“Sometimes the sweetest kittens have the sharpest claws.” – The Dirtbombs
“The smaller the paws, the more annoying the bark.” – Tim Todd
I was reminded of Alexis Sanchez’ first goal for Arsenal today. Besiktas failed to clear their lines and the ball came to Jack Wilshere. He passed to Özil who played a ball back through two defenders. Jack was the nearest player and took a touch but the ball got away from him for a moment. Just as Jack was making one of his trademark lunges to recollect the ball, Alexis Sanchez steamed in, took the ball off Jack’s toes and smashed in his first goal for the Arsenal.
Alexis was simply announcing himself. He is the kind of player who as Wenger said today “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.”
When I first saw Alexis I knew that he would be the one to change our game. Arsene usually changes players, not the other way around. He makes players who shoot from distance into players who are more patient. He introduces players to his philosophy of verticality and teaches them to look for the through ball, to run behind the defenders and latch onto through balls. Every player on Arsenal can make that through pass. Even the center backs.
Wenger usually changes players. Wenger tames them. But Wenger hasn’t really tamed Alexis.
Alexis can be frustrating at times. His desire to dribble straight at the defense means that he’s going to lose the ball often. His passing isn’t at Özil level either, so when he drops to collect, and the opposition give him time, he will often try an audacious pass rather than a simple one, which again often results in a loss of possession. He is, in this respect, like Luis Suarez*. If you recall, when Arsenal went after Luis Suarez I sounded the alarm bells that fans would need to give him latitude: he was a ball hog and was going to turn the ball over a lot. But like Suarez, Arsenal’s Alexis, is a “demon on the pitch.” It was that quality which Wenger hailed in Luis Suarez and that quality which Wenger wanted at Arsenal from Alexis.
Alexis didn’t change for Arsenal, not fundamentally. He may have softened around the edges, and Wenger sees him playing more for the team and less for himself. But I don’t see it as a change. He’s always been the guy who chases down every lost ball, who tracks all the way back into Arsenal’s defense and makes a tackle in our corner, and who runs fulls speed for the cause for 90 minutes 40+ times a year.
But Arsenal have changed for Alexis. Arsenal have benched their starting forward, Olivier Giroud, a player who is excellent at hold-up play in order to play a much more direct version of attacking football with Alexis at the tip of the spear. Arsene has moved his best holding midfielder, Francis Coquelin, up to play between the lines, so that he can press high up the pitch and offer support to Alexis, who loves to press the opposition defenders. Arsenal have moved Özil out of midfield and put him into a role closer to Alexis, a sort of Bergkamp position, so that the two can play as an attacking combination. Theo Walcott abandoned his stated desire to be a center forward, clearing the way for Alexis, and he now plays as a winger. And even the precocious twins Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain are benefitting from the new formation that Wenger is deploying, both enjoying stints as wide players who dribble at opponents and get into dangerous areas in the opposition 18 yard box. And Wenger has added a counter attacking flair to this Arsenal side, again playing off Alexis’ desire to run at the opposition, Wenger is able to play Walcott, Ox, Iwobi, Alexis, and Ozil along with Hector Bellerin who are among the fastest players in the League, as a counter-attacking threat against any team who wants to play possession football.
The results have proven themselves. Alexis is scoring at the same rate as before, about 1 goal every two games. But Özil has already scored as many goals this season in 17 appearances as his did in his first season at Arsenal with 40 appearances. Walcott has enjoyed a true renaissance and already has a many goals this season as he had in 42 appearances last season. And all of this reshuffling at Arsenal has also freed up space on the bench for players like Giroud to come on late in games and make an impact; he’s scored 3 goals in 7 subs in the League, one against Man U and two against Sunderland, all three were point-saving goals.
It’s not perfect. Arsenal still haven’t figured out which two should anchor the midfield. And when Alexis is off color, or tired from all of his international duties, Arsenal tend to struggle. But I love seeing Arsenal change. Wenger is often criticized for “doing the same thing over and over again” but no one survives as a manager for 20+ years without the ability to change. Just look at Jose Mourinho’s meltdown over the last two years. Mourinho only knows one way to play football and only has one managerial style. When his one-trick doesn’t work he doesn’t have the tools to reinvent himself or his team and things crash down around him. It used to take three years for this to happen, but in the modern football cycle, Mourinho’s inevitable decrepitude is accelerated.
But Arsene Wenger has the flexibility and creativity to move things around, and the daring to try something new. When Wenger finds a truly unique player, he’s not afraid to mold his team around him. He did it with Vieira, Henry, Fabregas, and now Alexis.
*He’s not at all like Luis Suarez in the bitey, mental, racist way. Alexis loves his dogs!