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So. Look at the player in that video. When talk was going around about Barça being about to plump for Serie A player of the year Alexis Sanchez, who didn’t watch that video and say to themselves, “Boy howdy, are we going to have some fun. Him AND Messi running at teams? Stand back!”
But that glowing promise has become a frustrating reality for the player, the team, its coaching staff and cules. Let’s have a look at what happened.
Here are Sanchez’s 15 goals from his first season with the club:
It’s important to note what kinds of goals he is scoring. In every instance, the goals are coming from open play. It’s a very similar situation to his assist for Alba vs Milan. Sanchez is a fascinating player in that where cules are used to Masia-trained wizards who view the game as a chess match and already know what they are going to do with the ball as soon at they get it, Sanchez gets the ball and says “Hey, look! Let’s go!” And he starts running.
Some cules scoff at that, because it isn’t part of The Way. But it’s just a different way of playing the game. Notice that Sanchez’s goals against Udinese are the same sorts of space-gobbling, flowing, almost chaotic kinds of goals. Sanchez is a player who thrives on space.
The biggest problems for Sanchez are that a) the way that teams play Barça takes away space and b) he is an instinct player. I was talking with someone today who said that “All he does is pass it back to the midfield or defenders!”
Well first of all, this isn’t true. Second of all, his passing options are usually limited on the wing but most importantly, he isn’t a thinker, so the easiest option is to reset, and then run.
When Xavi, Iniesta or Messi get the ball, they see this maze of angles, and players running around, and defenders and potential passing lanes. Dani Alves gets the ball and sees passing angles and potential crosses. Alexis Sanchez gets the ball and says “How can I get to goal, to set someone up for something?” Because that’s what he does. And if he can’t do that task, he hits the reset button.
When Udinese first got Sanchez, they put him on the wing, and he wasn’t very good. Then somebody actually watched video of him leading the attack for Chile, and said “Hey, let’s try putting him in the middle, and let’s see what happens.” Boom. Player of the year.
In doing some digging, the term for what Sanchez was for Udinese, rather than a trequartista, is actually a fantasisti, the kind of free-role playmaker who might come from the center or wing. They can score goals, but will be most likely seen assisting and setting up others, kind of a 9 & 3/4s.
In the real world, Sanchez and Messi would probably switch numbers, but that isn’t going to happen. Because Alexis Sanchez had the great misfortune to come to a team who has the best player alive, who is already playing the position for which Sanchez is best suited. That is a big, GIANT problem because it means that Sanchez must become something other than what he is: a freelance hellraiser.
Complicating matters is that he is a freelance hellraiser on a team that likes to play a system, and build play methodically. So when the ball comes to Sanchez in a scoring position, it seems like he is thinking too much because he IS thinking too much, precisely because he isn’t doing what his instincts would like to do.
Numbers and stuff
In Sanchez’s first season with the club, he notched double-digit goals, and it looked like he was going to rock the house. In this, his second year, he has missed sitters, done the headless chicken thing and seemed to have been plagued with indecision.
But he has also demonstrated an astounding work rate at both ends of the pitch, set up goals, created space so that others can score goals and facilitated in-the-box attacking.
The question becomes what people see, and how they perceive what they see. Look at this video, posted by AllasFCB, and tell me that this is a player who isn’t Barça quality. Further, tell me it’s a player who had the indecisive, error-prone match that many say he did. Pretty tough ask, and that doesn’t even get into the defensive plays.
But intangibles aren’t tangible. “He misses sitters.” “he can’t score goals.” Which isn’t quite true. But he has certainly become defined by not only those misses, but expectation. He was supposed to improve upon his past season numbers. He is supposed to put away the chances that he gets. Really? I’m sure that many of you remember Samuel Eto’o his last season with the club, and how many gimmes didn’t get got. You can even flash forward and remember Lionel Messi gimmes that didn’t get got.
Now. The answer will be “Yes, but Eto’o and Messi have scored goals for the club, and buckets of them.” But that isn’t the point. The point is that attackers miss gimmes. They all do. But few of them are defined by it.
More numbers: Sanchez has 5 total goals in all competitions for the club, in 27 shots. Last season he had 15 goals in 60 shots. Messi has 55 goals in just over 200 shots. Does practice make perfect? Good question. For a player bereft of a natural scorer’s instinct such as Sanchez, almost certainly. Which isn’t to excuse the Sanchez misses. Far from it. But it is to provide a bit of perspective.
Pedro has 34 matches, 7 goals and 47 shots. That’s a 14% conversion rate, even lower than Sanchez’s just over 18% conversion rate. I know. “Pedro doesn’t miss sitters.” And yet we know that isn’t truth. Does anyone think that Pedro isn’t Barça quality? “Well no, he has scored buckets of goals for the club.” Yes. In the past. If Sanchez is being defined by his present, why isn’t Pedro?
Oh. Where is that sparkling. goal-scoring demon from Udinese? Sanchez’s last season with that club, he had 12 goals on 71 shots. That’s a lower conversion rate than this season, which is appalling to the cules who don’t consider him “Barça quality.”
Now, let’s really have some fun.
When we got Sanchez, I expected that he would score about as many goals as Xavi or Iniesta, plus a few because of his constant motion. He has 5 goals, Xavi has 6. Iniesta has 5, so not too far off. Why didn’t I expect that he would score more goals? Because he isn’t a striker. The difficulty, in part because of his number, in part because he is always running forward, people are judging him as a striker, instead of judging him as what he in fact is, a playmaker.
