Arsenal and centre forwards feels increasingly like a story of unrequited love. It has been a continuous soap opera of spurned advances and no small amount of questionable characters. In the transfer market, the apple of Arsene’s eye has rejected his proposal on several occasions now, whilst closer to home at London Colney, several willing suitors have been deemed inadequate. The likes of Yaya Sanogo, Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott and even Gervinho have been afforded chances at centre forward, but have failed to win the manager’s heart.
Alexis Sanchez’s first three games as an Arsenal player saw him deployed as Arsenal’s centre forward. He managed a fine striker’s goal against Besiktas, but other than that, he failed to truly convince in the position. He also played there in a miserable 2-0 defeat to Southampton on New Year’s Day of 2015 and underwhelmed. Wenger abandoned the idea of Alexis as a centre forward fairly swiftly, shifting him across the front line.
When Özil was injured in the autumn of 2015, Alexis was deployed as a second striker behind Danny Welbeck. It’s a similar role to the one that he plays for Chile, just off of Eduardo Vargas. He played on the right when Özil returned, before moving more regularly to the left hand side of the attack thereafter. The Chilean again upped sticks and decanted to the right hand side at the end of last season as young Alex Iwobi impressed on the left.
With Welbeck injured and Wenger seemingly determined to crack the centre forward position once and for all, the question as to whether Alexis could fulfil the role is worth revisiting. Especially if Arsenal are able to procure the wide playmaker I think the manager has cased since the departure of Samir Nasri. Arsene Wenger has often explained that South America is ground zero for centre forwards in the modern game.
Their footballing education tends to be honed on the streets as opposed to the enclosed 3G havens that are de rigueur in European academies. Alexis certainly shares a lot of the qualities demonstrated by some of South America’s best modern strikers. Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Luis Suarez were all converted into world class centre forwards, having spent some of their formative years playing wide or in more withdrawn attacking roles.
Alexis would need to be coached to stay forward. His brief soirees as a striker have seen him attracted to the ball in the build-up phase. Like one of his beloved canines, he has not been able to resist the urge to bound after the ball and abandon his post. If Wenger can drum that tendency out of him, I think there is a great deal of potential for Alexis to play as a striker. He shares the same tenacity, physical presence and finishing skills that Tevez, Aguero and Suarez were able to harness as they progressed into more defined striking roles.
Alexis has the ability to turn sharply when receiving the ball under pressure with his back to goal. He has also demonstrated an aptitude for smart running and quick feet inside the area. We know that he can explode in behind defences too. The issue is to what extent the Chilean is coachable? He is such an instinctive player, it is difficult to imagine that he can have this kind of discipline drilled into him. There is still the suspicion that the Chilean reaches his optimum level when he is playing off of someone.
He plays behind Vargas for his country, as I have already mentioned. Vargas is hardly a stellar centre forward and La Roja have experimented with Sanchez as a striker, but have always abandoned the exercise swiftly. That said, Chile do not exactly possess a Mesut Özil or even a Santi Cazorla to provide the bullets. Alexis is, by and large, their creator (he has 33 assists to go with his 34 goals at international level), which is why Arturo Vidal often carries the greatest goal threat in the Chile side.
Sanchez’s best form in an Arsenal shirt has seen him combine with a mobile striker that works the channels. He clearly enjoys working with Danny Welbeck, whose plundering of those avenues allows Alexis to drift into more central positions untracked. During Walcott’s autumn stint as a centre forward, Sanchez often moved inside to create a lopsided strike duo with Theo. Alexis’ physicality and underrated aerial ability offset Walcott’s lack of prowess in either area.
Most of Alexis’ best runs in behind defences see him ghost in from wide positions, which is more difficult to do when you’re the focal point of the attack. (Not impossible mind, just ask Thierry Henry). From this vantage point, he can also match himself against less physically gifted full-backs and utilise his aerial attributes, something he is very good at doing from deep positions. Producing these flourishes from a centre forward role would require a little rewiring, but it’s a transition Henry and van Persie underwent in a relatively short space of time.
Maybe if the build-up play behind him were tighter, Alexis would not get drawn towards the centre circle so often. It is important to note at this stage that all but one of his centre forward appearances at Arsenal occurred when Özil was unavailable. On the one occasion that the German was stationed behind him, at Goodison Park in August 2014, Özil was making his first appearance of the season and Alexis was substituted at half time. At Southampton, on that fateful New Year’s Day in 2015, Arsenal’s midfield 3 consisted of Coquelin, Chambers and Rosicky, with Chamberlain and Cazorla either side of him. Not totally bereft, but hardly Arsenal’s preferred arrangement, especially in terms of supply for the striker.
I still think the priority would be for a top class striker to occupy the centre halves for Alexis, as opposed to the Chilean hunting his own game. The signing of Xhaka and the attempt to sign Jamie Vardy hint at Arsene remoulding the team to master transitions more swiftly. This could play into Alexis’ hands- he is a ravenous presser of the ball, he possesses the pace and energy to play on the shoulder and he has the movement to find pockets of space in crowded defences.
The biggest issue seems to revolve around whether Alexis can master his instincts sufficiently to re-train as a centre forward. Guardiola, Wenger, Bielsa and Sampaoli have all been minded to try it at different intervals, but none have been convinced. My own view is that Arsenal still ought to make the acquisition of a top class striker a priority this summer, but I think playing Sanchez as a de facto centre forward is an option worth keeping on the table, not least with Welbeck injured and Walcott having tested the manager’s patience on several occasions.
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