When Alexis Sanchez first came to Arsenal, I could tell immediately that he was a different kind of player. I think it was in his very first game, where he was running forward, pressing the opposition, and urging his teammates to do the same that signaled he was different. But if I wasn’t sure, his first goal for Arsenal set the tone: Özil slipped a great return ball for Wilshere, who went to collect, but before he could get to the ball, Alexis nipped in and scored.
For some this would seem selfish. He did take a shot away from a teammate. But I didn’t see it that way. I saw a player who wanted it more. I saw a player with drive and ambition who was willing to brush everyone else aside if need be to score goals for his club. If Wilshere had wanted it half as much as Alexis he would have scored that goal, but he didn’t.
On Saturday against Liverpool the lineups were announced and Alexis Sanchez was not in the starting XI. He wasn’t injured either, he was on the bench. Immediately, I knew this wasn’t for any real football reasons. As the match unfolded, Wenger’s side were set up in a 451 with Welbeck playing wide left, Ox playing wide right, and Iwobi as the right center mid. Wenger claimed this was to make Arsenal compact in defense and direct in attack. It was neither, because it was never going to be either.
If Arsenal were really going to play on the counter, you wouldn’t play Giroud in the center forward role, you would play Welbeck who is much quicker and just as strong. Even if you want to play Giroud to be a hold-up player, there is still no reason to start Ox over Alexis. Alexis is better with the ball, faster, and the only player on the team capable of putting in the crosses that Giroud would need to score. So, dropping Alexis was never for football reasons. Something else had happened.
And if Arsenal were set up to be defensive and counter attacking, Liverpool broke this staunch resistance with a goal kick. The ball was pounded deep, none of the midfielders were covering Firmino and so Koscielny went up to win the header, then he missed. Suddenly Arsenal were caught in a 3 on 3. The ball dropped to Coutinho who headed a nice pass to Can, who slotted in Mane, and then Mane fired a wicked cross in to Coutinho, who tried to make a cute backheel but missed and the ball fell to an unmarked Firmino, who finished from 5 yards. Liverpool bypassed the Arsenal midfield time and again with nice lofted passes.
Arsenal conceded a second goal when Liverpool, again, pulled the Arsenal defense out of shape. This time it was Iwobi who failed to cover Wijnaldum which caused the initial hiccup. From there, it was either Nacho or Welbeck who left Sadio Mane completely unmarked at the back post. Of course he scored.
Arsenal were off to yet another slow start, a problem that has become endemic to this Arsenal team now. I wrote a column about Arsenal’s slow starts last month and nothing has changed. Bellerin even decried Arsenal’s slow starts after the match saying,
“After the tough weeks we’ve had the team should have gone onto the pitch, motivated and ready from the start. In the first half it didn’t feel like we were ready and then we went 2-0 down. We got one goal back and had a chance to make it 2-2 but sometimes it’s too late. We need to realise that it’s just not the way to go. We need to push harder, to start the games with a better attitude and just go for it because we showed that when we go for it and want something we can do it. It doesn’t matter about the other team, when we have the ball and push hard, we can score goals. It’s up to us to start the games with that desire, that motivation, and then we can get good results.”
That quote is incredible. It reveals a team that is unprepared and unmotivated. Unprepared to play against Liverpool, after a week off. If this wasn’t Arsene Wenger in charge, if this was Ronald Koeman and we had hired him two years ago and this team had players revealing that they are unprepared and unmotivated, the calls for that manager to be fired would be unanimous.
And now the Guardian (and other sources) are reporting that Alexis was benched because he walked out of training in mid-week. I mention that it’s reported in the Guardian because I am aware that Wenger said it never happened. But the Guardian will have sourced this report and verified with multiple people before publishing. They reported,
Sánchez stunned his team-mates by walking out of the session and, when they returned to the changing rooms to find him, there were angry words between some of them and him. The flashpoint is believed to have kicked off after an incident with another player.
And Alexis took to Instagram to make it clear that he did fight but that he fights for the team and not with the team saying,
“The true warrior fights not because he hates the ones in front of him, but because he loves those behind him. Let’s go Gunners. The only failure is not trying.”
Most of the time when Arsenal get a new player, Arsenal changes him. We take attacking players and calm them, make them more patient. We take defensive players and teach them how to thread through balls. And Wenger preaches verticality and freedom to his team.
But when Arsenal signed Alexis, I could tell that he was different. I’ve never seen an Arsenal player brush aside a teammate to score a goal. I’d never seen an Arsenal player urging his teammates to pressure the opposition. I said then that Arsenal were not going to change him. That if Arsenal wanted to keep him, Arsenal would have to change for him.
For a brief few games Arsenal did look like we were going to change for him. The team pressed as a unit. The team worked hard. But that was just a half season last year. Since then, I can’t see any identity to this team. We aren’t a pressure team, we aren’t a possession team. We aren’t a defensive side nor a counter attacking team. And now Arsenal are a team that doesn’t even start games strong, that isn’t prepared or motivated even for the big games.
I’m sure people will blame Alexis. They will say he’s stroppy and that he’s bad for the team. But I applaud him for walking out of training and for yelling at his teammates. What’s the point of training if you’re just going to be a mess on the pitch? Why not yell at your teammates if they are putting in half-assed effort? I would much rather have a player stand up and say something than just meekly collect his paycheck, put in a bunch of half-efforts, and play one or two nice passes.
I applaud Alexis for standing up to Wenger and to his teammates. He was right. Wenger knows it too. That’s why he had to put Alexis on in the second half. And look what happened, Alexis set up a goal for Welbeck. But Arsenal lack of organization showed and Liverpool swept in a third goal before we could get back into the game.
We need more players like Alexis.