Sunday, July 21, 2024

Sanchez has lost his sizzle

For the purposes of this piece I am going to work on two broad assumptions in the (perhaps naïve) belief that you will be in agreement. Assumption number 1. Arsenal have been playing better in the three month period between mid-December to mid-March, compared to the period August to December. Assumption number 2. The impact of Alexis Sanchez on Arsenal has reduced since the turn of the year. If you concur with these twin assumptions, read on. If not, read on anyway. You might have your mind changed.

Or else you might still vehemently disagree. In which case, you can get in touch and try to change my mind. We might both learn something from the exchange. Failing that, you could always leave me a threatening or abusive message written entirely in rage caps. Whatever man, I’m not your dad. Anyway, before you so rudely side tracked me, I was going to examine why Alexis Sanchez’s form has dwindled a tad over the last 6-8 weeks. Whilst the Chilean brings more to the table than just goals, he has only ruffled the net once since January 11th.

Admittedly he was injured for a short period in early February, but this still represents one goal in his last ten games. It took him just 29 games to reach 18 goals prior to this spell. It hasn’t proved to be a huge problem to Arsenal of course, who are scoring goals and sharing them around in much healthier portions than they were in the early part of the season. The returns of Giroud, Walcott, Özil and Ramsey have made the Gunners less reliant on Alexis for goals. In a sense, the ex-Barcelona man is probably adjusting to sharing bread winning responsibilities.

You’ve the sense that Sanchez is at his happiest when he is doing absolutely everything himself. As the old adage says, if you want something done, ask a busy person. There are few busier than Alexis, but much of his workload has been spread around more evenly. As a result, he has begun to cut a slightly less bombastic figure, much in the way that some people struggle for purpose in life upon retirement. Many have drawn a corollary between Özil’s return and Alexis’ dip and it’s a fair proposition.

I have written on a few occasions this season [12] that one of Wenger’s biggest challenges with this squad is to get the comparable yet contrasting talents of Alexis and Özil working in tandem. The methodical scientist and the stuntman. Their conflicting skill-sets give opposition defences a smorgasbord of worries to firefight, but there is an equal danger of these two opposites not harmonising.

Özil likes to wander laterally into space, this often sees him move from the centre to wide positions. He drifts both with and without the ball in this manner. Alexis likes to wander laterally, but he likes to do so with the ball, from the flank and into central areas. At the moment, I think the German may be getting in Sanchez’s way in that respect, because Alexis often finds Özil standing in the areas he likes to run into with the ball, i.e, where the space is. I do not anticipate this being a long term issue, it’s just a case of familiarity.

Playing mainly from the left last season, Santi Cazorla suffered a similar issue. Özil’s preference for floating into space ran at odds with the Spaniard’s desire to roam inside with the ball. But Cazorla is a smart player and by the end of last season, he had adjusted and learned to dovetail with the German much more effectively, with the two happily trading places between left and centre. I think with a little time, Alexis will learn to do the same. He may even reason that with Mesut Özil present, there is less need for him to become involved with the build-up play and he might even move 10-15 yards further forward.

Here he could concentrate on creating havoc further up the pitch, especially with his movement off the ball. He may even begin to benefit from the silver service Özil offers in terms of provision. I also still believe that Wenger is after a playmaker to complete the balance of his front three. A Reus or Draxler style player to once and for all fill the Pires shaped hole in his attacking triumvirate, which is probably still a little workmanlike.

Alexis’ waning goal contribution is also likely a symptom of Arsenal’s midfield. I touched on this in my piece on Theo Walcott last week, with the likes of Ramsey, Wilshere and Arteta unavailable, the midfield three has had an offensive look to it, which has required Arsenal’s wide forwards to be more structured and disciplined. Alexis’ fastidious work rate means he can execute that function, as he showed to marvellous effect in the win at Manchester City in January, where he played more like a wide man in a midfield 5 as opposed to a front 3.

Whilst many have broached the potential mismatch with Mesut Özil, fewer have spotted the correlation with Nacho Monreal nailing down the left-back slot. The New Year’s Day defeat to Southampton represented the last time that Kieran Gibbs was selected ahead of Monreal for a league game in which both players were fully fit. Alexis usually plays from the left and his most typical action is to collect the ball from the left hand side and move inside with it. Gibbs likes to career forward towards the by-line and this allows Alexis to use him as a decoy.

Monreal has improved his attacking play, but he thinks much more like a midfielder, carefully and methodically contributing to Arsenal’s build up play. Monreal subscribes slightly more to the technical tenet of Mesut Özil, preferring to penetrate with short passes and combinations. Whereas Gibbs is more suited to the Chilean’s more impulsive “up and at ‘em” approach to attacking from the flank. It’s not a huge coincidence that Alexis’ solitary goal in his last ten appearances was assisted by Gibbs.

There are other, more cerebral reasons for Alexis’ relative decline. For a start, given the intensity with which he plays, you would forgive him for being a touch weary at this stage of the season. He is accustomed to having a winter break in La Liga, a liberty not afforded him in the Premier League. We saw how this adjustment affected Özil last season and a glance across London will show you that Diego Costa is suffering a mini-slump himself following his move from Atlético Madrid. Alexis’ injury in late January disturbed his rhythm slightly. What’s interesting is that he was injured immediately after having been rested for the cup tie at Brighton.

He had been involved in all but 11 minutes of the 8 games prior to that. It’s possible that a player like Alexis needs his momentum to be pendulous for the sake of his fitness and form. I do not think his recent form will be a long term concern. I think he just needs to acclimatise to his teammates a little more. He is incapable of playing with anything other than with total fervour, so I don’t see confidence becoming an issue either. Were he to even have the vaguest inclination to do so, he simply wouldn’t know how to hide.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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