With every corner he turns, Arsene Wenger is a manager forever beset by new twists and fresh dilemmas to throw his plans for the future into disarray.
After years of self-enforced austerity with regards to the transfer market and contract negotiations to cover the cost of constructing and moving into the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal finally seemed to be in a position to make good on the Frenchman’s careful, cautious management of the club’s finances.
Never again would the Gunners be forced to watch on as key players walked away in search of better conditions and chances to win titles. The signings of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in 2013 and 2014, respectively, were more than just statements of intent. Here were two genuine, world-class footballers, purchased at great expense from Spain’s big two, arriving to bolster the dressing room rather than departing to deprive Wenger’s squad of quality.
This was to be a tidal shift – a reversing of the trend that had seen the likes of Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin van Persie and Alex Song leave the club instead of staying to allow the Gunners to grow in strength and stature and stick to Wenger’s long-sighted strategy of being a self-sufficient super club.
Not every player to turn their back on Arsenal did so for the money of course but signing Ozil from Real Madrid, and Sanchez from Barcelona in consecutive summers represented a line in the sand, and a step forward on the road to making the Emirates a genuine seat of power in European football.
However, external forces have once again undermined Wenger’s planning. In the mid-to-late 2000s, it was the “financial doping”, as the Frenchman once put it, of Chelsea and Manchester City following their respective takeovers by Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour, that upset the agenda. Now, Manchester United’s fall from grace, and their subsequent raid on the transfer market – specifically the world record signing of Paul Pogba – has put Arsenal at a disadvantage again.
The three biggest pay packets in the Premier League now all reside at Old Trafford, with Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic just behind the midfielder as the best paid players in the English top-flight. Perhaps understandably, Ozil and Sanchez want a piece of that action themselves – and Arsenal will have the break their strict wage structure in order to offer them similar terms.
Wenger has long worked to the principle that no player should be on a higher wage than their manager, yet that rule cannot continue if either of his two stand-out stars are to receive Pogba money. To make negotiations more difficult, both of his attackers want parity over their increased pay deals, and it may be impossible for the Gunners to hold onto the pair. If Arsenal can only keep one of Ozil or Sanchez, who should it be?
Ozil or Sanchez – who is most important?
Despite having played one season less than his German counterpart, Sanchez has been directly involved in 73 goals as the scorer or assist maker in the Premier League and Champions League since August 2014. Ozil, on the other hand, has been involved in 50 goals – predominantly as the creator rather than the finisher – during this time, and has had a hand-in 67 overall in the league and Europe since his arrival in north London in September 2013. In terms of the percentage of their team’s goals, Sanchez has scored or created a whopping 33.49% – more than a third – during his time at the Emirates so far compared to 22.71% for Ozil.
Yet there’s more to having a talisman than what goes on inside the penalty box. Taking Ozil out of the team tends to have a greater effect than removing Sanchez from the equation. In their 32 league games without the German since he was signed, Arsenal have scored goals at an average rate of 1.63 per game, conceded 1.22, and won 1.81 points. Over the course of the 93 games that Ozil has played in the Premier League for the Gunners, his side have scored an average of 1.94 goals per game, conceded just 0.90, and picked up 2.06 points per game.
Compare that with Sanchez who has played 76 league games under Wenger. With the Chilean in the team, Arsenal have scored an average of 1.91 goals per game, conceded 0.93 and won 1.99 points. In the 14 games they have played without him, those numbers have dipped to 1.71 goals per game, 1.07 against and 1.86 points won. It seems that going by the raw data, the club just about get by a little easier without their South American attacker.
This is supported by the team’s win ratios with and without each player. Arsenal have won 58.33% of their league games with Ozil in the team; 56.25% without. They have been victorious in 55.70% of the league games that Sanchez has appeared in, and surprisingly their win ratio goes up to 63.63% when he has been unavailable.
