Alexis has remade Arsenal in his own image

“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!


  1. Thanks for emphasizing the point that the manager is adaptable. It’s a lazy narrative to suggest just because he’s experienced (read for some, “old”), he isn’t willing to change. We’ve seen plenty of evidence to the contrary. You give us another clear example.

    I think this style is what he has been aiming for since his pursuit of Suarez. If that’s the case, the interesting question is, what is the alternative if Alexis isn’t available? Plan A-prime, in other words? Would it be Welbeck or Lucas up top with one speedy wide player (Walcott, Ox) and one ball-control wide man (Ramsey, Iwobi)? Those setups seem consistent with the overall direction.

  2. We have definitely changed our game to a style that benefits Alexis. He better sign that deal.

    Just a quick correction though – I believe the Arsenal twins are Ox and Gibbs. Just ask Andre Mariner.

  3. Well said. I really admire how Wenger was able to see the potential that Alexis has as a striker, and persisted with him there even though the first few games were not very promising. I, and seemingly most Arsenal followers, doubted it would work because against pool and leicester he’d drop too deep leaving nobody between the lines, but he’s since adjusted and Theo, Iwobi, and Ozil are now comfortable taking up the spaces he leaves, giving us a fluid front 4.

  4. As you say, it’s not Alexis who has remade Arsenal in his image, but Arsene Wenger who has remade Arsenal to suit Alexis. It was imaginative, bold and predicted by many to fail. It hasn’t failed, and you can even say thus far it’s been an upgrade on what we were doing last year, even if the underlying stats are not as encouraging this time around. The team is clicking around its best players. Wenger deserves the credit for this. Other managers may not have dared to try what he has or could not have found the pieces around it to make it work. Wenger has.

  5. If you read Bergkamp’s Stillness and Speed (which everyone really should) he talks about how Van Gaal was very regimented in his thinking and demand for structure, and how this was an anti-Cruyff of sorts. The source of the conflict at Ajax. He said Wenger was somewhere in the middle. Demanded his style of play, but more than willing to adapt to the qualities of the top players he had. Your description of Wenger usually taming players, but also willing to change things around reminded me of that.

    Thank you for giving Wenger credit for this, and especially that he has the daring to back up his flexibility. Both of which he not only doesn’t get enough credit for, but is accused of lacking.

    As you said, there are still issues. I think the midfield will start clicking into place even in Santi’s absence now that Ramsey is back and Xhaka is finding his feet, and the return of Lucas and maybe Welbeck will give us further options in attack to not completely disrupt our style of play in Alexis’ absence.

  6. Thanks for the analysis. I remember you saying that you hoped Alexis made Arsenal more Alexis-like than vice versa. Vague recollection was that it was in context of pressing, notthat that matters overmuch. We do press better than we used to, and we are way more fluid, and have gotten an identity back! Thank God.

  7. Oh yes, we are now very much an Alexis team. We disappear against good teams, and, as we did with that earlier Barcelona double agent, we let Barca walk all over us.

    Frank McLintock, Tony Adams or Patrick Vieira would have slapped Alexis and told him that if he’s not going to give his all for 90+ minutes, he’d better find another profession. I have had enough of his Invisible Man act. I hate playing with 10 men, especially when we’re supposed to have an 11th who’s “world-class.” Is he hell.

    1. Are you actually saying that Alexis doesn’t give his all and that Vieira, the guy who literally told Pires “do the minimum and we will cover for you”, would be upset at having to play with a guy like Alexis?

      Well, it’s a bold opinion. I’ll give you that.

  8. Agree with most of what you say. The interesting thing is that in Alexis’ first season, Wenger talked about converting him to center forward, citing his similarities to Suarez. He even tried him there for a game, maybe more than, but abandoned the conversion. As stubborn as we all think he is, I wonder why he didn’t persist with that two seasons ago?

    And we didn’t have heat maps and touch maps in Henry’s time, but a couple of games ago it struck me looking at Sanchez’s that it looked an awful lot like I imagine Thierry’s would have. Alexis really likes working that left channel.

