Did he do it on purpose?
Not Ashley Williams — though I’m still trying to figure out why the Everton defender locked his hands behind his back, rocked onto his heels, and stuck his face out like a game-show contestant ready to be punished with a pie to the face. No, I’m talking about Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez: Did he see Williams strike that goofy pose and then purposely shoot the ball directly at his feet?
Considering the streak he’s on, it’s a reasonable question. Sánchez wants a new contract, and, through 15 games, he’s been near-untouchable. He’s tied with Chelsea’s Diego Costa for the league lead in goals scored, and he’s just behind Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero in goals per 90. He’s in the top five in assists with five, and when you add it all up, he and Costa (17 goals-plus-assists) have been the two most productive attacking players in the league. Alexis Sánchez is on fire.
Which means burnout could be in his future. Before the Everton game, he’d scored 11 open-play goals … but expected goals put him at 4.28. In other words, he’s finishing the chances he gets at a historically unsustainable rate. As for his chance-creation numbers, he leads the league in expected assists with 3.74, but his five actual assists are still slightly outpacing his underlying stats. Taken together, those numbers suggest that the mean-regression monster is coming for the 27-year-old Chilean. Here’s another idea: Sánchez is turning defenders across the Premier League into Ashley Williams, and they don’t know what to do. Pessimistic stats be damned.
What if Arsène Wenger accidentally solved his striker problem two years ago? Since selling Robin van Persie to Manchester United in 2012, Arsenal have had dynamic runners (Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck) and consistent goal scorers (Olivier Giroud) up top — but never both. Now, after spending his first two seasons in London out on the wing, Sánchez has become Arsenal’s nominal no. 9. Specifically, he’s playing as a false nine: a “striker” who starts up against the backline, but then drops deep and lets the line of attacking midfielders run beyond him. The early returns look a little something like this:
Of course, it made sense that Sánchez had played out wide before this year. That’s where played at Barcelona, and for good reason: His most obvious advantage over his opponents is the 400-volt battery strapped to his back, and the center of the field just doesn’t have enough room for him to run off all of that energy. When you get a puppy, you take it to Prospect Park — not Penn Station.
Except I wonder if Sánchez’s 90-minute range and his ability to quickly get into dangerous positions from innocuous starting points — the things that make him a world-class winger — overshadow how dangerous he can be when he’s on the ball near the box. His physical capacity belies an impressive subtlety: Since he’s built like a smushed-down Cristiano Ronaldo, Sánchez’s choppy steps often make it look like he’s fighting against himself to keep from tripping over the ball — and then suddenly it’s floating over your keeper’s head and under the crossbar:
Sánchez isn’t exactly a traditional center-of-the-box finisher. And, unsurprisingly, he isn’t playing like one. Here’s where Diego Costa is receiving passes that lead to shots this season (goals in gold):
He gets the ball inside the penalty area, puts it in the goal, jogs back to midfield, and gets ready to do it all again. In contrast, here’s where Sánchez is receiving the ball:
Look at the hole from the penalty spot out to the arc at the top of the 18. Sánchez’s teammates aren’t setting him up in one of the most dangerous areas of the field; he’s often getting the ball on the edge of that zone. Instead, he’s the one setting up his teammates. Here are all the chances he’s created on the year:
That’s a Jackson Pollock. With Mesut Ozil still struggling to create much this season — after 19 assists last year, he currently has two, in line with his 1.81 expected — Sánchez has stepped into the void and become the most creative player in England. But at the same time, Sánchez gets on the ball inside of the box as often as pretty much anyone in the world, and he has all the technical and physical capabilities to be a true nine. So it poses a problem for defenders: Do you give him a cushion so he can’t run behind you? Do you play tight on him so he can’t drop back, get the ball and turn? Or do you pass him off to a midfielder who can’t see him coming? Choosing between the lesser of two evils is hard enough. Three? Just ask West Ham …
You can chalk up the goal against Everton as a lucky deflection. Or you can recognize it as premeditated chaos. And I think that’s where we find the discrepancy in his stats. Sánchez isn’t going to outpace his expected goals for the rest of his career — managers will figure out how to blunt his effectiveness, he’ll hit a couple of cold spells, the frailty of the human condition will rear its head — but the numbers also might not be picking up on the new tactical issues he’s creating for opponents. Maybe the shots he’s taking have clearer lanes because the defense has to account for everything else he can do when he gets on the ball. Of course, Sánchez could also just straight-up be getting lucky. But there’s been such an obvious change in his game and his production that chalking it all up to chance doesn’t suffice.
On Sunday, Arsenal play Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s side have been suffering from a reverse Sánchez effect: Their defense has given up the second-fewest shots per game, but only Swansea City and West Ham give up more dangerous chances (on an expected-goals-per-shot basis). City’s center backs struggle when they have to, uh, defend, and with their top two center mids (Fernandinho, who’s suspended, and Ilkay Gundogan, who’s hurt) out for the game, they’re worst where Sánchez has been at his best. Even if he is due to cool off, don’t count on it until after the holidays.