How Arsenal Will Line-Up with Sanchez 2014/15
Arsene Wenger has two key issues last season that needs to be addressed to bridge that 7 point gap between his side and Manchester City in the coming season.
Part 1 (The Attack) Lack of Pace – Predictable
The lack of a more mobile striker was not only an issue of depth in the squad, but it was also a question of balance. Having a different kind of player to Olivier Giroud to lead the line was essential to become less predictable in their play. Furthermore, the only player, apart from Giroud himself, that Arsenal could not afford to lose for an extended period of time, Theo Walcott, was out for the season. Walcott’s pacey runs from out to in, past Giroud, in-behind the opposition full-backs added depth on the field for Ozil, Cazorla and Ramsey to work their magic. With the likes of Gnabry and Oxlade-Chamberlain stepping into that positions, you could see glimpses of what Arsenal missed, in the form of pace and trickery. Were they a little more experienced and clinical, they might have saved Arsenal’s title-challenge. Ozil, Ramsey, Cazorla, Giroud and Wilshere (at times) were all that was good in an attacking sense. Their link-up play and efficient passing was great in the build-up phase of attacks but, through no fault of their own, they often lacked a penetrative outlet to release the final ball to. Even if the movement between them was great, their lack of pace made them easier to mark. Simply put, as a defender, who would you rather track back or chase after, Cazorla or Walcott? Honourable mention to Podolski, who saved Arsenal’s top four spot by coming in and hitting top form with his clinical finishing ability just when his team needed it; mark of crucial player for any squad.
I feel Arsene Wenger knew this was going to be an issue last season, hence the attempt to bring in Suarez that summer. It didn’t work out then, but in my opinion, he has brought in a very similar player in Alexis Sanchez. For some it may seem obvious and for others less so, but they are very similar in what they have to offer to a football team; pace, trickery, work-rate, reliable finishing, positional flexibility and ability to linkup. While it may seem now that Suarez is a better finisher, being 2 years older, that has arguably come with age and experience for a striker in his prime; and the statistics only show a rise in the 25 year old Sanchez’s Goal scoring ratios over the past few seasons: 19 Goals and 10 assists in 34 appearances, many of them off the bench. For the rest, they are almost identical in their style; remember, Suarez too started out on the left for Ajax before transitioning into a centre forward.
Bringing in the right player is only about 25% of the job, it is using him correctly that accounts for the rest of it. If we are to be thorough, we can say it depends entirely on the opposition. For the sake of a conclusive discussion we can talk about a preferred role that he will play for majority of the campaign. Many have suggested that Sanchez will play on the flanks next season. I, however, think Wenger has different ideas. Here are a couple of ways I think Arsenal will line-up with Sanchez next season.
Football is always evolving, and sometimes it comes back full circle. Teams have adapted and found comfortable solutions for defending against 3 midfielders, unless at least one of those midfielders is a genuine goal scoring threat; which is why teams have begun to play 2 strikers, with one of them dropping deeper to help the midfield, rather than the other way around. Much like Dennis Bergkamp’s role in the Arsenal’s Invincibles. Time to go back?
For periods last season, Wenger switched to something that resembled a 4-4-2, with Podolski, coming off the flank, and playing more centrally with Giroud; more memorably, with Sanogo and Giroud in extra-time in the FA Cup Final. While it worked well at times, there was always the feeling that Wenger wasn’t entirely comfortable with the type of players he had at his disposal for that role. You could see in the Final, that even though their link-up caused all sorts of problems for Hull, Sanogo was not the player you needed to finish Giroud’s perfect lay-offs.
The video above, shows just what Sanchez can do. I keep coming back to the key point of unpredictability in football, and if Arsenal are to go all the way this time, it is a skill they must master; part of this is playing with a no.10 who can score goals. With Ozil or Cazorla in positions where they can pass or strike at goal, defenders know that it is more likely that they will look for a killer pass, rather than attempt a killer shot. This does not mean they will back off and allow a free shot, but they are wary of the percentages and will give higher importance to tracking any runners rather than closing down, in turn, diminishing the chances of a successful pass. With a goal scoring no.10 such as Sanchez, or Dennis Bergkamp, defenders are caught in two minds, as allowing the strike is likely to cost them a goal, and closing down would be allowing space in behind for other attackers to exploit or a chance for a one-two to get past the closing defender. Just to be clear, I know Bergkamp and Sanchez are completely different players, however, Sanchez can be entirely effective in producing the same results (Goals and Assists) with a different style from the same positions.