    1. There must be some money to be made for some of these companies to go back and collect the data from that era.

  9. I will hold up my hand as someone who thought that moving Alexis to center forward wouldn’t work. But it was less about Alexis’ suitability than it was about Özil’s suitability as a goalscoring midfielder. I’ve read that if you’re going to play a false 9, then you need a “false 10.” For an offense to work, you need players who are going to try to get behind defenders. Traditionally, your center forward would be doing that. If you’re center forward is going to constantly drop deep, however, another player needs to provide those same runs and that author proposed that the attacking midfielder should do that. Until this season, Özil wasn’t that type of player, preferring to play between the lines and play those through balls himself. Mesut has adjusted his game to accommodate Sanchez’s style as a center forward. It’s instructive that Sanchez has five assists in all competitions and that they’re all to Özil and Walcott, the two players who presumably have been tasked with running beyond Sanchez when he drops deep.

    1. I don’t think too many people were overly confident it would work, and through the first few games it seemed not to work, so you’re not alone there. I think I was quietly on the fence about it myself.

      Ozil isn’t really a box buster, but he goes where the space is. As a result of Alexis pulling out of the box more often than not, Ozil has pulled into it and started scoring more goals than he’s made. What really makes this work though is Theo Walcott, who absolutely feeds off of that vacant space. He’s doing the RW duties defensively but offensively he’s the most box busting player on this team and that has directly led to his Renaissance. There was a lovely balance to the team when all four of Walcott, Ozil, Alexis and Iwobi were in prime form, but that has fallen off a bit as Iwobi’s form has dipped and a bit of fatigue/injuries have crept in. Tim Stillman has written brilliantly about how the four complement each other well. He is a proponent, and I tend to agree, that the team still needs a creative minded wide player in order to be complete. I look at Mkhtaryan on Man United’s bench and think, what a waste. Just like Schneiderlin last year.

      1. While Özil does move extremely well to find space and it is part of his natural game, I still think he’s adjusted how he plays. His movement has always tended to be lateral, moving to the flanks when the middle is congested but still staying between the the midfield and defensive lines. Now he’s moving vertically beyond the defenders. He still seems a little reluctant to shoot but given his passing ability, trying to find a teammate in a better position even though he’s in a good shooting area is forgivable for me. Agree that Theo is the prime beneficiary of this change.

  10. poor performance from the boys today; lots of possession but no penetration and very few chances created. on the other hand, southampton could have easily scored about 5 goals today. they looked dangerous everytime they came forward. i’m not going to be critical of any of the players but it’s important that our very talented players learn how to create chances and win games.

  11. Southampton’s always been a tough out for us, so I’m not terribly surprised by this result. I thought we might be in trouble just from the team sheets. Bertrand and Boufal combination seemed designed to exploit our right flank, and did so twice, thus settling the game. The Jeff tried to do his part on defense but his positioning combined with Jenkinson’s ineptitude meant high leverage chances were created from that side and Southampton put them away without needing to be asked twice. Jenkinson was a disaster with the ball too, and it was his giveaway that led to the second goal. In the second half his team mates were doing their best to avoid passing to him. He was substituted for Maitland-Niles, the ultimate mercy substitution which reminded me of the last knockings of Eboue and Andre Santos’ careers at Arsenal.

    Further forward, Aaron Ramsey, though I’ve defended him in the past, gave the side very little in either phase. He did seem out for himself in this one and never came close to forming a partnership with Lucas or to helping out his midfield colleagues. That was as awful as he’s ever played. Lucas at least tried but was obviously rusty and his execution on passes was awful. Iwobi was the sole bright spark but Southampton were much too good to be undone by one player. Gibbs and Holding also had solid matches while Xhaka also flashed early after being substituted on for the ineffective El-Neny. I hope we bury the Coq-Neny partnership with this game as it clearly doesn’t work.

    1. I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said, just want to add two things:

      1. I don’t think Coq-Neny is great, but it should be noted that Elneny came off with a stomach bug, so obviously that has to be seriously factored in when considering his performance and his partnership with le Coq.

