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James McNicholasFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2017

Typically, individual awards in the Premier League are bestowed upon players who’ve achieved success with their side. The Player of the Year is often selected from the team that ultimately goes on to win the title.

Alexis Sanchez would be an obvious exception. Arsenal have floundered in this second half of 2016/17, and yet he has still managed to be nominated. If he were to win the prize, it would be a triumph of his individual quality.

It’s no great surprise that in a disappointing team Alexis has still managed to shine. After all, his individualism is what makes him great. Jurgen Klopp once compared Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal team to an orchestra—while that sort of cohesion and artistry has often seemed beyond the Gunners this season, Alexis would undoubtedly be classified as the lead soloist.

Certain players require a stable platform upon which to perform. The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Harry Kane, both nominated for the main award, are conventional strikers who need service to thrive. If the supply line is cut off, they struggle to fashion opportunities for themselves.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 05:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal controls the ball during the Premier League match between Arsenal and West Ham United at Emirates Stadium on April 5, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images,)

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

That’s not true of Alexis, who can conjure something from nothing. His goalscoring exploits have made headlines all season, but he’s far more than just a finisher. Throughout the campaign, Alexis has consistently been Arsenal’s most dangerous player. Even when the team are failing to click, he is capable of producing moments of magic.

Take the recent defeat at Crystal Palace. Arsenal had nothing going forward—their approach play was unimaginative and one-paced. They looked like a team entirely bereft of confidence—except when Alexis got on the ball. Every time he was in possession, Palace were suddenly forced on to the back foot. Ultimately, Arsenal were swatted aside, but Alexis was the one player who looked able to make something happen.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on April 2, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images)

Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images

It’s because Alexis is a player who operates at his own rhythm. Arsenal are a side who can occasionally be guilty of passive possession, keeping the ball endlessly but without a penetrative intent. Alexis is the perfect antidote to that: When he receives the ball, his first thought is to head towards goal.

He has the skill to deliver on that, too, dribbling away from opponents with ease in a manner that rips defensive strategies apart. Alexis’ refusal to conform to conventional team shape makes him a nightmare to mark.

He’s a game-breaker, pure and simple. When Arsenal have needed something, they’ve invariably turned to the Chilean. The fact he is able to excel in such a dysfunctional team places him head and shoulders above the other candidates. However shoddy the stage, he always looks like a star. Alexis is probably the one nominee who would still make the list were he stationed at any other Premier League side.

The one player who can rival his mercurial ability in this list is Eden Hazard. The Belgian has a similar capacity to produce out of nothing, turning half-chances into goals with a combination of imagination and outstanding technical ability. 

However, where Alexis wins out is on efficiency. The fans who’ve watched him all season long would argue he’s even more clinical than the Chelsea man.


His sheer productivity is remarkable given the struggles of his team. According to Squawka, Alexis’ Premier League campaign has seen him rack up 19 goals and nine assists in 31 appearances, as compared with Hazard’s record of 14 goals and five assists.

That means Alexis has directly contributed to nine more goals than the Belgian, all while playing in an inferior team. Hitting the target with 57 percent of his shots is an impressive ratio for a player who frequently shoots from distance. 

For a player who has operated as a traditional striker for much of the season, that amount of assists is extraordinary. In fact, he’s created a remarkable 71 chances for other players this season. Had his Arsenal team-mates been as cool in front of goal as him, he’d have even more assists to his name.

Alexis is sometimes characterised as a selfish player, but those figures would seem to put paid to that particular theory. His ability to pick out a pass is sometimes overlooked, but Alexis’s creative contribution has outstripped even that of assist-maker Mesut Ozil this season.

Arsene Wenger has said that it’s Alexis’ numbers that make him a worthy nominee, per Sky Sports:


I’m very happy [Sanchez has been nominated] because it rewards a very strong season if you look at his numbers.

His goalscoring record is good, his assists are good and I believe that the combination of goalscoring and assists always [showcases] the quality of a player.

Had he spent more of the season playing at centre-forward, he’d probably have even more goals to his name. Alexis began the season playing through the middle but has ultimately reverted to a more familiar role on the flank. Wenger explained that his desire to get on the ball means he prefers operating from out wide:


Unfortunately, he’s a player who likes the ball a lot. He likes to touch the ball, so I would say he is more attracted to a wide position.

He basically prefers to play wide rather than up front because he can get the ball more. He has to keep that balance between providing and goalscoring because he has both in the locker.

Most Arsenal fans would probably have wanted to see Alexis remain stationed in the middle. That was where he was at his most dangerous, and had he remained there for the duration of the season there might not even be a debate about the destiny of this award. As a centre-forward, Alexis was arguably the most exciting Arsenal player to watch since Thierry Henry.


When you break it down, Alexis has attributes from each of the nominees. He has the skill and creativity of Eden Hazard, combined with the ruthless finishing of Romelu Lukaku. He has been Arsenal’s talisman this season, replicating the role of Harry Kane at Tottenham.

A parallel with N’Golo Kante might seem less obvious, but actually Alexis’ relentless work rate and evident determination to win are somewhat reminiscent of Chelsea’s energetic French midfielder. Meanwhile, his charisma and capacity to lead by example bear comparison with the influence exerted at Manchester United by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

There would be several deserving winners of the award, but it’s worth remembering that while football is a team sport this prize should reward individual contribution. Alexis has not been in the best team, but that’s through no fault of his own. Individually, there’s little more he could have done—and the numbers back it up.

 

James McNicholas is Bleacher Report’s lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2016/17.



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