Pacemakers play peacemakers

Ah Alexis Sanchez. How many times have we said all those words in the same breath? He continues to impress yet frustrate, the will-he won’t-he saga threatening to overshadow much of Arsenal’s season. It is best they deal with it as fast as possible, and in this it might be better if he were released in January, rather than the Gooners holding on to a toxic asset.

The Arsenal striker’s skill has been clear for all to see in recent weeks. Against Liverpool, he led a fightback by scoring a goal from a header he should have had no business in winning. Hector Bellerin whipped in a cross, and Sanchez sprinted ahead of Joel Matip to nod the ball through Mignolet’s legs. The goalkeeper, who has been blamed for Liverpool’s struggles and may be slightly relieved to see Virgil van Dyke in front of him now – although it may mean he carries more blame if goals get conceded – absolutely had no chance with Sanchez’s goal. Yet while he may have been at fault with Granit Xhaka hitting his belter from far, there is no denying that Sanchez did inspire a comeback of sorts.

Sanchez also inspired a win over Crystal Palace, a 3-2 grab at three points. He scored two of the goals, but as many have noted, a few of his team mates refused to celebrate with him. The refuseniks – mainly the Arsenal defence – were Saed Kolasinac, Hector Bellerin, Laurent Kosicleny and Calum Chambers which may lead us to believe the training ground bust up after the game at Burnley’s Turf Moor last month may have been about Sanchez voicing his displeasure about a leaky defence. If that were the case, then it is not good news, considering that a division between attacking players and defensive players is not one you wish to have.

So the real question is why Arsene Wenger continues to hold on to Sanchez. See what happened at Southampton with Virgil van Dyke? The protracted discussion about his future with the club caused them to play under a cloud and go on a slide. Now that he is gone, watch for Southampton to play better with a better sense of team spirit.

Arsenal have managed to do well with Sanchez in the squad but Wenger is playing a dangerous game. Arguably his best player, Sanchez is increasingly becoming an influential but divisive figure. Arsenal have had a good run of results on the back of their out-of-contract players, Ozil and Sanchez, but Wenger needs to weigh up the results with the team spirit. Favour Sanchez, and he risks losing the faith of the eleven other players. And by the time Wenger lets Sanchez goes, he may find he may need to earn back the respect of the other players. If anything, having Sanchez around for the moment deflects from the Wenger Out cries, and turns attention away from the team’s results and performance.

Another fortunate event has been the form of leaders Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s men have so dominated the league that it is a case of will they win it or will they lose it. It is them against the chasing pack of teams traditionally in the top six. But this means Arsenal no longer have the expectation of winning the league, and are not expected to by their fans, and are not being blamed by them for every poor perfomance because they are still in the same boat as high spending Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Arsenal fans this year will be content with a top four finish, a return to Champions League football, and the Kings of North London football crown; their fans will be happy as long as they beat Tottenham after 38 games.

It should make for an interesting transfer window when it opens on Jan 1 2018. And one player pleased to see the new year will be Adrien Silva, the signing that Leicester tried to make previously but ended up a mere fourteen seconds late. Fourteen seconds! It was a high price to pay, those fourteen seconds. It meant he remained a Sporting Lisbon player even though he had also disengaged from the team, but could not train with Leicester. In a bit of limbo. A bit like Alexis Sanchez.

And so, with the transfer window opening again, it should make for an interesting start to 2018. And you can be sure all eyes are on the Alexis Sanchez situation. Will City sign him now and risk losing their chemistry? Will they wait for the end of the summer when his value drops? It may make better sense but waiting may mean other teams may start to consider him, as his affordability would drop to theirs. It is likely that Manchester City or some other team will sign him first to snap him out of the others’ grasp.

But for now, while Sanchez lingers at Arsenal, and the rift between him and the defence continues, the midfielders, the engine room of the team – the pacemakers – have to play the peacemakers.

A weekend of records

So what happened in the league this weekend?

Arsenal and Liverpool split a six goal thriller on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s return to the Emirates. The Gooners scored three goals in a five-minute spell in the second half, before Roberto Firmino’s header dashed all Arsenal hopes of a win.

And what sort of a record did this set? Well, Arsenal didn’t fall apart in a big game, after a two-goal deficit. Usually they just go to pieces after they concede in a big game.

Remember the 6-3 defeat of Arsenal by Manchester City? Or the 8-2 defeat by Manchester United?

You can see why some of the stars of the team wanted to leave. Arsenal always had a reputation for losing big games with the top six. And when they lost, player such as Mesut Ozil always got the blame for switching off, and for their poor body language.

