Alexis Sanchez can take centre stage for Arsenal

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In his book, Lonely at the Top, a biography of Thierry Henry, Philippe Auclair reveals the psyche of one of Arsenal’s greatest players, although in getting there, the troubled image he has in his native France. In particular is the fascinating account of how Henry ended up at The Gunners, having become an increasingly maligned figure in his country despite winning the World Cup, and having attempted to manufacture moves early in his career to Real Madrid, then to Arsenal.

Henry was desperate to move to North London to rekindle a fleeting relationship he had with then coach, Arsène Wenger, who threw him in for his professional debut for AS Monaco at the age of seventeen amid in-fighting between board members, injuries and bad form. Back then, in the summer of 1994, Wenger had the chance to manage Bayern Munich. However, depending on which report you read, Wenger either resisted the corporate German giants, or that the move was blocked by AS Monaco, who in comparison, were not so much the tiny family-owned business, but if that business operated the only shop-front in a 50-storey building and had its own car-park. And that family was the royal family. In any case, Wenger stayed in the hope that Monaco would grant him a free-hand in teambuilding. A game after handing Henry his debut, however, the Frenchman was sacked.

Despite that, Wenger continued charting Henry’s progress whilst keeping an eye on France’s other youth prospects and it was in one of his trips to follow Les Bleuets that he told Henry that he was “wasting his time on the wing and would have a different career as a centre-forward.” Suffice to say, it would take a nightmarish half a season at Juventus – playing sometimes even as a wing-back – for Henry to realise how right Wenger was. “I won the World Cup as a winger,” Henry says in Lonely at the Top. “I’d already been in the national team, and Arsène was telling me I could have another career as a centre-forward. It was difficult for me to understand.”

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Nobody knows the full extent of the conversation that Alexis Sanchez had with Arsène Wenger before signing for Arsenal, but it is likely Wenger seduced Sanchez by offering him some assurances of his future position, namely by promising to play him up front.  Sanchez, though, when pushed on what was said was unwilling to give an exact answer, possibly because of the language barrier, saying that they only talked about using him in a number of positions, but also possibly because he’s been here before, as settling on his best position has been a bone of contention throughout his career.

In the youth sides, Sanchez was an attacking midfielder, given a free role to dazzle with his quick feet and vast array of tricks. “The first time I saw him I said he had no limits,” says Nelson Acosta, the manager who first drafted Sanchez, as a 16-year-old, into his first team at Cobreloa. “He has everything. Normally in young boys there is something missing, be it skill, or vision, or the ability to beat a man. Not in Alexis. That is very rare.”

Soon Sanchez would be snapped up by Udinese although he would have to wait a while before playing for the first team, twice being shipped out on loan to sharpen his skills. When he came back to Udinese, he took a while to get going, shunted out to the right wing before some genius decided it was best move him back to the centre where he first caught the eye. Here Sanchez flourished playing as a kind of second-striker-winger hybrid – a fantasista in the loosest sense – behind the celestial Antonio Di Natale, scoring 12 league goals and notching 10 assists. His exerts caught the eye of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, who was ever looking for ways to perfect his Barcelona side, and the prospect of dovetailing both Sanchez and Messi was a scintillating one. The first sign of what they could do together was in El Clasico, when Sanchez was used as a poacher in a 4-3-3 and with half-an-hour played, Messi slipped him through with a delicious through-pass. Sanchez didn’t take long to compose himself, slotting the ball into the bottom corner in a soaking wet night in Madrid. It would be the last time, however, Messi would play second fiddle to somebody and for the next three seasons, Sanchez would almost exclusively ply his trade on the right-flank.

It’s not as if Sanchez failed to perform with his distinction in that role: his darting runs off the flank into the box would become a key feature of how Barcelona would play and in his final season, he would score 19 goals, yet he has always felt as something of an interloper, an incorrigible cog in a perfectly oiled system. The way Barcelona play, where the passing is low risk but high percentage, and where opposition defences are set, it requires a sureness to your play that Sanchez was only just beginning to get to grips with. Indeed, if you look at his underlying numbers, you realise just how much his creative instincts were dulled: key passes are at 1.7 per game whilst he only completed 36 dribbles all season. (To put that into account, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Jack WIlshere completed more. It’s likely, when given a central role at Arsenal, those two parts would become a key factor of the team’s play). On the flip side however, his shooting and assists numbers are excellent.

