My favorite moment of Arsenal’s season so far: selling Alexis to Man U

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?



  1. Looking back, swapping Mkhi and Sanchez certainly seems to be working out for us though I have to admit that as much as I have always rated Mkhi and had wanted him at Arsenal for a long time, I wasn’t sure how the player swap was going to play out. So in terms of what made me the most happy in real time, I think it has to be the win over Spurs.

    What would really make me laugh is if Alexis showed up at United’s preseason 10 lbs heavier.. like a smaller version of Andres Santos. I can see it happening.

    1. I should also say here that even if Mkhitaryan plays the way he does right now which is kind of inconsistent I’ll still love this trade just for the sheer fact that Alexis had to play under Mourinho for 6+ months.

      1. If this is Mkhi’s ceiling (virtually single-handedly destroying a bottom 10 club every 3rd game or so) I’ll still happily take that, and it’s not so bad for the second string creative player on this team. I do think he’ll get even better though as long as he feels comfortable here. I also think he and Auba increase each others’ value. And I think both players will do very well with whoever replaces Wenger given their experiences with BVB’s modern tactical setup under Klopp and Tuchel. This trade was a big win for Arsenal, as I suspected it would be!

        *pats self on back, regrets words later*

      2. Unless he’s willing to take a huge paycut, I’d say Sanchez is stuck at United for the rest of his contract.
        The only worry regarding Mourinho is that they sack him and get a decent, tactically nuanced manager in to replace him!

  2. Great read Tim. Nothing like a little Monday morning schadenfreude to start the week! Strange how things sometimes workout in unanticipated ways. It was clear that something was different for Sanchez this season. He was losing the ball much more frequently and taking fewer good shots. I’m beginning to wonder if time and age are catching up with him. He spent the better part of the last two summers playing International competition, and that has put a lot of miles on his legs. I also believe Chile failing to qualify for the World Cup has weighed heavily on him, as it may have been his last good chance to make noise there. Through smart analysis or dumb luck, we were able to avoid keeping him too long. Good riddance.

  3. Keep in mind that in most every other year, United at their current point total, would be odds on favourites to win the league. It’s just Mourinho’s bad luck that in his second season (typically his best with any club) City are fielding a once-a-generation type team. If we play counter-factual thought experiments, United would be winning the league this year, right on form with every other team Mourinho has managed.

    That said, Pogba will do great at PSG playing behind Neymar next year (I doubt Pocchetino wants to sign him for Madrid) and Sanchez will become just a very expensive Nani for United.

    1. Yes, Mou’s trajectory with teams has become predictable to the point of boredom and it must just be killing him that his old adversary is beating him again, this time with a different team in a different league. I’m not going to hand him a “he would’ve won the league if” trophy though because Arsenal never got any of those despite a couple of seasons where they would’ve won the league IF something else didn’t happen, like Leicester suddenly becoming amazing in 2015 (which is even less likely than a Guardiola team dominating the PL on the UAE’s GDP) or that 2008 season. If Arsenal doesn’t get to live by those excuses then neither should Mourinho.

      1. Madrid will be looking for a new manager soon.
        We can but dream that the wheels fall off the wagon up the road. Well, I say dream but basically the plan is to wait for their intrinsic Spursiness to shine through.

      2. If Zidane doesn’t at least make the CL final, he’s out. Madrid are rumoured to be hot for Pocchetino.

  4. In retrospect, perhaps the most pernicious outcome of the uncertainty surrounding Wenger’s contract at the end of last season was that it overshadowed how much Sanchez was also destabilizing the team. If the Sanchez situation had blown up at the end of last season instead of halfway through this one, I wonder how things might have been different…

    1. Greg – Great point. There has been so much drama, you almost forget how Wenger’s contract was the big issue last season. Hope it’s not the same next season. Don’t think I can handle it.

  5. Great take on the whole Sanchez /Mourinho situation Tim.
    And to answer your question as to how Arsenal pulled it of…, well, mostly by carefully planned and brilliantly executed transfer strategy , by which I mean purely blind luck of course.

    Arsenal shambolic mismanagement of Alexis transfer to City for £60m on the last day of the TW had put the wheels in motion of what followed next.

