I asked folks on twitter what their favorite moment was from Arsenal this season. Responses ranged from Ozil’s new contract to the win away at Milan to the win over the Spurs in the North London Derby early on in the season. A few folks mentioned the January transfer window but none picked my favorite moment of the year: when Arsenal sold Alexis Sanchez to Man U.
I don’t know how Arsenal pulled that off. How did they convince Jose Mourinho, the Man U staff, and Alexis Sanchez to transfer to a team where he would be an unwanted outcast just two months later with Richard Jolly saying “Pogba was benched for the fourth time in seven games, Sánchez for the first in an Old Trafford career that has yielded a solitary goal in 10 largely unimpressive outings. Mourinho can be the master of the pointed slight, and Marcus Rashford and Marouane Fellani were the substitutes summoned instead of Sánchez and Pogba respectively. It felt like another statement of dissatisfaction in two of the supposed galácticos, delivered in public.”
It’s no secret that Alexis was a dressing room nightmare at Arsenal. The clubs also have access to all of the same stats, so they would have known that Alexis was doing more signalling than actual running. And it was plain to see that in the last 18 months Alexis had gone purely selfish at Arsenal.
Moreover, Arsene Wenger would know that Alexis needs freedom in order to deliver. He’s not the type of player who shines in strict disciplinarian roles. He’s the type of player who shines in a free role like he had at Arsenal, where he can drop off, go to the middle, switch sides, and even refuse to play defense. It’s no coincidence that Alexis was dropped by Mourinho the next match after he was seen taking up central positions on the pitch in order to get more of the ball.
Mourinho explains his philosophy. Speaking about McTominay after the youngster had a bad game, Mourinho said “[McTominay] had the big personality to say and to think: ‘I am not playing well but at least I am going to do the basic things of the game. The basic things of the game are keep his position, give balance to the team, recover balls and don’t make defensive mistakes.” None of those things are part of an Alexis Sanchez vocabulary. Those are things that Alexis has been telling everyone else to do for the last three years. Those are the things Alexis complained his teammates were failing to do at Arsenal.
On the day the trade was made I think I commented on how strange a fit Alexis would make on a Mourinho team. That Mou would probably drop him as soon as he turned the ball over in a dumb area. Mourinho is famously error-averse. His coaching philosophy is founded on creating a team which makes no errors, provokes errors in the opposition, and capitalizes on those errors. That’s why he’s so good at beating Arsenal: Arsenal are the team where errors are a feature of our play, not a bug.
But the way Mourinho gets his team to not commit errors is through strict positioning, balance, and playing conservatively. It’s a very old school way of playing football. Man City, Bayern, Barcelona, etc. The top teams are organized, but also fluid. They can fill space for each other when one player makes an Alexis-style move. The top teams work on positioning but also on creating chaos in the final third. Mourinho’s team seems so much more stodgy. Like an expensive version of West Brom.
Mourinho refuses to send bodies into the opposition 18 yard box. So here is Alexis, turning his man with a trademark dribble, creating space for himself to deliver that final ball, and the only player he has to target is Lukaku. At Arsenal it’s true that we often committed too many players to the attack, but you have to say that Wenger would love a player like Pogba on his team – someone making runs into the box and getting service from Alexis or Ozil. In fact, he has one – Aaron Ramsey.
Mourinho hates those kinds of players, because when they leave the midfield, it creates imbalance and offers space for the opposition. Mourinho’s teams are not coached to fill that space, they are coached to never leave that space. That’s why Mourinho benched Pogba and now Alexis.
What’s interesting is whether Alexis will knuckle under and do whatever Mourinho asks, whether he will be part of a two-man revolution at United and ouster Mourinho, or whether United will side with Jose and sell Pogba and Alexis. It’s kind of a chicken-egg situation with these players. Either Mourinho is too rigid, too inflexible in his tactics or Pogba and Alexis are. Or both.
Mourinho looks like he’s entering the meltdown phase of his three year managerial career. Everywhere he’s been, he has a rebuilding phase, a winning phase, and then the meltdown phase. Players simply don’t want to be part of a team that plays Mourinho football for longer than 18 months. And especially not if it means that they have to sacrifice their best, attacking qualities, and potentially their career for a man who will throw them under the bus at the first sign of trouble. It’s already happening: Mourinho is already blaming the players.
So going back to my original question: this was definitely my favorite moment of the Arsenal season. The 2-0 win over Tottenham, especially after the media published all of those “power shift” articles, was certainly sweet but convincing Alexis Sanchez and Jose Mourinho to team up is the most Machiavellian move Arsenal have ever made. It exposes Mourinho’s tactics as bankrupt; it forces Mourinho into confrontations with his star players; and it puts Alexis in to the exact wrong situation for him and his career.
Not only that, but we gave a chance to Mkhitaryan to revitalize his career. And by all accounts Mkhitaryan is a nice dude!
How did Arsenal pull this off?