Like oil and water, some substances simply do not mix. I feel this was true to an extent in regards to Ozil and Alexis’ respective playing styles over the last 3 ½ seasons. Ozil’s game predicated on team interplay and interconnectedness while Alexis’ game was based on unpredictability and individualism.
Let’s get one thing straight, Alexis Sanchez was a brilliant, highly effective player for Arsenal in his time with us. Given our structural ethos under Wenger, which has always focused on an “on the ball” identity, possessional superiority, and individual expressionism, Alexis performed as he deemed fit under those parameters. He played a high touch, high risk game because he was allowed to. This was exacerbated over the past year by our change in system to a back 3 to accommodate both Ozil and Sanchez with dual number 10 roles.
Let’s juxtapose Arsenal’s values with those of the Chilean National Team and Manchester United. Unlike Arsenal, both squads possess more of a willingness and awareness to play “off the ball” while prioritizing transitional play from defense to attack. These are the structures by which Alexis will be expected to adhere to, and as a result, his role will be different from his time at Arsenal.
This gets me to my point: despite a clear willingness to link on the pitch, Ozil and Alexis’ individual skill-sets under Arsenal’s structural values were not conducive to sustained success. They provided us with some of our best memories of the last 4 seasons and those that analyze the game in isolation will point to these moments as counter-arguments to my views. I believe that they were simply two attack-minded players in an attack-minded system that combined regularly due to their intelligence as footballers. They were able to conjure brilliant moments of one another as well as their teammates but never brilliant seasons. Below are three reasons why:
Stickiness vs. Fluidity
Alexis’ on the ball ability can be downright mesmerizing at times. I’m still convinced he’s the best Arsenal player of my generation when receiving the ball with his back to a defender. The downside of this particular strength is that the ball sticks and stays at his feet longer. When this happens, our eyes generally hone in on the dribbling skills and trickery that follows. Meanwhile, off the ball, defenders re-organize, space in-behind diminishes, and attacking possibilities become limited as teammate movement ahead stagnates.
In contrast, Ozil is far more willing to engage in interplay with one and two touch passing with his teammates. You are much more likely to see him embedded in passing combinations leading to attacks. The ball rarely stays with him for extended periods in an attempt to move the defense around to create gaps for his teammates.
High Risk vs. Security
The nature of Alexis’ passing drove us crazy at times, but also it provided us with special moments. Without it, we wouldn’t have “The Scorpion Kick” or Ozil’s lovely ricochet off the post against Chelsea last season. Alexis’ risk-taking was painstakingly obvious to even the most casual observer, but it was always done with incisive intent.
Furthermore, this pass with a high degree of difficulty to Ozil is still one of my favorite goals of recent years:
Alexis’ giveaways were counterproductive to Ozil’s playing style, which is predicated on passing fluency and finding creative spaces between the lines. Ozil clearly tried to accommodate Alexis at the start of the ‘16-’17 season. He was seen making far more advanced runs than normal in order to stretch defenses and allow Alexis to dominate the ball and turn creator. This was coming off the season prior with Ozil in a clear #10 role while flirting with breaking the single season Premier League assist record.
Decisions in Space
Both Alexis and Ozil operate best when finding creative pockets of space or dropping deep to start an attack. Where they differed was in their intent to transition us forward after receiving. Alexis generally begin to advance us more slowly, often collecting with a square body shape and completing take ons.
Ozil on the other hand, tends to transition us quicker often altering his body shape and utilizing his first touch.
I feel these extreme variations in transitional play were counterproductive to attacking fluency at times in Arsenal’s system highly reliant on flow and tempo.
In summary, it was a privilege witnessing such transcendent talents playing together for the club I love. The only regret shared here is that their playing styles never complimented each other enough to win the league while a framework at Arsenal was never established where they could both flourish.
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