Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Alexis Development

Back in September, I had planned to write a column about Alexis Sanchez and my overriding impression that Arsenal had mishandled his return to action this season. The Chilean understandably took some time to find his rhythm after his Copa América winning exploits with his country. I keep a notepad and the majority of my articles are crudely sketched out in biro within its pages in the days building up to publish time. I had the skeleton of this piece about Alexis’ fatigue and its ramifications arranged, it just needed some meaty prose to bring it to life.

At the very last second, as I sat down to animate its bony frame, I had a change of heart and wrote this article about White Hart Lane instead. That Saturday, Alexis ran riot, scoring a hat trick at Leicester. He went onto net 8 goals in his next 6 games for club and country. Sanchez appeared to have found the jumpstart cables for his season and I was quietly relieved to have had my blushes spared. Now, without a goal for over a month for club and country, it seems a good time to revisit the subject. (Hopefully, opta will award me with three assists when he scores a hat trick at the Hawthorns on Saturday).

In recent weeks, the turbo charged Chilean’s energy levels have reset to something vaguely human. It is understandable that the degree of fatigue he is experiencing is a constant source of speculation for Arsenal fans. But I think Alexis’ recent drop off has a lot to do with his incompatibility with Olivier Giroud, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Alexis’ best Arsenal form always coincides with the presence of a more mobile striker, be it Welbeck or Walcott. I watched him play for Chile against Colombia and Uruguay this week and whilst his basic energy levels were good, he still seemed to lack that electricity that makes him such a force of nature.

He played 90 minutes in both games for La Roja of course. These were World Cup qualifiers after all and Chile did not rest him for the same reason that Arsenal never do. He’s an incredibly important player playing in incredibly important matches. Chile are in something of a golden moment. This is arguably the greatest team they have ever had. This year’s Copa América triumph represented their first ever international silverware. Brazil and Argentina are enduring delicate periods in their lifespan. Chile sense a genuine chance to cause a further ripple on the continent and build on their success.

However, Sampaoli’s formula is fragile. Alexis and Vidal provide the sprinkling of star dust, but for the most part, his team is a well-oiled machine much greater than the sum of its parts. There is little depth to speak of and certainly nobody close to Sanchez’s quality waiting in the wings. The starting XI is a very finite chain and to lose any cog destabilizes the equation. To take Alexis out is to light a match and throw it in the petrol tank. There is just no way that his country are going to give him physical respite.

But international football is off the menu for another four months now. The question is whether Arsene Wenger should give him a mid-season break. I, for one, found it utterly extraordinary that Wenger named Alexis in the matchday squad for the first fixture of the season, after a pre-season schedule comprised of just four training sessions. Arsenal have felt the nausea and sluggishness of post international tournament hangovers several times before. In 1998, Dennis Bergkamp came back from France a shell of the player that had lit up the Premier League in the previous season. Vieira and Petit also struggled to adapt to Premier League football again as the Gunners drew 4 of their first 5 matches.

In 2006, Thierry Henry started Arsenal’s first league match, having been to the World Cup Final with France that summer. Come December, he was ordered to take a month off after becoming riddled with sciatica. Last season, Per Mertesacker endured an uncertain beginning to the campaign, he started 26 consecutive Premier League and Champions League matches on the back of a 14 day pre-season. It showed. The German suffered not only physically, but by his own admission, mentally too.

Winning the Copa América was an exhaustive psychological effort for Chile. On home soil, with arguably their best ever squad and their main rivals in relative disrepair, the tournament was there was a unique pressure for this perennial underdog. It’s obviously very difficult to leave a player and character like Alexis thawing on the window sill, but history has taught us that you rarely extract anything approaching a player’s top form in these circumstances. Even leaving aside the increased risk of injury, you have to say that Sanchez will need a breather at some point in the season otherwise we are unlikely to see his best form on a regular basis.

In football terms, he is currently surviving rather than living. There is an argument that the best time to give him a breather is approaching, in advance of the hectic Christmas schedule and before Arsenal undertake season defining assignments against Olympiacos and Manchester City in December. Walcott and Welbeck remain on the sidelines for the time being, and even a refreshed Alexis struggles for his best form with Giroud in the side. The imminent return to fitness of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain offers Arsenal a good chance to replicate some of the Chilean’s best qualities in absentia.

As I wrote here,  Alexis’ presence gives the Ox a tactical conundrum, which has contributed to his inconsistency this season. Assuming Ramsey returns to the right, I think Chamberlain from the left can work so long as Giroud is the one playing upfront. With Giroud upfront, Alexis is not the same player and that, multiplied by a lack of preparation, contributed to Sanchez’s underwhelming start to the season. To my mind, playing Alexis in those early games just did not pay off given the subdued performances we eked from him.

If indeed Wenger is thinking of affording him a sabbatical, he may think January to be a more apposite time. Not knowing Alexis’ precise physical condition as intimately as Wenger does, it is difficult to make a definitive judgement on how urgent his need for pause is. With the likes of Welbeck and Wilshere due back in the New Year *coughs* Arsene may judge the New Year an opportune moment. Last season, Arsenal reaped the benefits of Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud’s injury enforced freshness in the spring and will hope for a similar replenishing effect this season from messrs Welbeck, Walcott and Rosicky. (Assuming their prognosis stays on track of course. All three have form for prolonged recoveries, to say the least).

Since a feebler facsimile of Alexis jogged onto the turf against West Ham in August, I have been of the opinion that, at some point during this pressure cooker season, he is going to need to stop and take an ice bath. With his favoured strike partners currently up on bricks, the time to leave the Ferrari in the garage for a week or two may be coming. There again, the last time I hatched this thought, he bagged a hat trick at a difficult away ground in the Midlands. Personal embarrassment would be a very reasonable levy to pay for a repeat performance on Saturday.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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