Ken Early: Alexis Sánchez frustrated with constant failings
Arsène Wenger dropping his lead striker at Liverpool is not giving off a good impression
Last November, Chile played Colombia and Uruguay in a World Cup qualifying double-header. A couple of days before the Colombia game, Alexis Sanchez pulled up in training with what turned out to be a muscle strain.
Arsène Wenger wanted Sánchez to return immediately to London, but Chile replied that he would stay with them and work on getting fit for the Uruguay game. Wenger’s response was to accuse Chile of playing Russian roulette with Sanchez’ career.
“We have to get access for our medical staff to the MRI scan to see what grade it is, how bad it is and make absolutely sure they don’t make any suicidal decision that could harm his future for two or three months. That is absolutely important,” he said.
Chile ignored him, and Sánchez scored twice against Uruguay in Chile’s 3-1 win. He left the field in Santiago late on Tuesday night, flew 12,000 kilometres to London, and at 12:30pm on Saturday he kicked off for Arsenal away to Manchester United. Despite Wenger’s fears over his fitness, Sanchez played 90 minutes at Old Trafford.
That tells you what Arsène Wenger really thinks of Sánchez. The prospect of the player getting injured terrified Wenger, and yet he was prepared to risk it happening against United, because Sánchez was simply too important to leave out.
Something rather radical must have changed, therefore, for Wenger to leave Sánchez on the bench for the match at Anfield on Saturday evening.
Wenger gave a tactical explanation for the decision. “The thinking was that we had to go more direct, to use players who are strong in the air. By “direct”, Wenger clarified, “I mean I wanted the goalkeeper to kick it straight to the strikers”.
The explanation was superficially plausible. Liverpool try to win the ball close to your goal, so it can be less risky to hit long balls over their press and try to build the game from further up the pitch. The advantages of this approach were illustrated by José Mourinho and Manchester United when they forced an equaliser against Liverpool at Old Trafford in January.
But Wenger’s argument quickly falls apart when you take even a cursory look at the evidence.
Statistics show that Wenger does ask Petr Cech to switch between playing short and playing long, depending on the opposition.
Against high-pressing Liverpool, 29 of Cech’s 35 attempted passes went into the Liverpool half, while against Chelsea, only five of his 29 attempted passes went into the Chelsea half. Chelsea, of course, do not press you in your own half as fiercely as Liverpool do, so building up from the back is not as risky against them.
Wenger’s brand has always been about technical, passing football, so many people probably think that the approach Arsenal took against Chelsea is typical – that Cech usually starts off the moves with a short pass to a nearby defender.
The reality is that Cech kicks plenty of long balls. In each of Arsenal’s matches against Burnley, Swansea, Bournemouth and Hull, more than 50 per cent of Cech’s attempted passes landed in the opponent’s half.
You can’t help but notice that Alexis Sánchez played, and scored, in all those games.
The point is that Wenger can and does choose whether to play long or to play short, but in neither case does he have a logical reason to leave out his best player. Arsenal are always better off with Sánchez on the pitch.
If Sánchez leaves this summer, it will confirm that at Wenger’s Arsenal, winners are no longer welcome.
This was amply illustrated at Anfield by Arsenal’s improvement after Sánchez came on at half-time. Not only did he create a goal for Danny Welbeck with a typical driving run and incisive pass, he even helped to improve the effectiveness of Arsenal’s long-ball game. In the first half, five out of Cech’s 13 long balls found an Arsenal player; in the second half, with Sánchez, the ratio went up to nine out of 16.
Wenger knows all this, of course. He would not have dropped Sánchez unless his relationship with the player was seriously strained, and the last two months have provided plenty of evidence that it is.
Arsenal’s first match of 2017 was the disappointing 3-3 draw at Bournemouth. Some Arsenal players celebrated their late equaliser, but Sánchez’ behaviour at the final whistle left no-one in any doubt about his disgust with the result. At Swansea, Arsenal were 4-0 up and coasting when Wenger substituted Sánchez, provoking a mini-tantrum from the player. A few weeks later Sánchez could be seen barracking his team-mates as Arsenal lost 5-1 in Munich.
Sánchez is not the first Arsenal star to become disillusioned with Arsenal’s stasis – they have been down this road before with Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie. But Fabregas and van Persie were never quite as open in their contempt for what was happening around them.
Are these shows of dissent the honest exasperation of a frustrated winner, or the self-serving performances of a politician who is trying to dodge his share of the general blame? Everything Sánchez has done for Arsenal since he joined suggests it is the former, yet Wenger seems to have taken the view that Sánchez is washing Arsenal’s dirty linen in public.
Dropping him at Anfield was a way of reminding the player who was in charge, but it’s hard to imagine Sánchez reacting well to being punished for failing to conceal his irritation that too few of his team-mates share his will to win. If Sánchez leaves this summer, it will confirm that at Wenger’s Arsenal, winners are no longer welcome.