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Created by Ted Knutson (follow @mixedknuts)

It was as if at times, his instincts were dulled, from once playing with the intrepidity of a leader of a street gang in a central role, cooking up ideas behind his angular forehead that you wouldn’t expect, his role was reduced to a ferreter and furrower, running up and down the flanks as if seeing the pitch as elaborate tunnels.

The trouble is, Sanchez always looked like a winger which in itself an achievement in an age where footballers are, at a certain level – below the very best and above the second rate – relatively indistinguishable in terms of athleticism and basic skills. And as Barney Ronay writes, that means “football has become more chess-like, more a matter of the location and exploitation of momentary weakness.” At Barcelona, where almost all outfield players are below six-feet, that problem was exacerbated because the whole team, even down to the goalkeeper, was viewed almost as an extension of the midfield. There was no need for specialist strikers (and defenders as Javier Mascherano would find out). Everybody’s relative skills were taken into account of how they would contribute to goals: Alexis was fast and an excellent dribbler therefore he would run into the box from the flanks.

Playing for the national side in the World Cup was a breath of fresh air. Used in an inside-right position with the freedom to move centrally, Sanchez was outstanding as Chile were agonizing knocked-out on penalties by Brazil, though his best play happens to be just before the World Cup started when he produced three scintillating assists in a 3-2 comeback win against Egypt. Here, he showcased everything that he came to promise when he first burst onto the stage; his impudent dribbling ability, the vision to see a pass and power from deep. Put simply, it was Messi-esque. Perhaps it’s as Wenger once said; that by deploying a central player wide as Barcelona did, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.”

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When Alexis Sanchez joins the first team back from his holidays, the expectations will undoubtedly be high. At that cost, at around £32m, he certainly has to be a game-changer. Certainly, it changes the way Arsenal play if indeed he is deployed as a lone striker, because in the exact opposite way Olivier Giroud brings others into play with his neat touches and flicks, Sanchez, by running the channels, sometimes away from play, can create space for the ball-players to play.

For me he has the three ingredients to play up front that all Arsenal strikers have possessed in the past: 1) the spontaneity to produce something out of nothing; 2) the ability to run behind and stretch defences and 3) excellent dribbling in 1v1 situations. However, there’s a psychological adjustment he would have to make, maybe more so than the physical, as now defenders will be breathing down his neck. For the most part of his career, Sanchez has generally tended to play facing the goal, although having said that, it’s an adjustment he should easily make as protecting the ball, then twisting and turning away from markers is one of his strengths. Indeed, that’s probably why he endears so much to Wenger. Like Henry, who others didn’t see as a central striker (most when at Juventus where Carlo Ancelotti admitted it was one of his great regrets), Sanchez is an all-rounder, capable of dropping deep or pulling wide, and then, as quick as a flash, able to change the emphasis of an attack with his one-on-one dribbling and explosive running. Indeed, that’s exactly what makes Arsenal dynamic: when they’ve got their back to goal, and then suddenly they spin away from markers and look to play the next ball forward. Alexis Sanchez could play a central role in any success Arsenal have next season.

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Arsenal’s dynamic dribbling duo can drive the Gunners to glory

The benching of Arsenal’s too most gifted dribblers due to slight knocks did not help the Gunners’ cause in the 1-1 draw to Birmingham.
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Two goals. One had a bit of luck; the other was dizzyingly graceful. Yet both were just rewards for the almost impudent desire of both players – although paved with good intentions – to get as close to the goal as possible. Samir Nasri’s jinxing and hypnotic run and finish against FC Porto may last longer in the memory than Andrey Arshavin’s flick between two Hull defenders but the goals evoked memories of the golden age of the dribbler. And while the one man masterclass that is Lionel Messi shows week-in-week-out in La Liga that the art of the dribble is far from dead, modern tactics set out to make sure it’s becoming a marginalised trade. At best, however, the dribbler is a game-breaking trait to have and Arsenal’s movement increased ten-fold with the introduction of Nasri and Arshavin in the 1-1 draw against Birmingham.

