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Deportivo Alavés Have Found Their Strikeforce

Written by Andrew Miller

For a club that signed a duo of so-called “Premier League flops” in the summer, Alavés have done well to swiftly turn that perception around.

At Newcastle, Joselu scored seven goals in 52 uneventful games and Lucas Pérez recorded a decent return of six goals in 19 for West Ham, but he never quite clicked. And so rarely had Pérez featured for Arsenal before that that it’s barely worth mentioning that episode.

But since arriving in the Basque country, both have eclipsed those respective goal tallies with ease.

Lucas Pérez has all the physical assets that a modern archetypical striker needs. His subtle pace is a match-up nightmare for defenders, who run the risk of closing him down too tightly and opening up passing lanes for the players around him. Alternatively, marking him from a respectful distance creates an opportunity to get forward and shift onto that deadly left foot which has been responsible for the 31-year-old’s nine LaLiga goals so far this season.

Joselu, on the other hand, works predominantly on his right foot, which only adds to the tactical mismatch for defenders. Both players have a preferred dexterity, but the unpredictability of not knowing which side the shot will come from keeps the opposition on edge at all times.

The positional interchange has been a valuable tool for Asier Garitano this season. Joselu traditionally operates as more of a penalty-box poacher, and his 6’3” stature brings a real aerial threat that Pérez doesn’t quite possess, but the close control footwork of Lucas gives them the option of playing him further up and having Joselu outside as more of a facilitator to counter certain formations.

At Newcastle, Rafa Benítez, for the most part, relied on a three of Matt Ritchie, Ayoze Pérez and Christian Atsu to feed Joselu in a solitary centre-forward position which, given the physical nature of the Premier League, meant he didn’t have the same kind of advantages that he does in the more tactically-dominant LaLiga. Pérez on the other hand, just didn’t quite fit the system at West Ham or Arsenal. Both teams had too many similar players stylistically when in reality, they needed a physical target-man to compliment the strengths of Lucas in an attacking line.

So, put the two together and a “JoseLucas” alchemy is created. In fact, as a traditional strike partnership, you’ll struggle to find better in LaLiga at the moment. The Spanish tandem have scored or assisted in 21 of the team’s 25 goals (84%) this season, and that simple statistic tells a deeper story - they have an intrinsic positional awareness which comes so organically when attacking.

Take the game against Real Betis on matchday 19, for example. Into the final third, Lucas receives the ball, knocks a quick one-touch pass on to Joselu who is now occupying both Emerson and Aïssa Mandi. Pérez then starts the run into open space to take the return pass from Joselu. At this point, between them they have all 4 defenders firmly locked in place, opening up the right-hand side for Aleix Vidal to slot his shot past Joel Robles. Lucas is the player registering the assist, but it’s the interchanging run of Joselu that orchestrates the entire build-up.

It had been a similar story against Real Valladolid on matchday 13. For the first goal, Martín drives the ball into the box to Lucas, who comes deeper, drawing the centre-back over to the right-hand side, and turns the ball to Joselu for a perfect finish into the bottom corner. The most impressive part about the build-up in this one is that Pérez doesn’t even have to look up before making the pass. He already knows that Joselu will be there ready and waiting because his own movement in the box has created that vacant space in the middle. Pérez’s penalty to seal the 3-0 win at Mendizorroza meant he scored in his seventh straight game, making him the only player to achieve this feat with two different LaLiga clubs.

For both, playing as part of an attacking partnership is something that should come naturally, Pérez having spent around 71% and Joselu 73% of their respective careers with another centre-forward on the pitch. They have rarely been directly involved in each other’s goals - only four have been a result of a Joselu-to-Pérez-or-vice-versa final-ball combination, and while that might seem concerning, again it’s the contribution to the team as a whole which is more telling and significant. The axis feels similar in dynamic to John Guidetti and Munir at Alavés two seasons ago which wasn’t a prolific partnership either, but Alavés lost only three of 13 LaLiga games when they were both on the pitch.

Asier Garitano deserves plaudits for his revitalisation of this attacking duo, and the whole is definitely more than the sum of the parts, but he’d be wise to work out a few contingency plans should anything happen to either Lucas or Joselu. There are no genuine like-for-like replacements in the squad, with Lucas Rioja normally operating on the left flank, and Aleix Vidal or Oliver Burke on the right. If Alavés had to reshape into a 4-2-3-1, it would doubtless involve a few changes of personnel with maybe a player like Burgui starting more games, and the double pivot may give them more insurance, but it may not suit their style at home. The only upside is that fielding two holding midfielders may make them less porous away from Mendizorroza - 25 goals conceded in 12 away games is only better than Mallorca who have let in 26 in 11. Now is the time to improve those numbers, as their next three trips are to teams below them: Leganés, Espanyol and Celta Vigo.

The Premier League never fully appreciated their talents, but Alavés fans certainly do. For now, the “JoseLucas” partnership is keeping them clear enough of trouble and on course for a fifth straight season in LaLiga. However, they have to keep firing, otherwise, the Basques could get dragged into a scrap to avoid the drop.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or just love a good Chimy Ávila pun - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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