      2. Having watched the goals again, while I agree that the second goal is awful from Jenkinson, it’s almost as bad from Ramsey, as he first lets the Southampton player dribble past him far too easily (there’s even a question as to whether he should also take a share of the blame for Jenko coughing up the ball to begin with), and second completely ignores Bertrand jogging into the box right behind him to receive the cross and score. It was the cherry on top of a truly horrendous performance from our brave number 8.

      1. The introduction of Xhaka had a lot to do with us coming back to life and making it look more like an even contest in the second half. Neither Coq nor El-Neny can consistently carry the ball between the lines or consistently find penetrative passes, so we badly need a player with passing range and vision back there, especially when the back 4 is also limited in possession. That’s not good for a team that wants to play intricate combination football. On top of that, our tempo and urgency were both poor as a team. A lot of people say we miss Cazorla, and we do; but if we show up like that to any game against competitive opposition, with or without him, we will lose. I think Xhaka can give us a lot of what we’re missing without Cazorla in the team and he should start more games. I think Wenger worries about his lapses in concentration and discipline, plus he doesn’t see Coquelin as an ideal partner for him, which is why he’s not had as many games as he might. I think our performances have been so limp lately that he has to play in order to bring back some verve and thrust from midfield, even if the volatility of his game could cost us another goal sometime soon.

        1. I don’t disagree (well, I think Elneny is a bit better at penetrative passes than you do, provided he’s got the right players playing ahead of him, but I take your point), I just don’t think tonight is real evidence for your point, given that Wenger said Elneny was sick beforehand and that’s why he came off. But I agree that Xhaka should get a run of games now, and since I don’t think Coquelin should start beside him unless we’re playing a top team and need to do a lot of defending, the real question is whether it should be Ramsey or Elneny until Santi returns. I’ve got just enough goodwill left for Ramsey to want to see what he looks like partnering Xhaka for a few games (after all that is the combination that everyone’s wanted to see since we bought the Swiss), but on current form, Elneny must have the edge, which means it looks like Wenger finally stumbled upon the next best thing to Coqzorla in the Bournemouth match (the improved performance suggested as much). I expect he’ll stick with Xhakaneny this weekend, assuming Elneny recovers.

    2. I’m not buying the “Elneny stomach bug” thing. He basically played exactly the same way as he normally does, right down to not at all understanding where he should be defensively. Maybe he did have diarrhea but this wasn’t an a-typical Elneny performance.

  12. as for the thread, let’s not kid ourselves. wenger played alexis up top because there was no one else to play there. giroud and welbeck were injured while theo had re-committed himself to being a wide striker instead of a center forward. out of necessity comes invention. is alexis a world beater at center forward? not even close. however, his talent allows him to have some success.

    this whole situation reminds me of wenger playing cesc as a #10. cesc had some success at the 10-spot but that was because of his talent. his most successful seasons were when he played deeper in midfield. he won the bpl with chelsea playing as a #8. the ’07-’08 season was the only season he played as a #8 for arsenal and he put up career numbers (14 goals and 22 assists).

    sometimes these exposures have a negative effect. in the ’11-’12 season, wenger sold cesc and samir and failed to complete the juan mata deal, which led to ramsey playing as a #10. i liked ramsey before that season and i actually felt bad for him during that season because it was clear he was a #8 and lacked the guile to be a playmaker. while van persie put up record numbers, his supposed foil, ramsey, put up rather pedestrian stats. he was asked to play a role that was unnatural for him and it seems to have affected his game even today.

    long story interesting, i’m as excited as anyone to see the success that alexis has had up until now but the season is long. i’m going to let time tell.

    1. I agree with most of what you’ve said (good point about Cesc at 10, e.g.), though Ramsey’s bad form in the last few years can’t really be blamed on what happened in 11-12, since that was before his breakout year when he starred in the 8 role alongside Arteta. The person who shoulders the blame for his ridiculously disappointing form is not Wenger (except that he keeps shoehorning him into the side), but Rambo himself. He’s got the attributes to be an excellent number 8 alongside a ball playing deep lying midfielder (Xhaka), but his selfish, braindead, sloppy playing style shows no sign of changing, and I predict he’ll be out of Arsenal next summer. Hope I’m proved wrong…

      Oh, and I do think Wenger has had the idea of playing Alexis as a number 9 in the back of his mind for a long time, even if he tried it again at the start of this season purely out of necessity (mother of invention, and all that).

