Arsenal‘s £35million of Alexis Sanchez is meant to be a game-changer. Some have labelled it the best Premier League deal of the summer, and indeed, the former Barcelona star does possess the quality to become a talismanic performer for the north London club.
Tactically too, he’s an ideal acquisition. The Chile international, through his tiki-taka heritage, does not only lend himself to Arsenal’s definitive possession-based, technical style, but also offers the pace, penetration and the threat in-behind that the Gunners lacked last season following Theo Walcott’s injury in January, leaving their midfield and attack incredibly one-dimensional.
But like a house without foundations, a match-stick model without glue, a breadless sandwich or Bryan Blessed with his voicebox removed, signing the 25-year-old was essentially pointless if Arsene Wenger doesn’t invest in a defensive midfielder this summer.
Not least because, although Sanchez is a sensational talent, the difference he’ll make for Arsenal in the big games is incredibly minimal. Last season, the north Londoners claimed just six points against top five opposition and lost all of their four away fixtures with an aggregate score of 20-4, while Liverpool were the only side beaten at the Emirates.
And in none of these contests was creativity or goalscoring the predominant issue for Arsenal. Two away fixtures, against Liverpool and Chelsea, were over within the first half hour as the north Londoners continuously struggled to protect their goal.
This was unquestionably Arsenal’s undoing last year in comparison to their title rivals. Eventual winners Manchester City claimed 10 points against top five opposition, beating Liverpool, Everton and the Gunners at the Etihad, Liverpool also amassed 10 points, beating Everton, Arsenal and City at Anfield, and Chelsea’s only top five defeat came in a visit to Goodison. If the Gunners are to improve upon their seemingly perpetual final standing of fourth next season, they have to start winning the heavyweight affairs and stop gifting points to their title rivals, especially on the road.
Away from home and even at the Emirates last year, the Gunners’ defence was relentlessly exposed on the counter-attack against teams with top quality going forward. Chelsea quite simply overpowered them in the middle of the park before hitting back quickly on the break, while Liverpool’s mixture of work-rate, fearlessness and firepower ran them into the ground. There was no figure in midfield taking defensive responsibility, and none capable of matching the pure physicality and energy of the opposition. Buying a new forward, whether he be Alexis Sanchez, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, will do absolutely nothing to change that.
Most tellingly, either Mathieu Flamini or Mikel Arteta featured in all of Arsenal’s away defeats while both played alongside each other during a 3-0 romping by Everton. Quite clearly, Arsene Wenger’s current holding options don’t provide enough defensive quality to balance out his progressive philosophy.
Which comes as no great surprise – Mikel Arteta, although a talented player and natural leader who fits Arsenal’s style well, cannot compare to his Manchester City or Chelsea counterparts in terms of natural defensive awareness or basic brawn. Likewise, Mathieu Flamini was brought back into the Emirates fold last summer as a low-budget, short-term fix. He’s a useful player to have in the squad, but cannot be considered the ultimate solution to Arsenal’s midfield problems.
The north Londoners need to find a player that brings balance, structure and defensive awareness to their midfield in key games. He must be physical too – Chelsea and Manchester City possess some of the most phenomenal athletes in world football – Nemanja Matic and Yaya Toure to name but two – yet Aaron Ramsey is the only Arsenal midfielder who measures in at above 6 foot. Even the Invincibles had the 6 foot 4, gangly-legged Patrick Vieira and Brazilian water-carrier Gilberto Silva at the heart of their midfield, protecting the defence and going mano-e-mano with the likes of Roy Keane and Dennis Wise.
The Premier League has moved on somewhat since then but these kind of players and personalities remain vital in the big games. Arsenal are absent of a midfielder who can intimidate the opposition’s attack, which has made them exceptionally easy to play against over the last few seasons. Alexis Sanchez may worry the opposition defence but that has never been Arsenal’s problem – Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey are all very capable of that.
Don’t get me wrong – Sanchez represents a fantastic piece of business that many European clubs will be jealous of. He does add a new dimension to the Gunners going forward, and I do not intent to discredit that, or Arsene Wenger’s decision to buy him.
But in my opinion, it remains a futile enterprise if Arsenal do not address their most intrinsic flaw this summer. As much as I’m sure the Chile international will net a multitude of goals against the Premier League’s more rank and file sides, he does not change the way Arsenal function in big matches for the better.
He does not provide a greater sense of balance in midfield or improve them off the ball, and until Arsene Wenger finds a signing who does, the inability to beat those closest to them in the table will remain the north London club’s perpetual curse.