Emirates Stadium, London—In the aftermath of Arsenal’s Champions League qualification victory over Besiktas, Arsene Wenger confirmed to the assembled media that Olivier Giroud would be out until late December with a fractured tibia. It was arguably a good time to deliver the bad news: The Arsenal fans had just enjoyed a fantastic forward display from new boy Alexis Sanchez.
Arsene Wenger had several problem positions to fill when it came to naming his starting XI. The Gunners went in to this game without three of their most important players. Their captain and holding midfielder, Mikel Arteta, was absent with an injury problem. Unsurprisingly, his place went to the tenacious if technically limited Mathieu Flamini. Ordinarily, he would have been partnered by Aaron Ramsey, but the Welshman was also missing after picking up a red card in the first leg.
Attacking midfield duties were instead handed to Santi Cazorla, surprisingly given the nod in central midfield ahead of Mesut Ozil. The German found himself shunted out to the left flank.
The big question marks surrounded what Arsene Wenger would choose to do up top. Having been robbed of Giroud's services, the Arsenal boss had to choose between Yaya Sanogo and Alexis Sanchez. In the end, he opted for the latter, deciding to give the experiment that had failed at Everton a few days before another whirl.
At half-time, it was difficult to argue with the results. Alexis had scored his first Arsenal goal to give the Gunners a crucial lead. The goal came right on the stroke of half-time.
Jack Wilshere played a swift one-two on the edge of the box, but instead of taking on a shot allowed the ball to roll in to the path of Alexis. The Chilean’s first-time finish was assured, passing neatly in to the far corner of the net. You might say it was "Thierry Henry-esque."
Wenger has spotted similar qualities in Alexis to those that saw him decide to convert Henry from a peripheral winger to a prolific goalscorer. He has terrific off-the-ball movement, and penetrative speed to match. He’s not the tallest, but his stature is deceptive. The Chilean is tough. He has excellent upper-body strength and is prepared to go toe-to-toe with defenders who tower above him.
That much was evident in the second half. Arsenal went down to 10 men and found themselves coming under significant pressure. However, Alexis did not wilt. Instead, he made himself constantly available, darting into space to offer an outlet for his midfield. When he did receive the ball, he showed immaculate close control and good game intelligence to hold it up for his colleagues.
In the days ahead, Arsenal will be linked with a string of big-name strikers to replace Giroud. However, Arsene Wenger continues to insist that the solution lies within the Arsenal squad. Wenger probably hoped to give Alexis time to develop as a centre-forward. Giroud's absence robs Alexis and Arsenal of that luxury.
Against Besiktas, there were signs that Sanchez could become an outstanding Premier League striker. If he can continue to perform at that level, Giroud's loss will be less keenly felt.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2014/15 season. Follow him on Twitter here.
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