Sanchez had a scintillating first season at Arsenal, and despite a lull in form during the back end, many an Arsenal fan would tell you he has been the most important player for them this season. His cup final thunderbolt a fitting end to the Chilean’s Premier League debut.
With bags of individual quality, electryfying pace and chest control the likes none of us have ever seen before, there is no denying Alexis has indeed been a sensation at Arsenal. Single handedly winning them games at the start of the season, the Chilean has put on numerous individual performances of the highest calibre and only a fool would suggest there is any sort of room for improvement.
Well I’m that fool.
As an Arsenal fan, I watch Alexis week in, week out, the full 90 minutes and thus feel fairly qualified (as much as any wannabe writer can be) when it comes to commenting on his performance for the club. As I have said, he has been simply amazing this season, and I certainly tip my proverbial cap to him for the wonderful things he has already done, feats even more impressive when considering its his first time in the Premier League. However, some of his performances highlighted to me that, perhaps borne out of his early endeavours in terms of carrying the whole team on his back, and maybe excusably so, Sanchez carries an air of self-importance or a simple lack of faith in his teammates that is at times detrimental to his and the team’s performance.
Alexis is very much a forward come winger, comfortable in both roles and highly effective also. His dribbling and pace means he is a threat to any full back, whilst his tenacity and composure in front of goal makes him a clinical forward by any one’s standards. Yet, for all his ability on the ball, it is what he is doing without it that is troubling me enough to bother writing about it. You could easily argue I shouldn’t be complaining as what he is doing clearly works, and phenomenally well at that, but I would argue that should he heed my advice (because he is definitely reading this) he will become 10x the player he is now and 100x more consistent. How scary is that?
Alexis was most frequently used on the left flank. With Giroud playing so well through the middle and with the likes of Welbeck, Walcott and Oxalde-Chamberlain offering a more direct threat on the right earlier in the season, it’s not his position that his troubling me. It is how he is playing it.
I am trying to not make a convoluted point but I feel its necessary to bring up Lukas Podolski at this juncture. Podolski had trouble cementing his place in the starting XI because quite frankly he did not move. On the ball he was as lethal and as gifted as any, but without it, he would rarely leave the safety of his favoured inside left channel and offer no real movement upfront. Sanchez at times does the same.
Although not as obvious as the German due to his chaotic closing down of the opposition, when Arsenal are on the attack he fails to do what is necessary. Always wanting the ball to feet, Alexis proceeds to drop deeper and come narrower with the sole purpose of getting the ball at his magical feet as quickly as possible. It is because of his desire to carry his team to victory he does so, believing he, and he alone, has what it takes to make something happen, demanding the ball at all times and casting a frustrated figure when his teammates fail to make this happen.
In reality this completely distorts not only the shape of our team, but also the rhythm and tempo at which we excel. By dropping into this position, Alexis ends up holding Mesut Ozils hand, limiting the German’s wizard space in which he has to operate. He even comes as deep as to receive a two yard pass from Cazorla at times, something completely incomprehensible and an absolute waste of the array of talents they both have at their disposal. Alexis – most notably in the period we succumb to Monaco in the Champions League – is narrowing the play, slowing down the tempo and limiting space. Ironically, this is not the sort of hat-trick Arsenal fans, or Mr. Wenger for that matter, have come to expect from their new main man.
So what does he need to do? Well to find your answer you need look no further than the finger wagging Arsenal legend, former invincible, Robert ‘Bobby’ Pires.
Arsenal’s ex-number 7 was a perfect fit in a team which despite possessing far superior quality to the current squad (and most squads ever) shares a lot of similarities in terms of the dynamics and set up of the team. More a fluid 4-4-2 than the 4-3-3 of today, it easily transitioned into a 4-2-2-2 or even 4-2-4 at times. Pires provided guile, technical prowess and goal threat (whether through assists or scoring himself) on the left whilst Freddie Ljungberg was the more direct player, similar to how Welbeck, Walcott and now even Ramsey are asked to operate in the current squad; providing speed, intelligent off the ball runs and the clichéd knack of being in the right place at the right time.
I feel like the right hand side works very well. Bellerin gallops forward without a care in the world, providing width when our wide players make inside runs, and all four of our British players deployed in this position are doing what is required. Giroud too is finally proving his many critics wrong, showing himself to be an important cog in Arsenal’s attacking machine. However the one faulty party, stopping this attacking unit becoming an unstoppable juggernaut, is Alexis.
Pires was creative and scored his fair share of goals, however it was his intelligence and awareness of where he needed to be and where the ball should be that made him such an exceptional player. When he needed to run with the ball, he ran with it; when he needed to pass, he passed it; and when he needed to make a run even though he might not receive the ball at the end of it, he did so. At an expert level. Alexis on the other hand is unilateral in his thinking. It comes across that the only way he thinks he can help the team is with the ball at his feet. He is wrong.
Pires, as my all time favourite player, demonstrated on many occasions he had the ability to rival any of the world’s best and if it weren’t for the injury curse that plagues many an Arsenal player, I firmly believe he would be even more of a household name. But what made him so good, and what Alexis needs to realise, is that he always made the right decision (apart from that penalty incident against City…).
The thing that enabled him to make these decisions was the trust and faith he placed in his teammates. This is what Alexis lacks. It may be because it is still his first season, and as I have said, after doing so much of the leg work early on, he might still feel it’s on his shoulders to keep doing so. But it isn’t. Towards the end of the season, the whole team had found their feet, key players are returning from injury and more importantly returning to form. The missing ingredient is a synergy, something that The Invincibles had in abundance.
If Sanchez can realise that there are other players in the squad capable of playing killer passes, capable of taking on the opposition and capable of scoring, then he will become an infinitely better player. Freeing himself of some responsibility will I believe give him a new lease of life.
Robert Pires, perhaps because he was surrounded by great players, was the perfect fit for Arsenal’s left hand side, and had a perfect understanding of how he needed to play the game. Alexis has the potential to be as important, if not more so than my favourite ever frenchy and perhaps this trust will come with time. By staying out wide when he needs to, other players can receive the ball. By passing the ball and running into space, he will create as many opportunities has he makes himself – his habit of passing the ball then staying exactly where he is, shouting for it to be passed back is something that drives me insane – and the team as a whole will score more goals.
I feel it is harsh on the Chilean to call it a selfish attitude and maybe I am wrong in suggesting an air of self importance. To be quite honest, I originally conceived this article during his rough patch and it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge the steps he has already taken towards becoming a greater team player in attack.
Yet still, there have been glimpses his hunger to win and eagerness to do so all on his own if he has to is as much a hinderance as it can be a benefit for the team, especially in games where the first goal has been hard to come by or not coming at all.
If he learns his role and responsibility, whether on the left or other areas of the pitch, as well as Pires did, and learns to trust his team as the frenchman did, then we have a world class player on our hands, just as we did all those years ago.
And if he needs any footage, I have plenty of old Arsenal DVDs he can borrow, with Pires starring more often than not.