I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about the body language of Alexis Sanchez lately. These complaints go along the lines of “instead of throwing his hands up in the air and complaining about his teammates, he should be leading the team, helping them win the game.” I’ve even heard from some fans that they are “sick” of Alexis and his attitude. But honestly, I understand the frustration Alexis is showing and I think he should show more. After all, he’s literally doing everything he can to help this team win.
First, let’s look at what Alexis has contributed this season: 15 goals and 10 assists in 26 appearances. That’s a total of 25 goals in 26 appearances. That’s 10 more goals or assists than Arsenal’s second best player, Mesut Özil, who has 15 in 23 appearances.
Further quantifying Alexis’ importance to the squad, we have the fact that Alexis has only failed to score or assist in 10 matches this season. Özil has failed to score or assist in 13 matches, plus has sat out an additional 3 matches that Alexis played in, including the season opener which Alexis started in despite returning from a Copa America winning summer. So, Alexis, Arsenal’s most prolific forward has failed to score in 10 of Arsenal’s matches this season and Özil, 16.
But football is a team sport and maybe Alexis isn’t pulling he weight compared to the other players on the pitch when he does play. Scoring and assisting isn’t everything after all! I ran a comparison of Alexis’ WhoScored.com player rating per game compared to Arsenal’s team rating and compared to Özil’s player rating in those same games. To run this comparison, I simply took the player’s rating and subtracted the team’s average rating. If a player was better than team average (helping the team) he ended up with a positive score. If a player was worse than the team average (dragging down the team) he ended up with a negative score.
Alexis was better than the team average in all but five of the games he played in. Alexis was giving positive contributions in 21 of 26 matches this season. Özil, on the other hand, had 10 games in which he was below team average in terms of contribution. That means Alexis provided positive contributions in 81% of his matches this season. Özil provided positive contributions in just 56% of his matches this season.
There are times when Alexis cuts a strange figure at Arsenal. Against Bournemouth, he let frustration bubble over and threw his gloves on the ground after the match. He also returned to the match after half-time, a half in which Arsenal allowed two of the worst goals you will see all season, and spent 10 seconds in what is now a familiar pose: crouching down, contemplating.
It was a pose we first saw toward the end of the Manchester City match. He was completely exhausted. He just saw Arsenal pressed out of yet another match by a big club, indicating that the quality of Arsenal’s midfield and back four is probably not as good as we like to think, and he crouched down and put his hand on his chin. People complained about Alexis’ body language that day but according to the WhoScored ratings, Alexis was almost a full point better than the rest of the team while Özil was half a point below the rest of the team.
Alexis played at Barcelona. He knows exactly what the construction of a top team should look like. He also played under Guardiola who, while he may actually have too many ideas, stressed several key things that Arsenal often get wrong.
One of Pep’s mandates is that the team needs to stay switched on at all times. Against Bournemouth, Arsenal switched off three times and the first time was possibly one of the worst defensive possessions I’ve ever seen in my time following Arsenal. Guardiola himself would use images to convey the data and here’s the image I would use:
That’s not fatigue. That’s not players being bad players. That is a failure at all levels of coaching. Bellerin is a talented player. Ramsey is a talented player. Iwobi is a talented player. But here you have Bellerin ball watching, Ramsey covering no one, and Iwobi running off to close down some imaginary space. If my top player didn’t get pissed off after seeing this play? I wouldn’t consider him my top player. Alexis knows what good organization should look like. He knows this was grabasstic defending. He was rightly upset. And what’s he supposed to do about it? Teach the team how to stay switched on and be more organized?
The other problem Alexis will have noticed is that opposition clubs can stop Arsenal bringing the ball out from the back and often win superiority in midfield. Big clubs like PSG, City, Tottenham, Man U, and Liverpool have all pressured Arsenal to great result this season. This kind of pressure is what big clubs do to little clubs when they know that the opponent is not as good with the ball as they are. If you remember a few years back, Arsenal did this to Liverpool when they played with Kolo Toure in the backfield. The result was multiple turnovers, chaos, and a win for Arsenal. When Alexis sees the opposition doing that to Arsenal, it has to make him question what’s going on. And frankly, there is NOTHING he can do about this. He can’t play center back, false 9, wide left, left back, and center mid all at the same time.
The team needs a line-breaking midfielder – Guardiola himself wasn’t fast, strong, and didn’t score goals but he was the guy who found the key pass which broke the opposition’s lines of defense. This isn’t a key pass or an assist, it’s the pass that initiates the chaos which creates the chance for the goal. Arsenal have that guy in Xhaka.
But more important, Arsenal need midfield superiority – with the ball and without the ball. Coquelin is a fine player and a crucial component to Arsenal’s ability to shield the back four and to win the ball back. But that’s not midfield superiority. Midfield superiority is gained through control of both the ball and space. Ask yourself which of these current Arsenal midfielders would get a chance at Bayern Munich this year? How about Barcelona? Real Madrid? Even Chelsea’s double pivote (which has similarities to Arsenal’s) is superior because Kante is so much better with the ball than Coquelin, runs as much as either Ramsey or Elneny, and is a much better defender than Ramsey and Elneny. Kante would walk in to Bayern Munich’s midfield. Would Elneny?
Alexis knows all of these things. He has worked with the very best midfielders in the world. He has worked with managers who demand 100% attention on the field. He has played on teams that were organized and had the technical quality necessary to play the ball forward from the back against other big teams.
Alexis is currently the best player at Arsenal and one of Arsenal’s most experienced players. He should be throwing strops when Arsenal concede three goals to Bournemouth. If he doesn’t do it who will? Özil?