Certainly no one could fault Alexis Sanchez for effort. The ____ – bound Chilean hustled for the first goal by nipping in front of the Liverpool center-back and getting back a goal which he really had no business of winning.

And what about Mesut Ozil? Often accused of switching off in big games, he scored the third goal in the five-minute second half blitz.

Incidentally, it looks like Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata has been swotting up on Ozil’s style.

At least it wasn’t this.

Speaking of Chelsea, could Alexis Sanchez be off to Chelsea instead?

Manchester City’s record breaking season continues and continues without Alexis Sanchez, giving the casual onlooker doubts about what Alexis Sanchez could add to that team.

And if Aguero is already unhappy about his playing time in the team then what happens when Alexis Sanchez arrives there? Two sulks on the bench when Gabriel Jesus plays?

In fact the longer it drags on it appears Sanchez might not be City-bound but may consider a move away to another club where he can still win trophies, such as Manchester United, or increasingly possibly Chelsea. Or why not Paris St Germain or Bayern Munich?

Sergio Aguero scored his 100th league goal at the Etihad, Manchester City eclipsed more than 100 goals in the calendar year. And Harry Kane equalled Alan Shearer’s record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year.

Goals. Goals. Goals.

Yet if you looked at the Premier League table, only the top six teams have a goal difference of more than 1.

It tells you how the Premier League teams are playing this year. Like Burnley, playing to scrape points rather than lose games. Aiming to win by 1-0 on 25% possession, rather than playing good entertaining football.

While Sean Dyche’s Burnley team have done well, and are a remarkable side considering what they achieve on their budget, you might well say they deserved to lose 3-0 at Turf Moor against a Tottenham side. When you set out to get a point for a draw, or play for a 1-0 win, as a neutral fan you might prefer it if teams played “who cares about defence” attacking football like Liverpool and Arsenal did.

The gap from 13th to 20th remains at six points, which means win two and you’re out of the drop zone. Which is exactly what Sam Allardyce and Everton have been trying to do. Score goals, don’t concede; but if you’re up against a team like Chelsea, then don’t concede, and hope to score, letting the fans put pressure on the better team. A run of wins and clean sheets has helped Everton rise up the rankings.

Make no mistake. The Premier League developments at the bottom end will be more interesting than at the top end. The bottom three change more often than the seats in the X-Factor’s six chair challenge.

Sanchez’s lure declines with time

Is the star of Alexis Sanchez losing its shine? After the Manchester City summer deal to sign him for £55 million plus £5 million in add ons collapsed due to the Gooners being unable to secure the signature of Monaco winger Thomas Lemar, it seems that Manchester City have got on pretty well without him. So well that they are on a match winning run and Sanchez’s part in the DVD they are making could be reduced to only a cameo. Or if reports are to be believed, he might not even have a part. Manchester City appear to be coping well without him and appear willing to wait until the summer before signing him on a free transfer.

The longer this drags on, the worse it is for everybody really. City may realise that Sanchez may not even be a necessary purchase. In the summer he was seen as one who would take City to the next level, possibly one to replace Aguero, but this was before everyone witnessed the blistering form of Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sane, and Raheem Sterling. Sterling has scored a few late goals for City and was touted as a makeweight in the Sanchez deal, possibly moving to North London, but has since recovered the form that made City buy him from Liverpool. In fact, it almost seems that the Manchester City front line have something to prove to Sanchez – stop talking like you are destined to come here; which one of us are you replacing? – and are using it as motivation to play well. The boss Guardiola interested in reuniting with his ex-Barca mate Sanchez? Let’s give him something to ponder over.

Sanchez is playing like his days at Arsenal are numbered. Play well and he only emphasises to Arsenal how much they need him. But play badly, suffer a loss of form and he might demonstrate to all teams that they can actually do without him. He is in a tricky situation really – he doesn’t really want to give his best for a team he wants to leave, and in all fairness it is hard to motivate yourself to do so, but he has to in order to attract more suitors – but they may realise, with time, they can cope without him. His form has already stuttered in the three or four months since the proposed transfer. What would happen with an additional half year of waiting, for a transfer that might never happen? Would his form descend to the point it would suffer by the time he gets to leave Arsenal?

The ones in the driving seat are City. They can wait until the summer to sign him because they know he wants to join them, they can save millions of pounds, and at present it seems they only risk damaging their good team chemistry if they sign him now. If Sanchez joins, would he sulk about not being able to play? Would he create divisions in the Man City ranks? He is almost a shoo-in every time he plays for the Gunners, and if he is unable to play all the time at City, would his sulking cause problems? If you sign a guy for say £30 million, what do you do? Play him, to the annoyance of those who have set a record for consecutive wins without him? Or leave him on the bench as an expensive paperweight?