    Mourinho soiled himself at the thought of a prospect of Sanchez strengthening the already out of his reach City side and jumped at the opportunity to sign Alexis, who chose the title of the highest payed player over actual titles with Guardiola.

    Mourinho- the Trump of football, has begun the blame game where everyone is at fault but him of course.
    Telling the whole world his squad has no” heritage and talent” and then blaming players for playing scared, when making the smallest mistake on the pitch risks the public shaming that follows after.

    The icing on the cake for me was Jose naming KDB as one of those” heritage ” players responsible for City’s dominance. I’m only surprised he didn’t mention Salah.
    Ha ha!

  6. KDB and Salah having previously played for Chelsea under Mourinho and not getting much of a look, and now on everyone’s short list for player of the season.

  7. Found it hard to choose a favourite moment, I can’t lie. Maybe Laca’s debut goal in the 2nd minute of that mad opener against Leicester.

    Utd ended last season with the most draws in the league (15). Middlesbrough had the next highest (13) and were relegated. I knew they’d be deadly this season because what I saw Mourinho doing with his weird anti-football was teaching his team how to turn sure defeats into draws. De Gea (a 17m pound Fergie signing – fuck you Sir Alex!) is a big part of that, but you get the sense that Utd are much better able to absorb someone like Alexis or Pogba playing badly without it becoming catastrophic.

    Everyone’s lauded Liverpool this season but they drew 0-0 at Anfield and beat them at home. They’re 2nd for a reason. His press conference after Sevilla was lovely to watch though. Wenger got so much stick after the Bayern games for saying Koscielny’s red card was pivotal. Imagine if he’d said “yeah, it’s normal for us to go out at this stage, no big deal. Even my old club Monaco knocked us out”…? Pure banter.

  8. With Alexis Sanchez Arsenal’s attacking style was super predictable too
    On the first game against Everton our attack showed a refreshing ball rotation that Big Sam’s defenders couldn’t understand

  9. On a football level, Milan away was my favourite. Watching the Sanchez/Man U marriage fall apart as predicted on this site has been amusing. But for sheer laughs, Mourinho’s “Man United out” speech has made me laugh repeatedly. Absolutely weapons-grade trolling of your own club, brilliant on so many levels. (If you haven’t watched it already, do yourself a favour and Google it).

  10. This time last year when he seemed to be carrying the team on his back, being personally involved in 40% of the goal output and single-mindedly turning a point into 3 in key games, every single one of you would have kept Sanchez at Arsenal if it was in your power to do so.

    Tom is right. That last minute collapse of a move to City proved terribly destructive. I’m not excusing Alexis… he’s clearly a bit of a richard. And the theory of virtue signaling makes more sense the more you think about it.

    1. Yeah, I think we would have kept him then because we bought into the Alexis vs. the world thing, but if he was actually so disruptive that the team was playing poorly overall because of him that would’ve changed things regardless of how many goals he scored. It’s a similar sort of thing that CR7 has going on down in Madrid, only that team is so good and he’s so established that everyone just accepts it as the dues of a savage football god. AS7 doesn’t have that sort of track record or credibility here or anywhere else, so it doesn’t fly. Having said that, I don’t think anyone, even the players themselves, know how it would’ve turned out without him, so we are all just speculating.

      My personal opinion though is that it’s better to be shot of a poor influence like that on a team that’s still finding its way sooner rather than later. If he was part of a championship window for an ageing squad with maybe one more try in it, then sure, let’s indulge him, and I think that was the error in Wenger’s calculus, he really believed this team would compete despite, most likely, all other signs being against that.

  11. This may surprise a few on here but my favorite Arsenal moment ( not necessarily at the time) was City losing to Liverppol thus guaranteeing Wenger keeping his undefeated season title with the invincibles in tact.

    I think everyone here knows how I feel about both Wenger and Guardiola by now; Wenger is past it but too blind to see it, while Guardiola has taken total football to new levels. However, Wenger didn’t outspend every other club , and most by a two, or three to one margin to go the whole season undefeated.

    Also, City losing to Klopp saved us the pointless hours of debating who’s achievement is greater, something that would’ve been predictably boring and pointless ( assuming City don’t lose another game the rest of the season of course)

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