The two ends of the spectrum were in some sorts displayed in Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Hull City as the home side looked to remain compact and overcrowd the space in the centre for Arsenal’s more technically proficient players to play. As a result, Samir Nasri – the Gunner’s highest central midfielder – found his best work to be when linking up with the players out wide. At it was it was Andrey Arshavin who did find the early goal but even that, expectedly was hard work as he was instantly surrounded by three Hull defenders before firing in. As displayed by these examples, if the wide areas are the positions with the most space, then it is far better off taking advantage of them with your most gifted dribblers. Indeed, that represents part of Arsene Wenger’s thinking when deploying such players as the Marseilles man on the flanks – his ingenuity allowing Arsenal to retain a passing style but still possessing the option to be more dynamic. “What is important is to keep the balance between giving the ball in the final third and scoring goals,” said Wenger after Nasri’s goal against Porto. “On this occasion he made the right decision and has the talent to do it.” And he also added: “He is a very intelligent boy, a quiet boy. He analyses what is happening on the pitch very quickly. He has good technical potential…I believe with the pace he has he can play on the flanks.”

Following Wenger’s ideology early this season of having two different types of wingers on each flank, usually one dynamic and one more technical (although that has recently been challenged by deploying Rosicky and Nasri on opposite flanks to control play better), Nasri’s best chances of starting is on the right, with the left side most likely to be occupied by Arshavin. The Russian can sometimes feel like an incorrigible maverick but Wenger is in no illusions as to his explosiveness. “He is always marked very tight and people do not give him a lot of room,” said the manager. “Everybody who plays against Arshavin says ‘make sure you mark him tight’. But even when he is marked tight in some of the so-called less big games, when you look at the tape afterwards, you always think ‘this movement was good’, or ‘this pass was great’. He always turns up with something special. He can be quiet for 20 minutes, and then suddenly turn up with something decisive. That is what you want from the big players – the big players make you win the big games.” Indeed, at Porto it was arguably his dynamic play, creating three of the goals which helped turn Arsenal’s fortune around.

Dribblers can feel a chancy luxury to have and that is perhaps why managers are more reluctant to play them out wide as it requires quick acceleration made all the more difficult as there is less room to run at the full-back on his outside foot and can lead to moves breaking down. Nevertheless it’s the variation and dynamism that they provide which can turn matches as shown by Arjen Robben’s tantalising displays against Fiorentina, scoring the all-decisive third goal to send Bayern Munich through.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson has so expertly analysed the increasing use of wingers on the opposite sides to their preferred feet but while that makes dribbling easier (allows the winger to attack the full-back’s weaker side) that is not specifically the main advantage that is to be exploited. In Fulham’s recent 3-1 defeat to Tottenham, Damien Duff starting on the right, hardly spent much of the game attacking his man directly as he found cutting in would only lead to more congestion so he realised if he was to succeed in dribbling, it was to in dribbling with movement. The goal he created for Bobby Zamora was created by doubling up in the centre, leaving the left-back Assou-Ekotto with no-one to mark and forcing the central defender, Sebastien Bassong to push up to deal with the extra man he became. In tandem with Arjem Robben at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, the dribblers found a new dimension starting on the ‘wrong’ flank so as to say and which complemented the team’s style.

It seems like the game is taking a holistic route and if it is true as former Ecuador manager Luis Fernando Suarez argues, that taking advantage of wide areas is the key to opening up teams, that can only be exploited best by what’s happening around you. Antonio Valencia has particularly profited for Manchester United by the way his side build up play, allowing him to stretch play on the right as the opposing full-back is forced to tuck inside because of United’s moving of the ball from left to right. And in moments, the defender got too tight he found space to exploit in the centre, winning the penalty against Liverpool by running on the inside of Insua and causing the foul by Mascherano.

And so returning to the 1-1 draw at Birmingham, the starting line-up featuring a front three of Theo Walcott, Nicklas Bendtner and Tomas Rosicky instantly looked worrying at St. Andrews – even more so than the pitch. No real unpredictability and not enough complementation, Walcott was always going to struggle with a lack of creativity in the line up not helped by his style. Switching to the left flank may have been another option yet you couldn’t help think the versatility and explosiveness of Nasri and Arshavin were huge losses in opening up the Blues defence.