A few weeks ago I wrote an article looking at the pros and cons of selling Alexis Sanchez in January. Shockingly, nobody of importance of Arsenal FC took my advice and the Gunners have opted to sell. By all accounts, it’s been a fairly messy break up behind the scenes, with the Chilean’s intensity grating on some of his teammates. Without privileged information it is difficult to ruminate on that with any great authority and besides, I am not convinced it matters all that much anyway.
In the wake of the training ground tomfoolery that saw Sanchez dropped at Anfield last March, I wrote a column suggesting that handling the odd hissy fit is a commonplace tariff for managing elite footballers. I am certain that Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are not easy to handle on the training ground for instance. For the purposes of this article however, I am more interested in how Arsenal tidily divorce themselves from Alexis on the pitch.
Jonathan Liew wrote a piece earlier this week suggesting that the Gunners might be able to step out of the Chilean’s shadow and produce a more collective game. Sanchez is a dominant personality and, as Liew termed it, Arsenal had started to play Alexis’ game rather than vice versa. Many point to Saturday’s fluent demolition of Crystal Palace as evidence.
Personally, I would be cautious about hailing the dawn of a new era based on Saturday’s match. Alexis also didn’t play at Bournemouth, or Nottingham Forest, or in away defeats to the likes of Watford and Stoke City. Many point to the departure of Thierry Henry which didn’t harm Arsenal as unduly as people suspected. Like Alexis, Henry’s personality had begun to dominate the team in a way that felt a little destructive.
However, the Ewing Theory only loosely applied to post Henry Arsenal because 20 year old Cesc Fabregas and 24 year old Robin van Persie were waiting in the wings and Henry’s moonfaced bouts of petulance had cast a shadow over the team. I am less convinced that the current squad is ready to throw off the shackles of Alexis-centricity and become a slick unit.
But with Sanchez gone, that must be the aim. The move must be towards greater collectivism and, perhaps conversely, Mesut Özil holds the key- at least in the short term. The German has been Sanchez’s more ethereal, graceful co-star these last three and a half years. The cerebral yin to Alexis’ conscience punching yang.
There is a suspicion that Mesut’s best performances bring out the best in everyone. When Özil is on song, he can conduct a choir. But Alexis’ departure puts the pressure on him to hit the high notes more often- especially away from home. Sometimes Özil can be a bit of a ‘sunshine’ player, glistening on the good days (usually at home) when everything clicks. Mesut is a ‘smoke through the keyhole’ kind of a player, the Gunners need to replace Alexis’ ability to blow the bloody doors off- whether that comes from Özil or elsewhere. Especially away from home.
Özil has 1 goal and 1 assist away from home this season- both in the 5-2 victory at Goodison Park in October. Alexis, by comparison, has 4 goals and 2 assists outside of the familiar environs of Emirates Stadium. In 2017, Sanchez started comebacks against Liverpool and Bournemouth with diving headers.
Özil has something incredibly special, I think it is more difficult to find a killer pass than it is to finish a chance. Though Arsenal’s two box office players combined often and had different, complementary attributes, they rarely hit top form simultaneously. It was almost an invisible war between playing the more nuanced game that suits Mesut, compared to the more bombastic style the Chilean demands.
The German is no longer sharing equal billing with a Tasmanian devil type character. In fact, Arsenal have now tossed Henrikh Mkhitaryan and a rejuvenating Jack Wilshere into the deal. Arsene’s side have taken a giant stylistic leap towards Özil almost overnight. Let’s hope he grips the baton and let us also hope that he holds onto it beyond this summer.
Besides Özil’s star power, greater collectivism has to be the principal (or principle?) aim now Alexis has left. Arsene admitted that the question marks over his own future placed the team into a “horrendous psychological environment” last spring. The Gunners won 6 of the 7 games that followed Alex Oxlade Chamberlain’s departure, having thrown away Premier League points in the pursuit of his personal happiness at right wing-back. (The one game they didn’t win in that period saw them secure a creditable away draw at Chelsea).
Arsene suggested that the question of Alexis’ future has been hanging over the team this season. How far this was down to his personality and how far it was simply his circumstances is open to debate. Preset narratives will be tailored to fit depending on your viewpoint. Did Alex Iwobi put in his best performance of the season against Crystal Palace because he had stepped gleefully out of Sanchez’s shadow? Or more simply because he prefers playing from the left sided position physically vacated by the Chilean? It probably depends on your perspective.
The team will need more from the likes of Iwobi and Welbeck to help make up for the shortfall of goals and assists that Sanchez provides. The new arrival(s) should also help to pick up this slack. That Arsenal are trying to replace Alexis’ output with a globally renowned goalscorer and a top class playmaker tells you much about Sanchez’s quality and his rarity.
Assuming the Aubameyang deal is completed, the team ought to be in a good position to move away from the “single point of contact” arrangement they had uneasily fallen into with Sanchez. A single point of contact also serves as a single point of failure. For instance, Arsenal were reigning champions when they signed Ian Wright, but did not lift the league trophy again until his role was reduced by age and injury. Manchester United won just one league title during Ruud van Nistelrooy’s 5 years at the club.
How the potential capture of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang affects Alexandre Lacazette’s role remains to be seen, however, as I wrote last week, Lacazette and Sanchez never truly struck up an understanding. With Mkhitaryan and Özil in the same team, there is the potential to create the sort of service he can really thrive on. Lacazette seems to prefer quick combination play and with the players orbiting around behind him, he should be looking at this as a fresh start for his Arsenal career.
For better or worse, Alexis has been a crutch for this Gunners side and now he has left, they are going to have to learn to walk without his corrective presence. They are going to have to source his goals and his ability to conjure something from impoverished performances from elsewhere. Arsenal can certainly become a more fluent team without him, but it may be more difficult to replace the insurance policy he provides for those rainy days when the roof is leaking.