Friday, March 1, 2024

Tactics Column: The joy of Alexis Sanchez

In ‘The Artist: Being Iniesta‘, Pep Guardiola talks about how he is indebted to the Barcelona midfielder, in particular, how he has shaped the coach’s tactical vision. In the book, Guardiola says that later, “I came to really value something else Andrés does, something that he had made me see with time: the importance of attacking the centre-backs. No one does it. But watch and you see it. If the central defender has to step out, everything opens up; the whole defence becomes disorganised and spaces appear that weren’t there before. It’s all about breaking through lines to find space behind them. Open, then find.”

Since then, Guardiola has always sent out his teams to include in the line up, somebody who can emulate Iniesta’s special move: “la pausa” – the moment when one player takes the ball and suddenly delays, and for a second, it seems as if time stands still, before choosing the moment to slip a teammate in, or defeat an opponent.

Later though, Guardiola would adapt that thinking to devastating effect when he deployed Lionel Messi in a false 9 role. It’s accepted that one of the main benefits of using a striker this way is that it gives you a numerical advantage in the middle, whilst also dragging defenders out of their positions. But Messi added the killer factor of being able to eliminate men with his dribbling and that elevated Guardiola’s Barcelona system to another level. At Bayern Munich, Guardiola tried to replicate this by playing Franck Ribery in the same role but eventually had to compromise by using his dangerous dribbling on the flanks instead.

Guardiola expands on the tactic at Barcelona saying: “For example, we set up our attack so that Leo Messi could attack the central defenders. We had to attack in such a way as to get the ball to Andrés and Leo so that they could attack the central defenders and that opened them up. When we managed that, we knew that we would win the game because Leo scored goals and Andrés generated everything else: dribbling, numerical superiority, the ability to unbalance the game, the final pass, both to the outside and filtered through the middle.

“He sees it all and he has that gift for dribbling that’s so unique to him. That dribbling ability is everything today. And it was Andrés who opened my eyes to the importance of an inside forward or midfielder being able to dribble too. If he dribbles, if he carries the ball and goes at people, everything flows. With time, I saw that.”

Moving onto Arsenal, and it is Arsene Wenger who is trying to bring about those same ideas with the use of Alexis Sanchez upfront. By deploying him there, a lot of focus of The Chilean adding runs to his game to balance his predilection to dropping into midfield, but actually delve deeper, and Wenger has been incessant in interviews that the killer factor, and what explains his continued use there, is Alexis’ dribbling.

“He has the instinct of a real striker,” said Wenger after Arsenal beat Bournemouth 3-1 though there are plenty more quotes in the lead-up to the game where he lauds Alexis’s dribbling. “He wants to hit you, he wants to go at you. When he gets the ball, he runs forward and he runs at any defender. He shows, maybe sometimes to excess, that dribbling quality is an important quality for a striker. It’s his game and you do not want to take that out of his game. His dribbling is provocative, it’s not retention, it’s provocative, to create damage.”

Alexis then showed that to devastating fashion with a hattrick in Arsenal’s 5-1 win over West Ham where the decisive second goal was created from his desire to attack the goal. Picking up the ball with his back to goal, following a zipped pass from Shkodran Mustafi that was probably aimed behind him, he spun away from his marker, then burst away from two central defenders before rifling the ball in from a tight angle.

It was pure class and the goal came when Arsenal, though on top, most needed to make their domination tell. Prior to that, they created good openings but it wasn’t until late that they made their extra dynamism count. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – who curled in a delightful fourth goal – dovetailed superbly with Alexis, driving at the opposition defence especially in the second-half and delivering telling key passes that put West Ham to the sword.

Indeed, the winger has been a refreshing addition to the line-up because in the previous games, a certain familiar staleness had crept into the team’s play, attacks being too central and without the sharpness in link-up that was the feature early in the season. Here, the passing was crisper, with Nacho Monreal liberated by Oxlade-Chamberlains presence on the left, and he created the best chances early on via cutbacks.

However, it wasn’t long until Alexis made his first big contribution, pouncing on an interception from Francis Coquelin, then beating the defender, Winston Reid, and squaring the ball for Mesut Ozil to slot home. That’s the other quality that Alexis has brought to Arsenal up front, he’s always alert and constantly looking to make life uncomfortable for defenders.

Roy Hodgson once voiced his concerns over the growing role of the modern striker, saying that there is a “danger that this job will become too lonely and too difficult. In many cases, the striker is not just expected to act as a target and to hold the ball up, but also to do a lot of chasing and to work hard as the first line of defence.”

Alexis, with every game seems, closer to striking the right balance. Ozil too helps, because if strikers are working more, midfielders are too, and that increased level of fitness means they can just as quickly be expected to get forward as getting back. Ozil’s ambiguous positioning, though, dovetails nicely with Alexis’ free-spirit.

Sanchez is the leader of Arsenal’s press, which is not to say it’s always the most intelligent, sometimes heart before head, but he’s important in setting the tempo in that role. He’s backed up by Coquelin, who also had a strong game, and who also now is seemingly the one who balances the midfield.

Front-foot defending very much characterises the players in this Arsenal side so it makes sense to balance the team that way. However, by the same token, you might also say there is a lot left to be desired when the team defends in a block in their own half, often inviting even average ball-possession sides time to play.

The flip side is that Arsenal are much more of a threat on the break and particularly, Alexis seems to thrive on using his pace on the shoulder of the last defender in these scenarios. He’s balancing his responsibilities of being a threat behind and dropping deep, something once Jurgen Klopp remarked on Robin van Persie, saying that he’s “hardly ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.”

Granted, Alexis is more false nine, taking his inspiration from Messi, but with each game he’s getting a taste for goals. If Arsenal are slowly building a reliance on Alexis it’s probably not so problematic because his game is based on output. Last season, the problem was that the creativity was mainly singular with goals running dry as soon as Ozil stopped producing.

The broader issue Arsenal have this season is that whether by taking Alexis out, they can still retain a semblance of their fluidity. Initially the structure this season saw the wide players come inside to dovetail with Alexis to create superiority between-the-lines, but it was beginning to grow stale, so as such Wenger has done well to react by drafting Oxlade-Chamberlain into the side.

The result saw a more dynamic Arsenal on Saturday, with Alexis of course the main man but the combination play was sharper than usual – even if West Ham were poor opposition who seemed affected by changing systems early.

When Alexis added his second, it displayed the typical South American’s “no backlift” but the best was saved for last. His hat-trick was completed in the most audacious – an impudent dummy and chip that sums up the joy of watching Alexis play at the moment.

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