How Much is the Alexis Tax?

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

Last week, Arsenal broke their transfer record for French striker Alexandre Lacazette. If well placed reports are to be believed, the Gunners are prepared to break it again for Monaco playmaker Thomas Lemar. If the club are willing to spend the guts of £100m on two attacking players before the middle of July, I think it tells you what they expect to happen with Alexis Sanchez this summer.

Arsenal are briefing the press that they won’t accept anything less than £80m to sell to a domestic rival and that, to me, sounds like the whirring of the opening bars as we prepare for the dance of negotiation. With the future of the Chilean unresolved, many Arsenal fans have begun to volubly discuss his flaws.

Doubtless, there is a sizeable dollop of self-preservation going on here. The fact that the discussion has snowballed during his most productive season reveals that, as a collective, we are bracing ourselves for a painful exit. That said, there is little doubt that Sanchez’s presence carries with it a technical tariff on the team.

Like most hugely productive players, Alexis takes risks that play merry hell with his ball retention stats. Arsene Wenger is something of a data junkie, but he has often lamented the inhibiting influence data can have on players. He has perceived certain individuals being less inclined to take necessary risks in possession for fear that their passing stats may suffer.

It is clear that Alexis is not one for carefully grooming his ball retention figures. This is partly because he often attempts the difficult, defence slicing pass. With 13 assists last season, that is a price worth paying. With a more clinical forward line, he would likely have added to that number too. However, often his lack of economy in possession is down to pure carelessness.

It’s not always the difficult through ball that misses the target by inches. On many occasions, simple passes in the centre circle go astray. Given the team’s open style and commitment to attack, this puts them under pressure. Especially since most of Arsenal’s central midfielders are easily dribbled past. The question is, how much of a debt does Alexis’ occasional technical deficit place on the team, compared to the enormous upsides he brings to the table? What does a Sanchez profit and loss account look like?

Alexis’ production rate is close to the likes of Neymar and Messi. The aforementioned are a notch above Sanchez because they take better care of the ball, but those attacking numbers are a precious commodity. Especially if you accept that a player of Neymar or Messi’s ilk is beyond Arsenal’s reach at this stage.

There is something of a paradox at play with Alexis. Last season was the most productive of his career as he constantly rescued an Arsenal side that was, tactically, in pretty terrible shape. Sanchez is a soloist, the fact that he is unperturbed by tactical chaos was a rare redeeming feature during 2016-17. The question is whether Alexis actually thrives on and benefits from this level of disharmony across the team. Indeed, many speculate that he creates it.

Do his productivity levels prevent others from being productive? Are they forced to hide their light under his bushel? Lukas Podolski, for instance, was a fairly prolific scorer, but he did not fit Arsenal’s shape, so his presence harmed the collective and made the team less likely to score. Danny Welbeck is an inversion of this phenomenon. He fits the overall style and his selection makes the team more likely to score, for my money. It just won’t be him that provides the finishing flourish.

It is a subjective and rather unscientific view to take, but over his three years at the club, Alexis’ individual output correlates inversely with Arsenal’s. His best season occurred when they finished 5th, his second best campaign, his first, saw Arsenal finish 3rd. While his poorest season saw the Gunners finish 2nd, which included a lengthy absence for the Chilean through injury. That said, with goals in both FA Cup semi-finals and both FA Cup Finals in which he has played, he played a huge part in the 2015 and 2017 FA Cup triumphs.

I remain doubtful that we are dealing with a situation akin to Thierry Henry’s final two seasons at the club, whereupon the shadow of the mercurial striker loomed too large and teammates were intimidated. You would have to go some way to convince me that Francis Coquelin and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain would be playing grade A Wengerball without the Chilean’s miasmic presence, in the manner that the likes of Hleb, Rosicky and Fabregas managed in 2007.

I think Alexis’ 13 assists have probably eaten into Mesut Özil’s personal tally- though the German himself was on the end of some of Sanchez’s probing passes, padding his goalscoring stats. Özil and Alexis combine so frequently and so effectively that I don’t think there is a net loss to the team. Sanchez has also cultivated good relationships with pretty much all of Arsenal’s attackers.

For a time, he and Giroud struggled to click. That changed last season, as Alexis’ creative output improved. He enjoyed putting his foot on the ball on the left corner of the penalty area and clipping balls into the box, which suited Giroud’s strengths. If Arsenal had something close to a functioning midfield, I think ‘the Alexis tax’ may be a little greater than it is.

I also happen to think some are inclined to exaggerate the frequency and the effect of his technical lapses, even if they are infuriating and still too present. In the latter half of Arsene’s reign, he has often struggled to inculcate his true stars into the collective. He had no such issue with the likes of Vieira, Bergkamp and Henry.

At first, he had to tinker with the formula to make Fabregas and van Persie the suns around which the team orbited. He flitted between a midfield 3, a 4 and even a 5 before moving Fabregas slightly further forward with the security of double pivot behind him. van Persie spent some time as a number 10, as a left sided forward in a front 3 and as part of a front 2 before finding his groove as “a nine and a half”, as the Dutchman himself termed it.

Arsene has had similar travails with Mesut Özil. Yet Alexis has slotted effectively into every system and role that he has been asked to operate in. He has played as a wide right and wide left attacker, a false 9 and even operated as a number 10 to excellent effect when Özil was injured in the autumn of 2014.

The Chilean was dropped for the visit to Anfield last season after a training ground spat with Laurent Koscielny. That invites questions about his attitude. Sanchez also petulantly left the stadium after being subbed against Norwich in April 2016. There is a delicate balance between being a born winner and being a bit of a prick that upsets squad harmony, as I wrote last season.

Elite managers are able to handle elite players, who often come with fragile temperaments. Messi, Suarez and Neymar all offer challenges to their coaches. Cantona and Keane did for Ferguson and Henry and Vieira did for Arsene Wenger too. Maybe the presence of someone like Jens Lehmann on the training ground would help to handle a fiery trainer like Sanchez.

It’s also possible that Arsenal missed the yin of Mertesacker’s leadership style, to balance Alexis’ more abrasive yang last year. Being a bit of a dick is usually necessary to become an elite footballer, so if you want good players, you have to change the occasional shitty nappy. I happen to think the technical and tactical cost of accommodating Alexis is quite low.

I am pretty certain that he would have no issue producing in a more cohesive setup than the one he has found during his three years at Arsenal- I don’t think he inflicts dysfunction on the setup for his own ends. He would still be incredibly productive in a high functioning squad. But largely I just don’t believe that there is a wonderful team ready to spread its wings once the biggest, baddest birdie flies the coup.

A prolific striker and another creative player appears to constitute the Sanchez replacement plan- which I think makes some sense. But I don’t think Arsenal can claim to be unaffected by his prospective departure unless they use the windfall to finally mix the midfield on top of that. That would involve more than simply moving central midfield closer to basic functionality, it would mean turning it into a unit capable of winning the Premier League.

It’s a tall order and not one Arsenal fans can take lightly, unfortunately.

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