As the January transfer window moves closer, Arsenal are forced to ponder life without their star player. Alexis Sánchez’s contract runs out at the end of this season, meaning the Chilean could leave for nothing next summer.
Some rumours suggest he may go even sooner.
With the attacker’s eventual departure on a case of when rather than if, the Gunners have reportedly begun the process of identifying and recruiting his replacement. And the latest player to have been targeted with this in mind is Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha.
The Ivorian forward has enjoyed a positive return to Premier League action following a spell out through injury, scoring two goals in his last four outings. With him in the side, Palace have accumulated four points from a possible 12; previously, they had picked up zero points from 21.
Zaha has established himself as one of the most productive attacking players in the league, but filling the void left by Sánchez’s departure would be a huge task. Here we analyse whether he’d be up to the job.
Arséne Wenger’s decision to switch to a 3-4-2-1 system effectively prolonged his stay with Arsenal. His side were struggling last season prior to the tactical change, but went on to win the FA Cup and headed into the 2017/18 campaign with some optimism.
While that positivity has been eroded by four defeats from 11 Premier League games, the shape has remained the same. Within the formation, Sánchez plays as an inside forward, typically alongside Mesut Özil and behind lone striker Alexandre Lacazette.
That front three is one most fans would dream of. It provides a potent mix of energy, vision and clinical finishing. However, it is highly unlikely to last long with both Sánchez and Özil angling for a move away once their contracts expire.
In order to replace the former, players with specific attributes will need to be considered. Potential successors to the Chilean should be aggressive on and off the ball; contribute to the team in attack and defence; provide the versatility to play in multiple positions; possess the skill and pace to take on and beat defenders; and be relatively consistent finishers.
Of all the Premier League-based candidates, Zaha is undoubtedly one of the more obvious options.
ZAHA AND SÁNCHEZ COMPARED
Crystal Palace boss Roy Hodgson admires Zaha not only for his quality in attacking situations, but for his work ethic.
“Wilf wants to play every minute of every game,” the manager told Evening Standard after a 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United. “They (Zaha and Andros Townsend) work very hard to create for us and also to defend for us.”
That restless spirit and enthusiasm for the game is a characteristic the Ivorian shares with Sánchez, whose ceaseless running often borders on inefficiency. The two are also similarly flexible, with both having been utilised up front.
Hodgson, in the absence of target man Christian Benteke, has opted to field a makeshift front two of Zaha and Townsend. The pairing has worked well, ensuring movement off the ball and pace in the final third to confuse defenders and exploit space.
Another defining aspect of Sánchez’s game is his willingness to take on the opposition single-handedly. His combination of quick feet, athleticism and pride makes him a dangerous attacking outlet with the ball at feet as he looks to take individual opponents out of games.
Zaha has a similar approach, possessing the correct amount of selfishness to grab a match by the proverbial scruff of the neck.
Over the last few seasons he has been one of the Premier League’s most consistently devastating dribblers, and that would aid him significantly were he brought in by Arsenal to succeed Sánchez.
WHAT THE STATS TELL US
No other Premier League player has completed more dribbles per game this season than Crystal Palace man is a more frequent dribbler. However, this may not be a positive as far as Arsenal are concerned.
The Gunners’ passing game is an integral part of their performance. Only Manchester City average more than their 58.4 per cent possession and 562 short passes per game, highlighting their tendency to retain and dominate the ball.
Dribbling skill is important to Arsenal, but arguably not as important as the ability to combine effectively with team-mates. In contrast to Crystal Palace, they often find themselves up against deep defensive blocks; unless you’re Lionel Messi, going it alone in those situations isn’t a wise call.
Zaha’s dribbling stats would have to come down were he to move to the Emirates Stadium in the near future, while there would be much greater emphasis on his decision-making, particularly in tight spaces, and his accuracy.
Sánchez trumps him in possession. The Chilean averages over twice as many key passes per game – 2.5 to 1.2 – and total passes – 36.1 to 16 – while his pass accuracy is 14.6 per cent higher.
The Crystal Palace man makes 0.2 more tackles per game, it is worth noting that he plays for a team that have far less of the ball and therefore spend more time in the defensive phase.
Zaha is three years younger than Sánchez and is an equally dangerous dribbler, but his all-round game is not quite on the same level. For all their stylistic similarities, Arsenal may need to look elsewhere for a like-for-like replacement.