Alexis’s turnovers are not the problem

I don’t know when this happened but it seems like most things in the world suddenly “divide opinion”. You have to be on one side or the other on every issue. This cuts across all the hot button issues and even silly things: Trump, Brexit, abortion, gun control, immigration, climate change, Arsene Wenger, and whether Alexis Sanchez (insert any Arsenal player) is any good at football. Like trench warfare each side is dug in a mile apart and anyone foolish enough to head out into No Man’s Land is going to get shot to pieces by both sides.

Alexis Sanchez is a great football player and this season his only flaw is that he’s turning the ball over at a rate of about 5.9 times per 90 minutes. People complain about this turnover rate and it is frustrating to watch a team build up play only to lose the ball. We fans want every possession to result in a shot. On target. And hopefully it results in a goal. 300 goals per game. Anything less is a failure.

But this turnover rate for Alexis isn’t even a career high. While at Udinese, Alexis turned the ball over 8.7 times per 90. And then there is the weird fact that while at Barcelona Alexis turned the ball over just 3.3 times per 90. So, which Alexis is the real Alexis?

 Both. None. It depends. And now I’m in No Man’s Land.

Alexis turns the ball over because of the role he’s playing at Arsenal. Wenger has Alexis attacking his opponents off the dribble. Wenger has also taken the creative duties away from Özil and handed them to Alexis. This means that Alexis has more time on the ball, more time to be dispossessed, more touches, and more chances to turn the ball over. So it has come to pass that the main critique of Alexis Sanchez is that he turns the ball over too much and that his turnovers set up opposition counter attacks.

It’s true. He has the most errors of any player on the team, 3. Three times he made a mistake and the opposition got a shot off because of his mistake. They didn’t score but they got a shot.

Another criticism of Alexis is that he turns the ball over in his own half. This isn’t one of the stock stats on Squawka or Whoscored so I actually had to comb through every single Arsenal match this season and look at the turnovers data. I found out that in terms of total turnovers in the Arsenal half, Alexis Sanchez has 45 this season. That’s 10 more than the second most player on this Arsenal team, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and 11 more than Mr. Possession Mesut Özil.

In terms of bulk numbers, Alexis turns the ball over in his own half more than any other Arsenal player. However, that number of turnovers by Ox should be a surprise to you. Ox hasn’t played that much this season and for him to have just 10 fewer turnovers in his own half than Alexis means that when he’s on the pitch he’s turning the ball over in his own half a lot.

When we adjust for per 90 stats, in other words we take the total number of minutes played divided by 90, the players with the most turnovers in their own half are…

Giroud with 1.42 per90, Ox 1.29 per90, Iwobi 1.19, Cazorla 1.16, Alexis 1.06, Coquelin 1.06, and Walcott 1.03.

Here is all of the data in a public spreadsheet:

That Coquelin number is a massive problem. A team’s defensive midfielder should not be turning the ball over in his own half once per game. Mikel Arteta in 2013/14 averaged 0.9 turnovers per 90 across the entire pitch for Arsenal. I don’t know how many of those were in his own half because I didn’t track that stat back then but my guess would be less than half.

Arsenal are averaging 8.5 turnovers in their own half per game. Alexis is 1 of those per game but that means that there are 7 other players of the 11 who are turning the ball over in their own half. And if you look at the dataset (embedded above) you’ll notice that good teams, like Liverpool, PSG, Everton, etc. force Arsenal into a lot of turnovers in our own half.

Teams know that if they press us high up the pitch, we will concede possession. And that if they press us high up the pitch we can’t get the ball out of our own half. The most frustrating games to watch this season, for Arsenal supporters, have to be both PSG matches, that second leg against Basel, the loss to Everton, both Liverpool games, and both Bayern matches. The hallmark of those contests is that they all had the most turnovers in Arsenal’s defensive half for this season.

Another trend I noticed is that in the first half of the season, when Arsenal were still riding high, Alexis wasn’t as guilty of turning the ball over in his own half as he has been in this second half of the season. In the first 24 matches, Alexis turned the ball over in his own half just 17 times. That includes 9 turnovers in just two matches: against PSG and Everton. Alexis had just 8 turnovers in his own half in the other 22 matches. In the second half of the season the Arsenal/Alexis problem has simply exploded and Alexis has 28 turnovers in the final 24 matches. That includes a match against Man City where he turned the ball over 6 times in his own half.

Alexis is collecting the ball deeper and teams are targeting him for pressure. Why?

Those two matches against PSG and Everton early on in the season were also watershed matches in that Arsenal had a season high 19 turnovers in our own half. I suspect that intelligent managers watched those games and realized that pressing Arsenal in their own half would bear fruit. Thus we see a change in Man City and other teams, pressing Arsenal high up the pitch and forcing turnovers in the Arsenal defensive end. Especially pressing Alexis.

Alexis will get the blame here. Fans will say “he holds on to the ball too much” and they are correct. Alexis is trying to do too much with the ball. But the data shows that tactically Arsenal simply can’t handle the press. Watford forced 12 turnovers in the Arsenal half and won that match. Crystal Palace beat Arsenal and forced 12 turnovers in the Arsenal half. And Alexis had 5 of those 24 turnovers. He was 5/24ths guilty.

But Preston also forced Arsenal to concede possession 13 times in our own half. Alexis didn’t play in that match and fans will recall that was a close game, far too close for comfort.

When teams don’t force Arsenal into turnovers in their own half, Arsenal gets a result. Man U only forced 3 turnovers in the Arsenal half, inviting pressure instead of trying to win the ball back, and as a result Arsenal got their first win against a Mourinho side in League play. Alexis had a whopping 7 turnovers in that Man U match, but 6 of them were in the Man U end of the pitch.

Mourinho got his tactics wrong, instead of inviting Arsenal to attack and parking the bus, the right thing to do is press them high up the pitch. Arsenal don’t have the talent to pass their way around the opposition and haven’t had the talent for years.

Alexis is the obvious culprit. He’s the focal point of Arsenal’s attack, he gets the ball constantly, he plays more than any other player, and he is, of course, also guilty of turning the ball over. When you watch a game you will see Alexis turning the ball over because he’s constantly in possession. But Alexis is only 1/10th of the problem. There are 10 players who average between 0.9 and 1.4 turnovers in their own half per 90: Giroud, Ox, Iwobi, Cazorla, Alexis, Coq, Walcott, Bellerin, Ozil and Xhaka.

That’s down to the manager and the players. Not just one guy.

And there I am in No Man’s Land, fire away.


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