  13. breaks my hear to hear about the chapeco plane crash. it was the first thing i saw when i woke up yesterday and, as an aviator, your heart always hurts while you wonder what happened. to hear that the reason for the crash may have been something like running out of fuel is simply unforgivable. there’s no good reason to ever run out of fuel. ever! i’d rather be fired than to ever roll that dice.

    as i run through the reasons why the pilots may not have had the fuel required to make his destination (including a 30+ minute reserve that’s required by law), no explanation is worth losing those souls that you’re responsible for. often times, the guys that pay the bills are pushy and don’t appreciate how potentially perilous this relatively safe mode of transportation can be. my thoughts and prayers go out to those lost souls and their loved ones.

    1. It could be they took on the reserve fuel, but lost fuel (or saw fuel starvation) during the flight because of a malfunction or damage. I hope it wasn’t because of cost-cutting or a stupid decision by the bureaucrats. Wasn’t there also something about a loss of electrical power? A loss of instruments combined with losing fuel is inevitably catastrophic, particularly so during poor weather. There would have been no possibility of an Air Canada Gimli Glider repeat.

      Just terrible.

    2. A Brazilian friend of mine was telling me about the possible fuel situation on that flight. I don’t understand it. When your car is running low on gas, you know for a while that you need to refuel before it actually runs out. I would think a plane would have even better alerts giving them time to make an emergency landing somewhere.

    3. understand, there can be literally dozens of reasons why their predicament arose. i just hope it’s not flight planning but all of the indicators are pointing to that.

      getting jet fuel isn’t as simple as pulling over at the bp and topping off, especially internationally. you would have to plan to go to a poe (point of entry) airport, deplane, go through customs, etc. not to mention the plane might have flown into a window which means a mandatory maintenance had to be done before flight could be resumed in that aircraft. you would need personnel on the ground that were certified to work on that particular aircraft, and had the time, parts, and expertise to do the work, etc. that could add a lot of time and money just to get to your destination. one could could take certain risks and hope for the best. however, if you get it wrong, there’s no element more unforgiving than the air coupled with gravity.

      losing fuel also means losing electrical power (ac power) to the aircraft. the battery (dc power) only does certain functions, where as the engine generators are designed to do every electrical function when you’re in the air. typically, a single generator can run the entire aircraft, meaning it might not be a big deal if you lose one engine. however, if you lose all of your engines, your aircraft is going to be impossible to control and is going to get dark.

  14. Why Ramsey is such a pain in the neck, is that it’s easy to see that with the talent at his disposal he should be up there and not down there. If only he would get simpler and focus on being more intelligent for the cause of the team, instead of being more stylish for self entertainment and self glory, he would be right up there, surly. I have stopped hoping because Ramsey is too self willed, too incorrigible.

    As for Jenko, it is his commitment and endeavor that has helped him masquerade as a footballer. Last night these positive qualities were absent and he exposed himself badly. A top team like Arsenal don’t need masquerades.

    1. Ramsey should take a leaf out of Walcott’s book. I sincerely feel Theo had a realization within himself and worked hard to correct his game. The whole season remains but, I really hope Theo can score more in crucial matches.

      1. Agreed. He needs to embrace being a well rounded central midfielder, not act like he’s the second coming of Steven Gerrard. If he would only do the basics with vim and vigor he could walk into our central midfield at the moment. He and Coquelin would be a dynamic partnership; he and Xhaka would be a potentially devastating one.

          1. Someone with the same delusions of grandeur as Gerrard. Who, by the way, was above average at taking penalties.

  15. Interestingly enough Tim, you have mentioned at the end that this system does have its share of problems. The high press from Coquelin means lesser assurance against counter attacks. Credit given however where credit is due. Arsene Wenger is a fantastic coach & would be so fitting if he can help Arsenal lift the title against some of the “best managers in the world” and Mourinho.