It may not be that much of a surprise that Sanchez leaves Arsenal, and it may not be much of a surprise if he doesn’t actually doesn’t go to Manchester City. What? Pardon? Not to City? I wouldn’t be surprised if in six months time City think they can manage without him, and Sanchez ups sticks to head for the other Manchester team instead, reigniting a partnership with Mesut Ozil as the former Gooners. Lukaku is under criticism, Ibrahimovic is declining, Rashford and Lingard need mentoring, and his quick play and runs would suit a counterattacking Manchester United, one that slightly slows down with Lukaku. Think about it. Manchester City wait another six months for him and then decide they can do without it. Sanchez decides to join the other Manchester team as a snub. It may turn out this way.

Counting down the days

Is Arsenal’s Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez merely counting down the days to the transfer window? Former Gunners legend Ian Wright seems to think so. The former striker said of the current striker that he appears to have clocked off, and is not putting a shift in for the Gunners.

At this point last year, Sanchez had already scored twelve goals, but this year he has only scored four.

Wright, whose scoring average was around 0.666, believes that mentally Sanchez has switched off and is not giving of his best. This is in contrast to what Arsene Wenger has always said of Sanchez, that he is professional, gives of his best, and honours his contract.

Why is Sanchez so keen to leave? One reason may be that he sees the Gunners as a top-four team, and nothing more than that. The only competition they appear to be winning and aiming for is the FA Cup, but at the current rate they may soon be dropping that and aiming for the Carabao Cup instead. Owner Stan Kroenke appears to be satisfied with merely qualifying for Champions League football, while Sanchez, accustomed to winning with Barcelona, may not want to stall his career by merely finishing in the top four and semi-finals of the Champions League. He wants a Champion League winners medal, and with Guardiola and Manchester City, he sees a potential winner.

Would it affect his sales potential as Wright suggests? He is already on the shopping list, and has been since the summer. His supposed poor form is not going to put them off. He really is caught between a rock and a hard place. Play well and Arsenal refuse to release him. So maybe he has to pitter patter his feet a little bit to see if he can actually make Arsenal release him out of disgust.

And what about his counterpart in contract renegotiation? Long ago it was suggested that the agents of both players were banding together and trying to leverage Arsenal management into giving them enhanced contracts. It was said that Sanchez’s agent would discuss the proposed terms his client had received with Ozil’s agent, and vice versa, and both were driving up the weekly wages.

And if Sanchez and Ozil do go, they would find themselves on the opposite side of the Mancunian spectrum, with Sanchez to City and Ozil to United, both reunited with former managers. But who would that leave Arsene Wenger with to lead the strike line? Lacazette, Giroud, Welbeck and Walcott? The latter two have not exactly been their best – Welbeck flourished in his initial move from United, but injuries have taken his toll and he and Walcott are currently the number 5 or 6 strikers.

Who knows what goes on in the minds of the Arsenal strikers? Sanchez is definitely not accepting being the leader of a top four team and is hungry for more. He only has a few more Xs on the calendar to mark.

 

Saturday Round-up

Can anyone stop Manchester City? This is the question that everyone seems to be asking after the City train steamrolled Tottenham Hotspurs, pretenders to the throne, and all but showed them that if they ever want to be possible Premier League Champions, they still have a long way to go.

Remember when it was not long ago that everyone was gushing over Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen? No one seems to be speaking about them now.

Dele Alli seemed to have cottoned on to something though, something that Manchester City’s past opponents didn’t seem to have registered. If you want to stop Manchester City, you have to stop Kevin de Bruyne. Stop Kevin de Bruyne. Don’t double team him, don’t man-mark him, don’t zone him. Just stop him.

It’s fairly predictable that the three-man panel will give Dele Alli a retrospective ban for the first class stamp on de Bruyne.

Does Manchester City’s fine run mean that Alexis Sanchez’s stock has gone down? Four months ago he was touted to be off to join Pep – maybe as the backup to Sergio Kun Aguero? – but now City have gone on their brilliant run without him. If he does go over in the transfer period, wouldn’t it be said that he merely transferred over to the Premier League champions without doing anything to help them earn it?

In fact, this is what Arsene Wenger should be selling Sanchez. Wenger should tell him, “You want to be recognised for your contribution, sign a new contract with us. Over here the fans recognise you are one of the pulling powers of the team. Over there you are one of many stars. If Tottenham is a Harry Kane team, Man City are a Kevin de Bruyne team. But Arsenal is the Alexis Sanchez team.”

