It’s not often you associate a player like Alexis with predictability. A sharp turn here, a step over there, ankle breaking swivels and outrageous pieces of control thrown in from time to time. But between January and March, just like his team, Alexis became something he despises most – easy to stop.
After signing from Barcelona in the summer of 2014, Alexis has played on the left-hand side for most of his Arsenal career. He has stolen many a soul out there, a long list of victims which includes the likes of Lukasz Piszczek, Emre Can and even poor Matteo Darmian who still probably wakes up at night in a cold sweat after the 3-0 demolition of Manchester United at the Emirates in October.
When he’s at his sharpest, you’d do well to find a defender in world football who can stop the Chilean cutting inside and firing one into the top corner. But after returning from a two month layoff, without that extra burst and lacking that seemingly infinite swagger running through his veins, instead of finding a yard of space, all he found were opposition defenders.
But as March came to a close, injury, circumstance and a kick up the arse directed to a couple of the squad's more senior players *cough* Theo Walcott *cough* saw 19 year-old Alex Iwobi come into the side and straight onto the left, with Alexis moving out to the right. A slight tactical tweak that has paid instant dividends to both Arsene and Arsenal.
Playing from the right instead of the left, you give Alexis options. And when you give Alexis options, the predictability that was following him around like a shadow during the early months of the year disappears.
When planted out on the left, Alexis’ reluctance to use his weaker foot means he can only do one thing, and that’s drift in centrally onto his stronger side. But situated on the right hand side, the Chilean has the ability to go either way. If you show him down the line, he will do so and burn the full back. If you force him inside, his interplay with Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil will cause problems in dangerous areas just in front of goal - which no defenders want to see happening. Essentially, there is no ‘wrong option’ for Alexis on the right.
Not only is the 27 year-old flourishing on the right due to the increased variety in his game, but also due to the newly found balance that's been struck in Arsenal’s forward line.
Alex Iwobi, recently brought into the side, offers tranquillity and composure alongside Alexis’ chaos. This season, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott have been played out wide and are either a) too similar to the Chilean or b) have not been good enough, forcing the Chilean to take on greater technical responsibilities than he should be, causing him to over-elaborate (which he doesn't need much encouragement to do anyway). But Iwobi’s silky first touch and surprisingly mature footballing brain allows Alexis to be himself, which is why we’re seeing the best of him. He can play his natural, instinctive game.
Not only has Iwobi made a difference, but so has Danny Welbeck. At both Udinese and Barcelona, Alexis was utilised as a right forward and often as a second striker. His style in Catalonia especially was based on his intelligent movement off the ball, driving towards goal and latching onto slide rule passes in behind the defence. Welbeck’s pace, power and ability to run in behind offers the second wave of Arsenal’s attack a lot more space, and Alexis is constantly getting joy exploiting these gaps time and time again.
It’s no surprise that he has struggled in the past playing behind a far less mobile striker in Olivier Giroud.
After only scoring and assisting once in nine games before his switch to the opposite flank, we’ve now seen the Gunners’ very own Duracell bunny directly contribute to eight goals (five goals, three assists) in his last eight games. Also, despite this season presenting itself as a disappointing one for Alexis, he has actually scored at a slightly better rate in the Premier League this season, as opposed to last.
The manager spoke in midweek about how the Chilean has looked much more ‘electric’ of late, and whether this brief tactical switch becomes a permanent one, only time will tell. But what we do know, is that another name has been added to his list and hopefully others follow between now and the end of the season, as we continue to watch the Alexis our hearts took in 18 months ago. Sorry James Chester.