How will the manager fill the Alexis-shaped hole in Arsenal’s attack?

Reports emerging from the Chilean national squad suggest that Arsenal talisman Alexis Sanchez has suffered a ‘low grade’ muscular injury and could be forced to sit out his country’s two upcoming World Cup qualifiers.

At this stage, there is no telling exactly what ‘low grade’ means in terms of how long the Copa America winner will be sidelined for but the collective will of every Arsenal fan is currently being utilised to ensure it is little more than a scare.

The fact that Sanchez will remain in Chile with the national team doctors and physio team adds a little silver lining to the hulking great storm cloud currently swirling around this particular piece of news, but it remains decidedly unwelcome.

Almost every club fan in the country dreads international breaks, primarily because they always seem to result in some form of injury to a squad member – practically without fail.

And the fact that Alexis had scarcely stepped off the plane when it happened only serves to salt the wound.

Of course, it could merely be a little tightness in a muscle that will keep Alexis sidelined for nothing more than a few days, but seldom are Arsenal blessed with such good fortune.

Should the worst be realised, we could face a run of particularly important games without the goals, assists and unparalleled energy that he brings to the party. I can almost hear Jose Mourinho jangling the keys to his bus now.

If Alexis were to be ruled out of the trip to Manchester United, where would that leave Arsenal in terms of their approach to the game, particularly given that Spaniard Lucas Perez is also unavailable through injury?

The obvious answer would be to start Olivier Giroud in attack, but, while that would present a real aerial threat to a suspect and unsettled United defence, it could mean sacrificing a great deal of dynamism in our play.

Playing Alexis as our lone striker has proved exceptionally effective at times this season, not only for the Chilean but also for the likes of Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil, who have found form and a hatful of goals as a result.

The concern is that the return of Giroud to the starting line-up somewhat stifles the goal-scoring abilities of Walcott, and also reduces our mobility as a team. Olivier is seldom one to sprint into the channels in pursuit of a speculative long ball, and he isn’t as assiduous in closing down defenders as Alexis.

What Olivier does bring to the table is an imposing physical and aerial presence, but only if we are getting the ball into the box regularly and effectively.

The Frenchman is also renowned for his hold up play, and is very accomplished in bringing the midfield into the attack with a deftness of touch that belies his stature.

I doubt whether Arsene Wenger would try and change the way Olivier plays in order to retain a sense of consistency to the team’s tactics, so it would require a tactical re-think if we were left with no other option in attack.

The only other option, it seems to me, would be to restore Theo Walcott to the lone striker role and move Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, or Aaron Ramsey, onto the right wing.

The trouble is, having finally found Theo a role that suits him, would it be wise to move him back to the striker’s berth? He can certainly finish, and his movement is good, but his footballing brain and work rate have always been a question mark hanging over him.

This season, it would seem the latter of those two gripes has been answered, but I would still hesitate to try him again in the role in a game of such stature.

As quick and elusive as he can be, I fear that he is far more likely to be bullied than Alexis, who always gives as good as he gets, and is never scared out of a contest.

Whatever the solution, if Alexis is ruled out, it will make the trip to Old Trafford that much more difficult for Arsenal, particularly from a tactical perspective, as it will almost certainly require a shift in the way we play.

Whether Arsene decides on a similar model to how the team currently sets up, in the form of Theo Walcott, or whether he decides to be a little more direct, with Olivier Giroud, will doubtless have a telling impact on the outcome of the game.

For now, all we have to content ourselves is the distraction of the international break, as we collectively wince at every challenge that goes in on an Arsenal player. Let’s pray the rest of the squad makes it through unscathed.

Selection headaches are tomorrow’s problem, and that’s a lifetime away in football.

 

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