Arsenal and Tottenham fans were left baffled in equal measure when the team line-ups were announced at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday evening. Alexis Sanchez, the £35 million summer signing from Barcelona, was left on the Arsenal bench despite an impressive start to life in north London.
While Arsenal fans were miffed at Arsene Wenger's latest controversial decision, Tottenham fans would have been delighted to see the Chilean left out of the starting XI. Ironically, it was his replacement, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who netted the crucial equaliser for the Gunners.
But despite picking up a point from a losing position, Arsenal fans did not have to do much to convince themselves that they would have taken all three had Alexis Sanchez started the match. His obvious quality could have been the difference in a game full of wasted chances.
Arsenal had 16 shots on goal, held the ball 69 per cent of the time and took 15 corners. To their dismay, only one shot proved effective. They should have won the game. Simple as that.
But while Sanchez has had an impressive start to life at the Emirates Stadium, there are obvious signs that he is not quite ready to be a key player for Arsenal. His style of play, although attractive, could prove detrimental to Arsenal's playing style. The stats suggest his involvement puts the team in danger of conceding.
Anyone at the Emirates on Saturday prior to kick-off would have been treated to a rather spectacular show from Sanchez. The Chilean was pulling out all the tricks as he warmed up with his fellow substitutes. A quick sample can be seen here:
The warm up sums up Sanchez perfectly; he is a show stopper; an extroverted character determined to entertain the crowd by any means necessary. When he took that free-kick against Southampton, he rolled up his shorts so high you wondered where that white polyester was going. His muscular legs on show, Sanchez hit the ball perfectly and watched it fly into the top corner.
That is football theatre at its very best. Sanchez is that star cut in the style of Cristiano Ronaldo. He has those individual skills that allow him to execute incredible feats with a football and the chiseled body that comes with being a top athlete. Their individualism is the reason they rip off their shirts without a moment's hesitation when they score and the reason fans grow to love them so quickly.
Football fans love skills. They love seeing high risk flicks and tricks coming off, leaving defenders for dead. However, the reason they love such sights is because they rarely come off.
This is a sacrifice Sanchez is willing to make; risks he will take for the high reward of breaking through on goal in an instant and, more importantly, wowing the crowd. Once in a while, it will happen and he will score. But for every time it comes off, he will turn possession over half a dozen, maybe even a dozen times.
This is something Arsenal cannot afford to do. Their game is built around high pressing, possession football. Losing the ball is the worst possible thing to do, as Mathieu Flamini found out to his – and 60,000 Arsenal fans' – dismay against Spurs.
Every time Arsenal lost the ball, Tottenham were gifted the chance to attack. Had they utilised the ball better, Mauricio Pochettino's side would have scored more than the one goal that evening.
Giving the ball away in a compromising position is a risk you take when you hold the ball for 69 per cent of the game. There is simply more chances for a team to lose the ball and Arsenal are, usually, exceptionally good at avoiding such predicaments. If Sanchez had played, the ball would have inevitably been lost many more times than it was.
After coming on for Jack Wilshere with around half an hour to go, Arsenal fans cheered as their most direct and deadly player entered the field. However, a look at the vital statistics shows just what a liability he can be.
Sanchez's pass completion percentage was just 59 per cent. That's in bold for emphasis but any Arsenal fan worth their salt should be shocked by such a number.
Compare that to Mesut Ozil (92 per cent) and fellow substitute Santi Cazorla (92 per cent) and you realise just how often Sanchez loses the ball compared to his team-mates. Even Flamini, who was at fault for the goal, managed the completed 90 per cent of passes.
Sanchez did affect the game in a positive way. He made a key pass in the lead up to the goal, drawing the defence away from Cazorla before delivering the simple pass, allowing the Spaniard to pick up an assist.
But despite this, his cameo against Tottenham justified Wenger's decision to not play him from the outset. His high risk, high reward style had a positive effect on the game, but 90 minutes of losing 41 per cent of passes would have left Arsenal's defence tracking back constantly to cover Tottenham's dangerous breaks.
The same goes against Manchester City. Sanchez scored an incredible goal to put Arsenal 2-1 ahead, but he completed just 61 per cent of passes in that game. The nearest player to that was Nacho Monreal at 71 per cent, who was charged with the task of clearing the ball as far as he could, as soon as he could.
So it was with no surprise that Goal reported this morning that Wenger had purposely left Sanchez out because he does not fit in with Arsenal's style. He is currently wowing crowds, but away from the glamour, his high risk passing is making the defence work harder, having to press and retreat to win the ball back.
Wenger will be trying his best to change Sanchez's style to suit the Arsenal way. He needs to make more subtle passes, probing the defence before delivering the right pass or take a shot at the right time.
Right now he is losing the ball almost as often as he is finding a team-mate. You can't afford to do that when Arsenal have such a slow defence and weak defensive midfield.
It is the reason Sanchez is likely to start on the bench against Chelsea as well. He can come on late and try to make a positive impact, but he could also lose the ball and cost them that vital goal. How will fans like him then?
So Wenger's use of him is likely to be part down to keeping Arsenal's style of play consistent and partly to protect Sanchez from making the error that puts a downer on his otherwise fantastic start to life in the Premier League.
He will come good; all the signs point towards an excellent acquisition. But it will take time.
If Sanchez is willing to learn, he could not have a better teacher in Wenger. He will be a great player for Arsenal but first he must become an Arsenal player.
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