Alexis: Tight fit

“Alexis is one of the best. He’s very committed. Even in recovery sessions he wants to go outside and train to keep improving.”

So said Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta of his new teammate Alexis Sanchez. There were flashes of brilliance in Alexis’ opening games for Arsenal, even if the understanding with his teammates had yet to arrive. He was left out of the starting line-up for consecutive league matches against Aston Villa and Tottenham, but since that brief hiatus, he’s almost carried Arsenal’s attack. Especially with the likes of Giroud, Walcott, Özil and Ramsey unavailable.

Arsene Wenger decided to give the Chilean a central berth behind Danny Welbeck at Sunderland and was promptly rewarded with a virtuoso, match winning display. The germ of the idea to play Alexis in the number 10 position probably came to the manager after stoppage time assists against Hull and Anderlecht, both of which he conjured from a central starting point. That’s one of the most pleasing things about Alexis, his interventions are significant and with Özil sidelined, we certainly lack a decisive creative presence.

His insatiable energy and appetite make Alexis well suited to capitalising on opposition errors, as he did so effectively against Sunderland. However, there lies a contradiction at the heart of Alexis’ play. Whilst his intensity means he is well placed to force and punish errors, his road runner style eagerness can mean he makes quite a few errors in possession himself. At first glance, the ex-Barcelona man looks like he is acclimatising to the team, but his individuality is such that he actually isn’t and maybe he never will in the tactical sense.

He is at once, alchemist and anarchist. He forces errors from himself almost as much as he does from defenders. Wenger often drily laments that all of his players want to play through the centre, I wonder if playing Sanchez there is as much about his tactical ill-discipline as it is his brilliance. I’m not sure he’s a player you coach. You just wind him up and watch him go. There are some complaints at the moment that the Chilean is carrying the team and I don’t think they are entirely unjustified.

Many would like to see his energy and tenacity replicated by his teammates, but eleven players – or even 4 or 5 – in your team playing with that ardour would probably be a mess, strategically speaking. I think a performing Alexis will always look like the standout player because he is so relentlessly eye-catching. Yet I think it is somewhat necessary that he is the only member of the team that looks quite that charged. He is an individual and he plays as one. He’s plenty good enough to do so as well.

So it makes sense to play Alexis in a free role behind the forward. Frankly, he will always play a free role such is his Tasmanian devil approach. Of course many have made the argument that Andrey Arshavin should have been afforded this liberty during his spell at the club. Arshavin, like Alexis, turned the ball over quite a lot in possession, but he was more than capable of opening up a stubborn defence. From a defensive point of view, it is slightly less hurtful to surrender possession in the D of the opposition’s penalty area, compared to the flanks, where counter attacks are more effectively launched.

The most obvious difference between the two (aside from the fact that Alexis is a better player) is that Sanchez works to recover his errant passes in a way that the Russian would not. Arshavin’s shoulders would slump in ennui upon misplacing yet another pass, his glum expression enveloping his entire being; while Alexis gives you the impression he’d kick a puppy to death to win the ball back. This is yet another part of the contradiction that lies at the heart of Sanchez, even his mistakes look visibly impressive.

Wenger often purrs about his players “playing as part of the collective.” It seeps out of every pore of his philosophy. It’s why he so candidly professes admiration for players such as Mesut Özil and Mikel Arteta. These are players committed to keeping petrol in the tank of the team. Alexis isn’t a tactical player at all, which means he stands out, because all he is really interested in is the accelerator pedal. I doubt he follows instruction particularly closely.

That said, in fairness, Sanchez’s distribution has improved. He registered a 69% pass completion rate against Dortmund, which played right into the counter attacking intentions of the German side and was left out of the two subsequent league matches. However, his rate went up to 82% against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, 86% against Hull City, 95% in Belgium and 84% at Sunderland. (All stats via @whoscored). So he is improving in this respect. At 25 years old, there’s room for greater improvement yet. Arshavin’s time at Arsenal began on his 29th birthday.

That’s one of the tragedies of Andrey Arshavin’s career and part of the reason the team was never truly built around him. I think he could have been a world class player had he left the playground of Russian football at an earlier age. By the time he tested himself in a top league, Arshavin was too old to change his spots, after a career of being indulged as the primus inter pares of his Zenit side. He couldn’t adapt to the demands of the Premier League. As a result, he hugely underachieved given his talent. There look to be no such concerns with Alexis Sanchez.

I would expect Alexis to continue in this role for the foreseeable future. But the question arises as to whether he does so once Mesut Özil returns to fitness. (There’s a further question as to what we do with Theo Walcott too, which I address here). Both cannot play in the centre and Alexis’ persistent wanderlust means he’s not really suited to being the centre forward in Arsenal’s system. Welbeck is a more tactically secure player to lead the line.

Perhaps Alexis and Özil could swap the wide role in the manner that Cazorla and Özil often do. However, I am not convinced Alexis can be that structured in his play. He’s impulsive and, as a result, it’s probably very difficult to strike up a partnership of this ilk with Sanchez. He calls his own tune. Like any self-respecting ‘bad cop’, he doesn’t go by the book but he sure as hell gets results. If Özil is so fascinating to watch (and to write about, it must be said), because of his subtle perspicacity, Alexis is an equally intriguing subject because of his restlessness. He’s like a hand grenade; pull the pin, throw and then duck. He has some rough edges, but I’m very glad he’s ours. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA


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