less dangerous positions than when playing up front, but more frequently overall.
His relationship with Giroud, too, is very good. Alexis isn’t the type of player to naturally go down the line and cross, but he nevertheless regularly found the Frenchman with passes into dangerous positions – more than you might expect, considering the compactness of Burnley’s defence.
Alexis is very much capable of leading the attack, however, even when fielded from the left. It’s particularly interesting that his average position was higher up the pitch than any other Arsenal player – with Giroud (12) often moving towards play, Alexis (7) was able to spin in behind and was his side’s most advanced attacker.
A heatmap explains this further – although Alexis started on the left, he constantly made runs into a position where he was more like an old-fashioned inside-left, rather than an outside-left – cutting in towards the opposition centre backs, rather than taking on the opposition full backs.
That means he’s able to pull the trigger regularly, too: 10 shots is a huge number, even in a match where Arsenal dominated possession for long periods.
It took until stoppage time, of course, for Alexis to find the target – but his cheeky panenka penalty underlined his current level of confidence. Wenger can deploy two different types of centre forward – sometimes Alexis will be best, sometimes Giroud will make more sense. In either role, however, the Chilean is a brilliant attacker and a constant goal threat.