But wait a second, I hear you say. What about Alexandre Lacazette?

Presumable Wenger persuaded him to sign for the Gunners by telling him he could make them the “Lacazette team”. But having spent a fortune signing him and then not playing him in the big games, he is really the £52.6m bookmark. Pretty much like Fernando Torres in the Chelsea days.

“This is my team now. Take a hike.”

“I might hitch a ride on the Wenger Out plane to Man City.”

 

Was Mesut Ozil’s strike against Newcastle one of his last few for Arsenal? Wenger insists Ozil and Sanchez will not be sold to rivals, especially top four ones who could do Arsenal out of a Champions League place.

It’s all shaping out to be an interesting transfer window.

“I’m going to off-load that whinging Sanchez. What the heck, Man City are going to win the league anyway. But if you stay, Arsenal could be known as the Mesut Ozil team.”

And did you see that goal by Watford’s Abdoulaye Doucoure? That is going to win the next Goal of the Month competition.

“I predict that Arsenal are going to be known as the Olivier Giroud team …”

Now everyone dares to Zlatan

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has always cast himself as a strong lion.

When he was out with his latest injury, he mentioned that “lions take longer to recover”.

But speculation is rife that while his mental fortitude is there, his body may be letting him down.

 

And because of that, now everyone dares to Zlatan. Especially the Manchester City team who reportedly had a dig at him, provoking the post-match brawl.

 

It seems Zlatan is now playing the part of the hurt tiger in the commercial, being provoked – but unable to do nothing about it.


 

The ex-Barcelona man, who once said “If Mourinho lights up a room, Guardiola draws the curtains”, may soon find the sun setting on his career.

Oh well, there’s always the Chinese League for a big payday. And someone of Ibrahimovic’s reputation will always have a team willing to take him, not so much for his on-field prowess, but for his commercial value.

But considering his decline, maybe even the Chinese players may dare to Zlatan.

Discrimination?

Given the strong football rivalries that exist between the Welsh and the English, and others in other fields such as rugby, one might consider it prudent that the Welsh Football Association did not appoint an Englishman for the post vacated by Chris Coleman.

Is it discriminatory to rule out an Englishman for the job?

In any case, what FAW Jonathan Ford mentioned in an interview was:

“We have always favoured Welsh people because arguably the passion is there. Somebody said this earlier, Welsh most definitely, foreign possibly but definitely not English.”

In other words, it wasn’t him that said “not English”, but he was mentioning that someone else had suggested that.

Anything wrong with that?

And just imagine the Spanish football association looking for a new manager: Spanish definitely, foreign possibly, just not Catalonian.

I don’t think anyone would object if Pep Guardiola never got considered for that job.

Keeping football separate from other things

Has fame got to Pep Guardiola’s head? The Manchester City manager, always portrayed by the Spanish media as the quiet one of the two giants during his reign at Barcelona – the other being the louder articulate Jose Mourinho – aired his political views ahead of the  Manchester derby today. Even Mourinho, for years seen as brash, cautioned against the mixing of football and politics. He also added that if it had been himself, he might not have got away with it.

The truth is that Guardiola could not really avoid this kind of question put to him. Born in Catalonia, he is such a high profile manager that he would have been asked that sort of a question anyway. And evading an answer would have been interpreted by Catalans as a failure to speak out, and pounced on by Spanish media as a chance to lambast the Catalan cause. So the Manchester City manager had no way of deflecting the question, however he would have wanted to. He has always worn a yellow ribbon as a mark of solidarity but it is arguable that a suitable response might have been, “It is an important issue that must be addressed in the correct place.”

Barcelona’s Gerard Pique learnt a lesson on the same issue. Pictured casting his vote for Catalonian independence, he was booed by  Spanish fans when he turned out for Spain. Even his Spanish centre back partner, Sergio Ramos, cautioned against airing of political views in public. Ramos and Mourinho, both together at Madrid, have reputations for being loudspoken individuals but perhaps both strangely realise the value of biting their tongues at times.

Perhaps some things shouldn’t mix. Football, religion, politics or any other areas that cause sharp differences of opinion should best be kept ambiguous or in the background.

Either way, it is blue against red at Manchester. City against United. Guardiola against Mourinho. And for the Spanish media, it is the Mourinho and by indirect association, Madrid and Spain – contingent against Catalonia. An already charged up Manchester is only more fired up by more external factors.