The above graphic shows where Ozil likes to generally pick up the ball; mostly out wide or deep. It was no coincidence that in his very first game he assisted Giroud from the left flank. Even when playing centrally Ozil is player who tends to drift out wide naturally. He does the job there for Germany with Kroos preferred centrally. I believe Ozil can be as effective for Arsenal, doing his work out wide, but allowed the freedom to drift in, and interchanging roles with Sanchez or Ramsey. Ozil drifting in would allow Gibbs to go in on the overlap to provide width as well as cause overload problems for opposition defences. The rest of the problems that are faced by full-backs due to wide men such as Ozil with a free-role is well known to everyone; When do I go with him? When do I hold? What about the over-lapping full-back? What if the striker comes wide? Etc.
For the rest of the team, from an attacking perspective, it would be business as usual. Giroud, who is underrated by a mile, providing a target and a reference point, as well as playing neat touches to link-up. Ramsey playing box-box, and doing it well in both an attacking and defensive sense. Walcott providing threat in behind or staying wide. If Cazorla were to play in Walcott’s stead then he would play a similar role to Ozil. I, however, only see this happening against teams that defend incredibly deep, which would give license to release both of Arsenal’s full-backs to provide width; and Cazorla’s creativity inside would be more of an asset than Walcott’s pace.
The system resembles the one champions Manchester City used last season; and very effectively so. And that is how I believe a top team should play, as it shows taking initiative at a slight risk. Just a quick comparison of the two teams in terms of positional strength in the ATTACKING positions of this formation.
Target Stiker: Giroud vs Negredo. I would pick Giroud for his link-up play. The amount of headers and one touch passes he finds from long clearances and zipped in balls has to be the best in Europe. Wilshere’s goal vs Norwich is a testament to his link-up ability.
Mobile Striker: Sanchez vs Aguero. This is 50/50. Aguero would be the better goal scorer as he is an immense finisher. However, Sanchez is more of a No.10, trickier and better work rate. If I had a gun to my head though, I would pick Aguero: proven striker.
LW: Ozil/Cazorla vs Silva/Nasri: I have to go with Ozil on this one. Best passer at the world cup, what more can you say? He might get stick for not being consistent in providing special moments. But he is incredibly consistent at what he does best, finding space and finding a team-mate with a pass.
RW: Walcott/ Navas: Walcott. Same pace, more of a goal scoring threat. Easy.
Box-Box Cm: Ramsey vs Toure: I pick Toure the tank, with only a slight hesitation. Ramsey is an incredible player, who had a breakthrough season, but when Yaya gets going there is no stopping him. Ramsey had better defensive stats and would have done even better if he had stayed fit. But Toure was ever present and aside from his physical presence, was a constant threat to defences.
Out of the front 5, we can see that Arsenal would edge the battle 3v2, and that too with Sanchez very close to Aguero. So, if it can lead to Man City scoring a 100 goals, I’m excited with the prospects of the Arsenal if things click.
If we are to Include Full-backs as part of the attack, and in the modern game they are, you would have to fairly say that Zabaleta and Kolorov are better getting forward that Debuchy and Gibbs. And while they do have an influence, it is more in the form of providing numbers and width; Zabaleta, however, is quite a player.
Arsenal could prove to be an unstoppable attacking force if they get this right and can keep their starting eleven fit through key parts of the season.
I did mention at the beginning of this article that there were two issues that Arsenal needed to attend to. With one of them resolved, I will turn my attention to the other one in the next article. Vulnerability to counter-attacks and defensive frailties are on the agenda. We’ll have a look at possible players to slot into that crucial defensive midfield position for this system to work. Stay tuned.