Now. The valid question could be, “What the hell is Barça doing buying another playmaker, when we already have 436 of them?” Valid question. An even more valid question is what did we expect Sanchez was going to be, at club and cule level? So the larger question becomes what is Sanchez? If his natural role is playmaker, why aren’t Xavi and Iniesta being held to the same scoring standard as Sanchez, who isn’t any more a striker than Xavi or Iniesta?
Some Thoughts From Euler
Ultimately Sanchez is best basically as a “midfielder” or “wide creator” (not even as a pure winger). But that’s not the requirement of the role he’s being asked to play now. And perhaps as importantly, those aren’t the expectations that supporters have. Just think about how different goal scoring expectations are for Sanchez and say, Iniesta. In substance they aren’t that different as players.
Barça bought a player who really was a trequarista and asked him to reinvent himself as a goal-scoring wide forward. That was always the risk of this transfer – for the player & the club.
I was just going through in my head all of the major transfers Barça has conducted over the past 5 or so years. It’s very striking how many players were bought for large sums only to be asked to change positions. It’s a major reason why the transfer policy has had this string of “failures.”
Regarding the system issues & Sanchez. A major part of it is that the Barça midfielders are essentially asked to play minimal goal scoring roles. Any goals they produced are viewed as “extra.” That means goal scoring really falls to the 3 forwards in an almost disproportionate way. Barça should be able to afford to play Sanchez as a wide creator — but doing so would require more goals from midfield.
For example — Busquets has appeared in 32 matches this season. He’s taken 3 shots all season (in Liga and CL). The player who is perhaps most comparable in terms of quality at the holding midfield role may be Bastian Schweinsteiger. He’s played in 29 total matches. He’s taken 44 shots. Just think about that. Busquets has taken that many fewer shots than a midfielder who himself doesn’t shoot all that much. Javi Martinez has taken nearly twice as many shots per game this year as Busquets.
Schweinsteiger has taken 44 shots on goal in 29 league & CL matches. So he’s roughly taken 15 times more shots this year than Busquets. That is stunning. 15x more shots
If you have 1 player in midfield who creates such minimal direct threat on goal, it’s very difficult to play a wide creator on the front line.
I love Busquets. Best player in the world at his position, and 1 of the top 10 regardless of position. But it’s striking how little he looks to score. Just not in him. And in turn that puts much more pressure on the front 3, and confines their roles. On average the barca starting midfield trio of Iniesta/Xavi/Busquets takes only 2.6 shots per game. Again — that is just amazing.
If your midfield is going to do that, then that puts enormous pressure on the front line to score. And the issue isn’t Messi taking some huge number of shots. He really doesn’t shoot very much compared to how often he scores. That’s not the issue. The outliers are the midfielders just not shooting.
But even if Barça got more goals from midfield that wouldn’t make supporters happy with Sanchez I’d guess. Even if Sanchez excelled in a wide creator role (which he did in many ways yesterday) he’d still be deemed a failure and people would want him out. We often talk about Henry, Eto’o & Messi but I wonder if in a sense that’s become a destructive model in terms of expectation setting. It’s really not easy in any way to reproduce but it still sets expectations for new players brought into the front line. (Kxevin note: Note that many say it isn’t unreasonable to expect to have three forwards who score 20 goals a season.)
If Sanchez leaves and returns to playing the trequarista role — especially if it’s at Juve — he’s going to wind up being seen as an absolutely world-class player and people will wonder how Barca could ever let him go.
(Regarding the lack of midfield scoring threat) There is almost literally no reason to worry about Busquets as any kind of threat on goal. And you see that when teams do “park the bus” vs Barça. They play off Busquets and allow him to circulate in a very congested final third, but they don’t bother to jump out on him or track his runs deep.
Can’t have Sanchez or anyone on the front line play a creative role really in this context. Really difficult to do.
Ancedotally, I’m sure everyone knows the midfield doesn’t look to score. But looking at it quantitatively is just so stark as it’s so extreme. Pedro Leon take more shots on goal per game than Busquets/Xavi/Iniesta combined. Juan Mata takes 80% as many shots per game as Busi/Xavi/Iniesta together. David Silva takes 70% as many shots as Busi/Iniesta/Xavi do together.
Mata & Silva are in no way “selfish” players or ones who even look to score all that much. They themselves are primarily “playmakers.”
I guess this may be worth a post.
So What Does All This Mean
First things first. Euler and I don’t love Sanchez, or aren’t Sanchez “fanboys,” as a couple of anti-social folks via social media labeled me. But we both think that some perspective on the situation is necessary, as well as an attempt to understand what we bought, vs what we have and would like to have. And then there’s the larger question of why a player with such talent isn’t succeeding at Barça. For me, there’s a certain irony in that Sanchez would have thrived at RM, even as he never considered for an instant going there (and I hope he doesn’t now).
For me, it’s better if Sanchez moves on, as I don’t think he is going to succeed at Barça. His agent would be a fool if he isn’t shopping his player, and the player would be a fool if he isn’t letting his agent shop him. I can only speculate that Sanchez doesn’t want to leave. Far from it. Recall the promises made to a dying guardian, the promises that made him ignore all other suitors in favor of us.
But playing against instinct and type is too difficult for any player, even one as talented as Sanchez. And at some point, he has to cut his losses and go where instinct can once again reign. Whether our club will be the poorer for it is difficult to say.