    Things which we need to click for us to win the title –
    1) Iwobi to start scoring and get some confidence to add to his fluent style.
    2) Bench players to start getting assists and goals like Ramsey & Perez.
    3) Santi Cazorla returning to the full fitness.

    p.s.: I wish Alexis’ contract is extended soon. Can’t have a saga around this!!!

  16. Reports coming that Santi needs an operation which is not unexpected given his stalled recovery and need to see a specialist. That really was the only realistic outcome once that happened. This forces the le bosses hand to figure out how to replace Cazorla. Obviously, given Cazorla’s age and recent injury issues, he’s already planned for this necessity, yes?

    1. Ridiculous. We’re not even close to being “done.” I love the little Spaniard as much as the next guy, but Cazorla is at best the 3rd most important player in the squad and probably not more important than any one of Walcott, Cech, Koscielny or Bellerin. His loss is in an area where we have capable replacements and as someone already pointed out, we are better off not relying on him given his injury history and his advancing age anyways.

      This is why Jack Wilshere needed to stay to fight for his place… this would have been his opportunity to stake his claim. But we still have creative options centrally in Xhaka and Ramsey and this may be just the type of situation when we stumble on to something great in a combination of those guys +/- one of Coq/El-Neny. However this also heightens the urgency for a wide playmaker which was already a need coming into the season. I wonder if Wenger feels the same, although Iwobi looks to be back in form now and will probably start next weekend.

      1. clearly, you don’t appreciate the significance of losing cazorla at dm. maybe i can remind you. at the start of the season, cazorla wasn’t really fit and arsenal had a single point after two games. then cazorla got fit and arsenal started winning, nearing the top of the table. then cazorla got hurt and arsenal started dropping points to teams like middlesborough and were extremely lucky not to lose against mourinho’s manchester united and tottenham.

        it’s as simple as this, when cazorla plays dm, arsenal look like they can beat any team in europe. when he doesn’t play, arsenal look as though they can be beaten by any team in europe. after arteta starting being chronically injured, arsenal looked a shambles in midfield until wenger dropped cazorla into the dm role, then arsenal looked like world beaters.

        many often understate the value of a dm. everyone thought the most insignificant player in the invincibles was gilberto silva, until he broke his back and the invincibles began to look very beatable. claude makalele was derided when he asked for a new contract at real madrid. look at how it went for them after selling the frenchman to chelsea.

        besides santi, there’s only xhaka who can play the #6 spot at arsenal and he’s looking better but not quite ready. the idea that there are plenty of players at arsenal who could play there or that jack wilshere would deputize well there is naive. it’s a tactical position that requires your more intelligent and experienced players. i hope as much as everyone else that xhaka gets it right sooner than later. make no mistake, arsenal need him to or, like nyc said, ‘yep, we’re done’; done meaning arsenal’s title challenge. we’ll see.

        1. Let’s just say we’ll agree to disagree.

          Arsene Wenger has this to say on the topic (and sums up my feelings well):

          “He’s important to our technical stability in the team, to the quality of our decision-making and to our build-up from deep midfield to the high midfield,” said the boss. “That’s an important stage because it gets the ball out from the defenders.
          “We have enough quality players in our side to get around that, even if Santi a massive player for us. We are good enough to find solutions despite the fact he’s not there.”

      2. Absolutely, we are yet to stumble upon something special this season. Perhaps it could be one of the academy players making a step up. It is possible, Hector/Iwobi/Coquelin all had meteoric rises.

        Name one more team who could boast such a record in recent history.
        I’ve my money on Maitland Niles to get more first team opportunities.

        Also, Danny is back, he will give us one more option up front.

  17. Absolutely correct article, finally some depth which should educate people that football is more deep than one headline.

    Wenger certainly has tactical flexibility and creativity. He tries to maximise each players potential and mask their weaknesses. You’ve put it well in the article as to how he does it

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