It sounds simplistic, but Arsenal need their big players for the big occasions.
For a time, people contemplated if Arsenal were, against conventional wisdom, better off without their two best players.
The reasoning wasn’t bad. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil weren’t totally committed to the club or to their defensive responsibilities during the big matches. For what they lacked in talent, Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi more than made up for in heart and guts, as they showed so ably in the 0-0 draw against Chelsea. That game was a glimpse of what Arsenal could be without their star men; functional, workmanlike and, most importantly, dogged and disciplined.
However, the idea that Ozil and Alexis couldn’t also play that well always felt strange to me. These two are very committed to the attack and not what you’d describe as disciplined, in as much that you won’t see them chasing players back all the time, but they have a high work ethic. That much was proven well before the 2-0 win over Tottenham last Saturday. Go back and find any Arsenal win over a top side and you’ll find that these two have played in most of them. You’ll find plenty of games Arsenal have lost with or without them, but you won’t mind many they’ve won without them in the team.
That point is significant because if Arsenal have ambitions of winning big games, they need players who can perform at that level. This is where the argument that Arsenal would be better off without them falls down. We could scrap draws with a scrappy team, but it’s not enough to be escaping the big games with just a point. We want to win, and winning requires a decisive kind of quality.
What the game against Tottenham showed was that their doesn’t need to be a trade-off between quality and work ethic. It’s possible to have the best of both worlds. The trick with Ozil and Alexis isn’t to expend their energy having them run back into their own half, but to have them high up the pitch and pressing. It’s there that their experiences with Chile and Germany, both pressing sides, can be used to our benefit. Thanks to their efforts, and the backup supplied by the rest of the team, Arsenal were able to rattle Spurs and make the chances needed to win the game.
A look at our past wins against big sides also suggests that the more aggressive we are, the more dangerous we tend to be. The 3-0 wins over Manchester United and Chelsea in recent times – both games where Ozil and Alexis were devastating – showed that high pressing and quick football worked for us. On the flip side, the more passive we are, the more prone we are to getting a hiding. The recent trip to Manchester City was an excellent example of that.
You’ll seldom find any big team leaving out their best players for the big occasions. The increased defensive demands have never deterred Chelsea always playing Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard, and doesn’t stop Manchester City playing Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. Instead, these players buy into the need to be more compact and more of a team player, if just for one game. Ozil and Alexis are not exceptions to this. The importance of the North London derby wasn’t lost on them, and they responded accordingly.
In a future where Ozil and Alexis likely won’t be at the club, it’ll be worth remembering that quality does not, and should not, have to be compromised for hard work.
Players like that are always valuable to a team, but when the time comes to bring in replacements, Arsenal should be looking at players who can make a difference in the big games.