At the beginning of December, at the height of Alexis Sanchez-mania, Arsenal would technically have been in 14th position in the Premier League, 22 points off leaders Chelsea, without the goals of their talismanic Chilean import.
Sanchez has been a revelation, turning in performances worthy of his £35m pricetag. But it doesn’t really make sense. Think about it.
Arsenal, barring the bosman ruling exit of the aging Bacary Sagna and the £16m departure of captain Thomas Vermaelen (who managed just seven Premier League starts last season), have a near-on identical, albeit definitely improved, squad to that they had last season, and last season they led the Premier League for a record 128 days and kept 18 clean sheets. Currently they sit in the middle of the race for top four qualification.
Essentially, Arsenal, with the additions of Danny Welbeck, Mathieu Debuchy and Sanchez have made a notable domestic regression.
Now you could account that to a variety of factors that Sanchez is entirely unaccountable for. Laurent Koscielny’s absences have been particularly hard felt at centre back with a lack of cover; Chelsea are a seemingly much stronger outfit this season and would probably have won the league last season in current form and Danny Welbeck didn’t integrate effectively into the team as swiftly as Wenger might have liked which might explain their mediocre start of two wins in seven.
Maybe, in fact, their slow start has actually own been the key difference between this season and last – they won nine of their first 11 last term, while this season they only won four of their first twelve.
But the over-riding point still pecks at the skull from one angle or another – just how much better a team does Sanchez make Arsenal?
This isn’t to criticise him in anyway individually, because he has been outstanding in many respects and having a newly imported star man in a team can effect the flow of things.
Their are two cases to apply this idea to.
The first is Arsenal themselves, with and without Robin Van Persie. In 2011/12 with the Dutchman at his peak, they finished third in the Premier League with 70 points, scoring 74 goals and conceding 49. Respectable pundits (well, fairly) within the game accredited Arsenal’s success that season purely down to Van Persie – he scored 30 goals, with their second highest scorer being Theo Walcott with eight. Pundits also predicted that without him, they’d probably slip into the abyss of a bottom 15 finish the following year.
In 2012/2013, Van Persie-less, Arsenal finished fourth with an improved 73 points, scoring 72 goals in the process (just two less than the previous year) and conceded just 37 (12 less). Goalscoring disparity was significantly greater – Walcott was top with just 14, but Santi Cazorla scored 12, Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski 11, Mikel Arteta six.
The other example is to look at another prolific Dutchman; Ruud Van Nistelrooy at Manchester United. His team-mates have lauded him as perhaps the greatest striker to have played for United in the Ferguson era, but the cold facts remain: United won the league in the three consecutive years before he joined and the three years after he left. In the five years that he was there, they won the league just once.
Coincidence? Perhaps – to blame United’s shortcomings for half a decade on one player would be very unfair, but as Gary Neville explains after a bust up with the Dutchman in his autobiography, Van Nistelrooy was only ‘obsessed with hanging around the penalty area’ which was ‘a huge frustration’, as he ‘only saved his energy for the penalty box’; not an entirely team-focused player ethic. Did United suffer from merely serving the needs of Van Nistelrooy up front, as opposed to performing collectively as a team?
Those goalscoring returns for both Dutchman look mightily impressive, but how do they alter the way a team plays? Both teams have done fine – if not better – without their talismanic scorers.
Which leads back to Sanchez. Had Sanchez not joined Arsenal this summer, would the Gunners really have been in 14th come December like the stats suggest? Unlikely.
The goals would have come from somewhere else – Aaron Ramsey had scored six more goals this time last season. Podolski contributed eight.
It’s never healthy for a team to be overly reliant on one player for their goals, and with that in mind, Sanchez’s importance to Arsenal this season has largely been exaggerated. He’s excellent by all accounts, and a much better defensively minded player than Van Nistelrooy or Van Persie, but don’t be deceived into thinking that a squad as talented as Arsenal are heavily reliant on him. They’re not.
It will be interesting in the future to see how Arsenal figure without him, and whether a down-turn in his form will drag Arsenal down too. If Van Persie and Van Nistelrooy show us anything, it really shouldn’t do.