While Arsenal lost for the first time in 14 Premier League matches on Tuesday, Alexis Sanchez continued his fantastic start to the season with his 12th Premier League goal. Sanchez has scored goals his entire Arsenal career, but mainly from the left or right wing. This season though Arsene Wenger has deployed Sanchez from a central position and it has proved to be a stroke of genius so far.
While Wenger has mainly deployed Sanchez wide in his first two seasons at the club, Wenger has believed that Sanchez could play as a striker from day one.
“He is a striker and he’s a good finisher,” Wenger said about Sanchez soon after signing him.
Wenger did show some of that faith early in Sanchez’s Arsenal career, starting him up top against Everton and Besiktas in August of 2014. Sanchez was ineffective and hauled off after 45 minutes against Everton, but scored a goal and took five shots against Besiktas. Despite that, Wenger pivoted away from playing him up top.
After failing to land any strikers prior to the opening day this summer, Wenger started Sanchez up top in Arsenal’s embarrassing 4-3 defeat to Liverpool on the opening day. Sanchez was relatively ineffective, creating only one shot and taking only one shot, which was from outside the box and blocked, but Wenger stuck with him up top this time. Sanchez followed up another ineffective performance against Leicester City with a goal and an assists against Watford in match week three. Since then, he hasn’t really stopped scoring, scoring a goal every 97 minutes.
Since joining Arsenal, Sanchez has been compared to former PFA player of the year, Luis Suarez. It’s a comparison that many people have made, including Wenger.
“The similarities are there, yes, because both can play on the flanks and through the middle, both are very quick to close you down when they lose the ball, both go at you always, they want always to go forward with the ball. There are many similarities,” Wenger said after Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Burnley on November first, 2014.
Wenger has been strong in these assertions saying “They have similarities,” at the beginning of last season, and doubling down saying, “He has similar qualities (to Suarez),” at the beginning of this season after the Liverpool loss.
Looking at their numbers, there are obviously some similarities, but there are also some distinct differences. The big difference in the numbers is that, while the goals are similar, Suarez took a lot more shots during his time in England. That is an indicator of something that comes through on the pitch; that Suarez is much more of an “out and out striker” than Sanchez when he plays up top.
When Sanchez is playing up top, he often vacates that central space and allows others, like Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil, to fill in that space. This unpredictability of movement has made Arsenal much harder to defend against this season and has been one of the keys to Sanchez up top working.
Looking at a few examples, Sanchez vacating central space has often worked to confuse centerbacks.
Arsenal’s third goal against Watford above was an example where Alexis pulled wide with the ball and Ozil burst into the box to score with a header.
Then there are two examples of a trend where, as opposed to pulling wide, Alexis drops back into midfield vacating the space and a winger, in both these cases Walcott, fills the space central.
In the above example for Arsenal’s opening goal against Stoke City, Sanchez dropped into an area more associated with a number 10 and played an incisive ball wide to Hector Bellerin, who cut the ball across to Walcott to score at the near post.
On Arsenal’s second goal against Chelsea, Sanchez doesn’t actually touch the ball, he ends up being behind the move, but him vacating the central space allowed Walcott to fill in. This time Alex Iwobi played an incisive pass to Bellerin who again squared the ball to Walcott for a goal.
Sanchez’s creativity along with his goal scoring is what has made him one of the most dangerous strikers in the Premier League. Along with his 12 goals, Sanchez also has five assists and has made 2.9 key passes per 90 minutes, third most in the Premier League among players that have played at least 1000 minutes, according to Whoscored. His personal shot production has been good, but not great, his 2.0 shots inside the box per 90 minutes is 10th in the league among players that have played at least 1000 minutes. But when you combine his creativity with his ability to get shots he becomes one of the best strikers in the Premier League.
After years of Arsenal fans shouting at Wenger to buy a world class striker, it looks like Arsenal may have had one all along. It’s only been a little less than six months, so it will be interesting to see if Sanchez can keep up his production. His 12 goals from 48 shots seems a bit unsustainable long term, but, even if his goal production goes down a bit, his affect on the team has been exactly what was needed. From the pressing from the front, to the extra creativity, to the unpredictability, to the added explosiveness, Sanchez has given Arsenal a bump in quality all around. Is he the next Thierry Henry? We’ll see, but regardless he’s the current Alexis Sanchez and that is more than good enough.