Addition Through Subtraction: Can a Club Improve After Losing Its Best Player?
In the world of football, and all sports in general, there is only one guarantee when a star player signs for a new club: that a day will come when, through transfer, injury or retirement, that player will play no more for that club. Even the most dexterous and effervescent players, such as “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe, who was still playing professional ice hockey well into his fifties, have an expiration date.
Usually however, for any number of reasons that may not even be apparent from the outside, the union between player and club will most likely come to an end before the player’s career has. Most players will change clubs more than once. Even some of the best and most indispensable players will find themselves acclimating to new leagues, languages, teammates and tactics more than once in their careers. That is the nature of football today as a global game.
Alexis Sanchez’s 2014 arrival was naturally met with cheers, and the statistics show his obvious contribution to Arsenal’s attack, scoring nearly a goal for every two appearances. Sold from Barcelona in part because his style was deemed too selfish for the pass happy Catalan side, Sanchez has easily justified his £35m price tag. That is a price tag that wouldn’t buy any club a player of his quality now, only a few years on. And today, if the reactions of certain sections of fans and pundits are any indication of reality (more on that in a moment), Arsenal would be in serious trouble this year without him. His 21 goals and a further 14 assists in his 37 appearances in an Arsenal shirt this season do seem to corroborate this fact.
While the contract situations of both he and Mesut Ozil have been under the microscope for most of the season, Arsenal’s stumble into the new calendar year and subsequent inconsistent form of late have turned the heat up on both players’ situations. While Ozil is seen to be the one more likely to stay, perhaps due mostly to his more demure public persona, as well as Sanchez’s ever increasing value on the transfer market. It is unclear at the moment whether Arsenal would be able to recoup their investment in Ozil as easily as Alexis, given the inconsistencies that he has never been able to purge from his game.
Amongst supporters, there is the growing belief that 1. Alexis, and his increasingly unsettled behavior behind the scenes and in front of match day cameras indicates he is ready to move on, and 2. That we need MORE players with Alexis’ competitive drive, not less. Alexis is tired of being the only one fighting and playing with passion etc. Some would go so far to claim that if Alexis goes, Arsenal are doomed to fall from their comfortable annual top 4 position. Almost daily reports of friction between manager Arsene Wenger and Alexis seem to confirm the suspicions of some that we are witnessing a failing relationship between the manager and his star, and the fall of a once proud club from the world’s elite.
Fortunately for most supporters, the truth lies somewhere considerably short of this perceived crisis. In this case, the club’s general policy of doing business behind closed doors rather than on the back pages of the country’s sports pages has hurt the club. Though seldom a club that leaks information before it finalized its contracts, the silence in 2017 has been too deafening for many supporters to bear. With the contracts of Ozil and Sanchez expiring in a year, and Arsene Wenger’s expiring at the end of this campaign, supporters are starting to demand answers. The silence also creates a vacuum of information on a particular subject, leading to supposition and opinion taking the place of fact. So at this point, the only thing anyone knows for sure outside the club is that neither of these three have signed an extension so far. What this has created is massive unrest amongst supporters.
Focusing on the specific case of Sanchez, there are many factors that decide whether or not he should stay or go. Obviously his production indicates he would be a significant hole to fill should he go, but as with all questions there are several that need to be taken into account. The first of which, and I don’t see this mentioned enough it seems, is the player’s age. At 28 years old, Alexis has a lot of top level football left in him. Unlike players like 35 year old Zlatan Ibrahimovic and other bigger forwards, Alexis is not likely to enjoy the same longevity of his prime years. Smaller players who’s games are predicated on quickness and movement find age to be a larger obstacle than those with more naturally imposing figures. It is entirely likely that Alexis will have to evolve as he ages to compensate for his declining ability to beat defenders with athleticism alone. Obviously there have been examples of diminutive players succeeding into their thirties, but almost uniformly, that type of player peaks with his athletic ability. I would therefore argue that at 28, Arsenal have already extracted the best form from Alexis that he is ever likely to achieve.
Another issue, and one that has definitely been a topic of discussion in recent weeks, is the chemistry between star man and his teammates. The major story out of London Colney last week was the news of a bust up between Sanchez and teammates, specifically Laurent Koscielny, after he took exception to a hard challenge made on him in training. Again this has divided opinion with some thinking it the surest sign yet he is on his way out, with others insisting rather that is the nature of competitive people playing a competitive sport in which the results are currently hard to come by. At least it showed there is some fight left in the players, right?!
Well the truth, for all but those most in the know, is that most of what is said about the Sanchez situation is speculation. That is perfectly fine, and the nature of the continuous media news cycle that we live in today is that the vacuum for information begs the need for something to be said. This is how half truths become accepted realities, and also how approximately 500 supporters and their extreme leanings become symbolic of the feelings of an entire fan base. Because commotion and discord make a better lead to a story, and better fit in with the dramatic narrative of a season in upheaval, the size an importance of the actual event take on an inflated importance in perspective.
