By Tim Todd Head of Football Operations NORAD
Back in the summer of ’69.. wait, that was before I was born. It was the summer of 2013 and Arsenal had a lump of cash to spend (finally). Their big idea for who to spend it on? Luis Suarez, £40 million. And one.
That summer I wrote several articles about Suarez which questioned why Arsenal were after him. I used stats and charts and numbers but they all added up to one major problem: he was insanely wasteful in possession.
Oh the calumny I received! The derisive laughter! I knew nothing about football I was told. Suarez is the greatest player who ever bit a man and then called another man a bad name. He is going to be great, they all said! You suck Tim. Shut up.
My entire argument was simply that I don’t think Arsenal supporters would appreciate how much he turned the ball over and that Higuain was probably the better choice for our club because he’s better in possession and a better team player. Not even mentioning the bitey racisms.
That argument was lost in the howls of derision. And to those folks great credit Suarez has gone on to prove that 1) he can lead a team almost all the way to the promised land (if only Gerrard, HA!) 2) that in the Barcelona system he can play many different roles and that 3) he can be both a team player when needed and the main striker (at Barcelona, where Messi and Neymar flank him).
In the summer when Suarez went to Barcelona, they sold Arsenal one of their players, Alexis Sanchez. As soon as I saw him play the first time for Arsenal, and as soon as he scored his first goal for Arsenal, stealing the ball off Wilshere’s foot, I knew why Wenger bought him: he’s meant to be our Suarez.
It has taken Alexis two full years but he has finally cemented his place in the Arsenal starting lineup, he has proven himself to be a versatile forward who can play alone up top or wide on either side of the pitch, and like Suarez, he’s prone to turning the ball over once or twice.
Ok, he’s dispossessed 3.1 times per game whereas Suarez in 2013 was only dispossessed 2.8 per game.
But what’s hilarious to me is that people are actually doing exactly what I predicted they would do if Arsenal had been able to sign Suarez: complaining about his turnovers rate. And what’s doubleplus hilarious is that Alexis is significantly less of a ballhog/turnover machine than Luis Suarez was in 2012/13.
Here’s a mind-blowing stat for you about Luis Suarez: he was not only dispossessed 2.8 times per game (94 total times that season, leading the League) and not only averaged 2.3 bad touches per game (79, again lead the League), but also lead the League with 187 shots, and led the League with an absolutely insane 255 attempted dribbles which was 108 more attempts (3 per game) than second place Adel Tarrabt, and he failed to beat his man off the dribble 160(!!!) times!!! That’s a 37% success rate with his dribbles. Insanely bad. He was also caught offsides 1.2 times per game (40 total).
He was also just a 76% passer, which to be fair, is the best he ever passed the ball.
If we add dispossessed, bad touch, offside and failed dribbles, Luis Suarez averaged 11 turnovers per game. Eleven wasted possessions that his teammates had to claw back so that they could get him the ball so that he could take all the team’s shots or so that he could lose the ball, again. That’s incredible and yet, everyone agrees “Arsenal would have won the League if we had signed Suarez”.
And now, Arsenal have our own, fully functional Luis Suarez type in Alexis Sanchez and guess what? People complain that he turns the ball over too much.
First off, Alexis is a 74% passer. Not great but I asked Orbinho on twitter what Thierry Henry’s passing rates were over his career. Must be upper 90% or so, because he was a football god, right?
Henry passing accuracy:
06-07 74% https://t.co/JF44922jEK
— Orbinho (@Orbinho) February 13, 2017
Not. Even. Remotely. Close. No forwards are going to pass the ball well. It’s just not their job. Their job is to create and score goals. End of story. So, Alexis’ 74% passing isn’t something I will ever care about. He can pass at 50% for all I care, as long as he scores 25 goals this season.
As for taking care of the ball: Alexis is dispossessed more than Suarez was, 3.1 times per game, 78 so far in the League. That means Alexis is 2nd in total dispossessed this season. He also has shown loose touch 58 times which is 7th “worst” behind Zaha, Costa, Pogba*, Rondon, King, and Arnautovic.
Unlike Suarez, Alexis actually has a terrific dribble percentage for a CF, he’s currently completing 67% of his attempted dribbles and has only lost possession in that category 36 total times out of 108 attempts. You can see this in effect in a match; defenders stand off him, they are afraid of his ability to get by them. This gives him time to create for his teammates which he does at a terrific rate of 2.5 per game. Even better is that Alexis creates from open play, not set pieces. He’s the most prolific passer from open play in the league.
Alexis has also been caught offside 0.8 times per game or 20 times total.
Now, if we add up all of Alexis’ wasted possessions he’s giving the ball away 8 times per game. Three fewer than Luis Suarez in the season that we all wanted to buy him so badly.
And you know what else? Alexis is scoring on 17% of his (non-penalty) shots. Luis Suarez scored just 12% that 2012/13 season. It took Luis Suarez 187 shots to get 23 goals that year. If Alexis took 187 shots this season and scored at the rate he is currently scoring, he would score 32 goals.
I learned my lesson about center forwards: don’t get too concerned with turnovers and wasted possession. What you really want is an all-action center forward who gives the opposition defenders the terrors the night before a game. Arsenal have that guy, his name is Alexis Sanchez.
*For a CM this is actually a shockingly bad stat.