Of course, that’s not to say that the Gunners are better off without the Chilean, who has shown just how trans-formative a figure he can be up front for his club this season as their relentless centre-forward. What had once been disregarded as a failed tactical experiment has since become the key to getting the most out of all of Wenger’s best players, on paper.
“The second coming of Bergkamp and Henry”
Aesthetics matter too of course. No one ever fell in love with football watching a spreadsheet. Ozil and Sanchez’s most excitable advocates have already been moved to hail them as the second coming of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry; a perfect combination of lithe, languid artistry from the German and insatiable, free-roaming skill of his more individually dangerous teammate.
Could another, inferior player step up to provide the legs up front for Ozil to find if Sanchez were to leave, or would it be easier to replace the German with another spotter and keep the Chilean’s superior work rate with and without the ball, and perpetual, implacable motion in the final third.
It’s ultimately a question that can be boiled down to what matters more to their manager: having a player who can move like nobody else or one that can find and trigger any run into the penalty box. Then again, to frame Ozil and Sanchez’s contract extensions as a binary, oppositional choice is to rather miss the point of what this means and how it will affect Wenger and Arsenal.
The Gunners may not be able to afford to grant both players the deals they desire, but they also can’t afford to lose either Ozil or Sanchez. As shown by their dovetailing up front earlier this season, they are key to getting the very best out of each other, aided by a supporting cast of additional attacking midfielders set-up to make the most of their leading pair’s different yet complementary ranges of ability.
While the Chilean works hard on the ball to harass defenders and run at teams, the German is active off it, finding space and making the difference through subtlety and nuance as well as assists. Since August 2014, they have been responsible for over half of Arsenal’s goals as scorers or creators.
Deciding which player out of Ozil and Sanchez is most deserving of receiving a contract to match the sort of money Pogba is on is a false choice. In reality, Arsenal must choose between keeping both and being competitive for major honours or losing one and slumping back into fighting an annual battle for fourth place and failing to push on. They will fall behind their rivals if either leave.
Wenger’s strict discipline and rules over his club’s wage structure may well be admirable and sensible, but football has long since stopped being an admirable and sensible sport. Fees and wages are higher than ever. Increases in the Premier League’s broadcast deals in recent seasons have not only over-heated the transfer market.
Sides now know English clubs have the money, regardless of their stature, and the expectations of players, agents and teams looking to sell have soared. The going rate has never been higher. It might not make sense to Wenger – it doesn’t make sense to many people living outside of the football bubble – yet that’s how the game has gone. Picking between Ozil or Sanchez is only likely to end in regression for Arsenal. Giving both players big contracts, however, could lead to other far more disastrous outcomes off the field.
The underlying numbers are inconclusive: on current form, Sanchez is untouchable, although Ozil’s less obvious influence cannot be discounted, even if his style of play grates on fans who crave clear and obvious exertion from their favourite footballers, as well as skill.
Beyond the data however, in part due to his more tenacious style of play, and determination to try and get a grip of games – as evidenced by the vital role he has played for his country as well as his clubs – it is the Chilean who is the most capable match-winner, if not the most unique player of the two. His German co-star has the vision and imagination to be considered a true genius. Ozil is, to all intents and purposes, unique; a sublime, irreplaceable conductor of moves and composer of games.
Yet it is Sanchez who is the finisher and the fighter; the most potent, self-sufficient individual at the club when it comes to causing carnage and turning moments all by himself within the opposition’s half. Wenger need only look back at the impact made by Van Persie at Manchester United to know that he cannot allow the Premier League elite to get their mitts on another one of his attacking all-rounders.
There may be others with a similar profile to Sanchez – former Arsenal target Luis Suarez for one – but a team can do a lot with a player boasting his mix of pace, athleticism and technical quality. Wenger would have to find another way to play if they had to go without Ozil. By keeping Sanchez, the Frenchman could remain confident that no matter what tactical adjustments he has to make, he wouldn’t have to worry too much about finding a system that simply worked with the Chilean in his ranks.