This point is illustrated in the aftermath of the Bayern Munich second leg match. After 45 minutes, most would have said they were proud of the team’s effort. At full time, after a bit of an unlucky sending off and one of the best teams in the world enjoying almost an entire half with a numerical advantage, the narrative had changed to embarrassment: a 10-2 aggregate score, a star player in stitches over his team’s futility, and a manager so far passed his sell by date that he had the audacity to say he felt the team performed well in the first half, a fact many would have corroborated before the second 45 lodged itself thoroughly into their collective headspace.
So if current narratives are to be believed, and Alexis is done with this “second rate” club that Wenger has supposedly created from the fabric of greatness he was supplied, he is as good as gone. Luckily for even the most irrational “Sanchez is all Arsenal have got and Wenger is stuck in the past” people out there, Arsenal are not the kind of team to not plan ahead. Wenger has always tried to layer the roster with talented youth to compliment his veterans and Arsenal’s scouting network is as thorough as just about any in the world. All of the best teams are always on the look out for better and younger players for the present or future. At 28 years old, should Arsenal really be trying to get another 5 years out of Sanchez?
With the resources that every fan seems to know Arsenal have in the bank right now, the club certainly has the ability to replace a Sanchez with one of similar quality if they so choose. The question most people have is whether or not the board and Wenger have the desire to spend the money necessary to make that happen. I think they do. If nothing else, the increased organization and volume of protests this year will have to be on their minds going into the close season. And surely, at the very least the money raised in the sale of Sanchez will be put toward his replacement. Even Stan Kroenke knows how dangerous it could be for the support of the club to let a star leave without at all attempting to replace the lost production.
The one thing that Arsenal should do when looking to replace Sanchez is to do so with a true out and out center forward, rather than a winger/ number 9 hybrid. Not only does Arsenal possess more depth and quality on the flanks than through the middle, even sans Sanchez, but Arsene Wenger seems to have a quality eye for spotting or grooming talent in the wide positions. True goal scoring strikers are hard to come by. If you are without one in your academy or squad, it is cost prohibitive for all but the wealthiest clubs to acquire one. Nothing would signal to the fans that the board takes winning seriously quite as much as the purchase of a true striker to supplement Arsenal in attack.
I normally would subscribe to “addition through addition, not subtraction”, but one has to wonder the effect that this year long and continuing process with Alexis and his contract is having on the rest of the club. The best teams are unified teams (look at LCFC in 2015/16 vs. 2016/17 for evidence of the importance of chemistry) and as many goals as he scores and contributes to, one wonders how much Alexis’ increasingly public and juvenile antics hurt his teammate’s performances. You don’t see many “Wengerball” goals with Alexis involved. Often times this season, especially when trailing or pressing for a goal, Alexis will bypass the easy pass for the hero ball. No player has misplaced more passes in the final third than Alexis this season in the top flight. Too often He turns this way and that, holding the ball for seconds at a time, looking for a yard of space, only to find himself boxed in. Take a brief look back through most of the goals scored by Arsenal when Alexis is not involved; how many times do you see him jumping on the pile, congratulating his teammates for their efforts (my quick scan of recorded games did not immediately reveal any).
I am fully aware that some of the greatest, most successful athletes in the history of team sports have been less than accommodating teammates. Look at the stories of NBA legends Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and their treatment of teammmates they felt wouldn’t help them win . Alexis Sanchez has that same single minded love of the game and love of winning that marks those greats. Cristiano Ronaldo (to bring the analogy back to the real world for most) is far from the most popular person in his dressing room. The best ones though are able to balance their abilities and desire for personal glory with the needs of the team. It seems as if the Sanchez situation could potentially be approaching the point of imbalance, in which the success and statistical excellence of one player is not enough to overcome that which may be lost from a whole squad of players trying to fit around that star.
It takes a strong dressing room and a strong leader to overcome the loss of such an important piece. Perhaps losing Alexis Sanchez could be the ultimate litmus test for where Arsenal is and where they have the ability to go under this board and this manager. The best clubs in the world constantly lose great players, evolve, and continue to find ways to be successful. That is how a club like Barcelona can sell one of this generation’s best strikers, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and end up better off for it. If Arsenal is able to move on from Sanchez when the time comes and continue to be in the mix for a title, then perhaps we will have to admit that when Arsene Wenger says he believes Arsenal to be in great shape as a club, he may be on to something. Even though some fans seem to remember a time when Arsenal won the title every year (nope) and didn’t have a clumsy, ignorant, dictatorial Frenchman in charge, the fact remains that this has never been the case. Most supporters out there would be very pleased indeed if their club: have more money in the bank than any club in the world, a recently built stadium with a carpet for a pitch, a squad filled top to bottom with full or youth internationals, top level facilities, huge sponsorship revenues, and consistently finish in qualification for a Champions League position. Add in a world renowned and respected manager, great wages and a family atmosphere inside the club, it sure sounds like a pretty attractive destination, doesn’t it?
A star on his way out? A team in crisis? Yes, Alexis may be getting ready to bolt for the door, but Arsenal Football Club existed for well over 100 years before the mercurial Chilean signed on the dotted line, and it will continue to exist long after he has taken his talents elsewhere.