With each passing week, Alexis Sanchez’s performances both delight Arsenal fans and cause them to grow more anxious about the fact that the club seems unable to tie him down to a new long-term deal.
The Chilean, having been deployed predominantly as the spearhead of the Gunners’ attack, has been in scintillating form this term. With an astonishing 17 goals and 10 assists, Sanchez has to be considered a front-runner to be named Player of the Year.
But could Olivier Giroud’s recent form give manager Arsene Wenger a unique kind of selection headache?
At the start of the current campaign, Giroud found himself out of favour at the Emirates Stadium, with Wenger apparently preferring the more mobile option of fielding Sanchez in the centre-forward position in his 4-2-3-1 system.
But the French forward refused to settle for a bit-part role. Making the most of the reduced game time he was being afforded by coming off the bench to score vital goals, the former Toulouse striker soon forced his way back into contention for a starting berth.
In recent weeks Wenger has re-introduced Giroud to his starting line-up, with Sanchez shifted out of his new false No.9 role and back to his former position on the wing.
Giroud has rewarded his manager’s faith with a consistent stream of goals. Indeed, it was the kind of regular scoring that he has shown of late that many thought the towering French international was incapable of, and therefore had to be replaced.
But with Sanchez having proven so electric up front, Wenger must decide whether the goals, aerial threat and physical presence he gains by starting Giroud makes up for losing the pace, movement and unpredictability of the former Barcelona man in central areas.
Giroud has started Arsenal’s last six fixtures, scoring five goals and providing two assists. Sanchez has started in five of those games and scored three times with one assist.
As is to be expected when moving out of a centre-forward position and into a role on the wing, Sanchez’s rate of scoring dropped after Giroud was brought back into the side. In his 16 Premier League starts before the Frenchman’s recent re-introduction he bagged 12 goals for an average of 0.75 per game. That figure has dropped slightly to 0.6 in his last five outings.
Of course, from a team perspective, Giroud's average of 0.83 goals per game since he came back into the team bridges that gap.
Sanchez has also provided fewer assists on average in his last five appearances, with 0.2 per game, down from 0.38.
But assists alone can be a tricky stat when looking to illustrate a player's creative ability as it relies on another player being able to finish off the chances they conjure.
Perhaps a better way of looking at Sanchez’s offensive production would be to assess his key pass ratios. In the last four games, against Burnley, Swansea City, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace, the former Udinese forward has completed 13 key passes, giving him an average of 3.25 per game.
That actually represents an increase on his average of 2.7 per match for the Premier League season so far.
And, perhaps aided by having more space to drive into in the wide areas, his take-ons per game average has also experienced a slight uptick over the same four fixtures too, rising to 2.75 per game, tracking above his season’s average of 2.6.
Sanchez has rattled off a good amount of shots over the last four games, aiming for goal 23 times for an average of 5.75 shots per game – way above his average of 3.6 for the season so far.
But the most telling statistic is that, of those 23 attempts, only eight found the target for a shot accuracy of 34.78 percent. That’s a dramatic drop off from his overall Premier League average of testing the goalkeeper with 58 percent of his efforts this term.
The fact that, when playing on the wing, Sanchez is less able to find the target would suggest that, despite shooting more frequently, the positional change has reduced the quality of opportunities he has been able to find.
Arsenal’s offensive output certainly hasn’t suffered over the five games that Sanchez and Giroud have played together recently. They have won four and drawn one while scoring an impressive 12 goals, meaning they have found the net 2.4 times per game in that time, better than their average of 2.14 goals per match for the entire campaign to date.
But the fixture list has been relatively kind to the Gunners of late. A run of matches against teams in the bottom half of the table, with the exception of eighth-placed West Bromwich Albion, has been conducive to Wenger’s experimentation.
When faced with a fellow title rival, the French tactician will have a quandary on his hands as, depending on the opposition and the threats they pose, Wenger may wish to field a slightly less attacking line-up. At that point, he could be forced to choose between Sanchez and Giroud, with one of the pair missing out to allow for an extra midfielder or a more defence-minded wide player.
Another factor to consider is Sanchez’s own preference over where he wants to play. After spending most of his career as a dynamic winger or inside forward, there can be little double that the central switch this season has produced his best ever form.
The Chilean may wish to remain in his new position having gotten a taste of the goal-scoring glory it has brought him.
Ordinarily, it would be argued that any player should play wherever their manager asks them to, but with contract negotiations reportedly on a knife edge, keeping Sanchez happy will be one of Arsenal’s foremost concerns.
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