I had my reservations about Alexis as a centre forward. I had my reservations about Theo Walcott full stop. But after the demolition of Chelsea and an irresistible 45 minutes against Basel, it seems to be clicking for them both as individuals, but also as a pair.
Despite having all the necessary ingredients to lead the line, Alexis has never quite worked there. His (admirable) desire to be constantly involved works when playing out on the left, but as a frontman he often drops too deep in search of the ball – leaving Arsenal without an outlet further forward or a threat in behind.
Walcott is the polar opposite of the Chilean. His end product has never been in question - averaging a goal or an assist every other game throughout his Gunners career – but he would drift through games with little impact in the team’s overall play and leave his full-back horrendously exposed with half-hearted defensive work.
The one constant here is Arsene Wenger. Managers rarely believe in their players as much as he does, but you wouldn’t have blamed the Frenchman for losing patience with them both. But from day one he always felt Alexis had the qualities to play centrally, with his faith in Walcott unrivalled - even when things weren’t going his way. It looks like he’s finally reaping the rewards of his persistence.
After a quiet start to the season, Alexis looks to have finally understood what Wenger wants from him up top. He can still be at the centre of everything, buzzing around and harassing defenders like a wasp to their favourite soft drink, but his movement into the channels and on the shoulder has improved significantly. The 27-year-old has also learnt how to take care of the ball with his back to goal, while still having the ability to spin away from players in a flash with his trademark turns.
Throughout his career, Alexis has played as a supporting striker for Udinese, on the right for Barcelona and on the left for Arsenal. The education he’s received in those positions has allowed him to combine the best of each role to flourish, not only for himself, but also for the benefit of the team. He can still be guilty of overcomplicating things or trying the spectacular too often, but take that away from his game and you don’t have the same player anymore. Because that’s what Alexis is. Spectacular.
While the team have benefitted from Alexis’ recent performances, nobody is enjoying them more than Walcott who looks to have absorbed the Chilean’s infectious energy and desire. Wenger said in August that Theo was not ‘defensively minded’ enough to play on the right, but already that statement has been quashed emphatically.
Walcott is averaging 1.83 tackles per 90 minutes this season, compared to the 0.25 he was averaging last season. He is also attempting a higher number of interceptions, blocks and clearances, making sure that our perfectly side parted Hector Bellerin is never isolated. His involvement in the build-up is unrecognisable as well with 25 passes per 90 minutes compared to just 11 from last season, and 1.83 successful take-ons opposed to 0.89 in 2015/16.
Theo has always been an intelligent mover off the ball, in terms of knowing what space to vacate and when to vacate it. His best season in an Arsenal shirt came in 2011/12, when Robin van Persie was as brilliant at playmaking as he was goalscoring. When he dropped deep, Walcott would click into gear and use his pace to break defensive lines, coming off the wing with great effect.
It’s no surprise that with Alexis playing centrally and dropping deep in a similar fashion to Van Persie, he’s become effective again rather than struggling against defences who tend to play further back when tasked with dealing with Olivier Giroud.
I still maintain that Walcott is the best finisher at the club, excellent when he has no time to think and improving slowly when he does. It was his all round play that needed a revamp to warrant a regular place in the side, and whatever it was that sparked this revamp has not only made him a regular, but has (for now at least) made him indispensable.
Speaking after the win over Basel, Wenger spoke about Alexis ‘getting stronger in every game’ in his new position and stated that the improvement Walcott has shown is ‘95% down to him’. Whether or not that’s true is an entirely different matter, but what we are seeing is two players who have the desire to constantly improve and work hard to better themselves.
Undoubtedly, striking a balance in the team is getting the best out of everybody. Koscielny and Mustafi are forming an excellent partnership already, while Bellerin and Monreal are as consistent as ever. Cazorla and Xhaka are combining well in the middle, supporting the silky duo of Iwobi and Ozil who gracefully combine to glue together Arsenal's play in the final third.
But it’s Alexis and Walcott who have stolen the limelight, and rightly so due to the confidence and understanding of their new roles. With both players in the peak of their careers, they’re visibly enjoying football again which is bringing out the best in each other – and long may it continue.