25-year-old Chile international Alexis Sanchez has spent much of his career playing as a wide-forward or winger at Barcelona where he has resided for the last three years of his career.
At Udinese he functioned all across the attacking midfield, occasionally through the centre of the midfield attack as a playmaker, but usually as a winger. His early career in Argentina with River Plate however was marked by his intention of becoming a striker.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has converted some of the best strikers in the world from wingers or attacking midfielders during his time in North London – Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie being the most notable examples. Could he be intent on repeating that process with the Chilean?
Sanchez possesses all the attributes required to function as a centre-forward – he is exceptionally fast, yet strong despite his 5ft7” frame, and he is one of the most technically skilful players in the world with the ball at his feet.
His 21 goals in all competitions for the Catalans last term demonstrates how dangerous he can be in front of goal. His finishing is top quality and he only needs half a chance – he is intelligent in the way Dennis Bergkamp and Henry would often opt to chip the goalkeeper or deceive defenders with misdirection and his ability to turn provider is evidenced by his 15 assists last term.
Back in January Arsenal had been heavily linked with Germany youngster Julian Draxler with some reports suggesting Wenger was considering bringing him in at the Emirates with converting the Schalke winger into a striker and, in many ways, Sanchez is closer to the finished-article than the youngster and former target.
The key differences between Sanchez and Henry as well as Van Persie is his height – both the France legend and the Dutchman are over 6ft tall, which Sanchez is not. In the Premier League, especially in previous eras, physicality has been a crucial part of a centre-forward’s ammunition and Sanchez could get bullied off the ball.
The most important consideration for the manager should he attempt to convert another winger into a striker is whether he believes it is in the player’s best interests for his development – he will have to assess where Sanchez is most comfortable and, crucially, most effective for Arsenal.
This video illustrates well how intelligent and effective his movement can be and how he draws defenders, dragging them out of position so that he can exploit the space in behind with his pace. This is something Theo Walcott has become adept at over the last couple of seasons. Sanchez perhaps has an added edge that he prefers to drop deep, oftenoperating as a ‘false 9’ which could be a very effective means of deploying him at Arsenal.
The way he bends his runs is something associated with centre-forwards – he knows he has the edge over most defenders in a foot race so he times his runs to perfection and when he receives the ball in behind, it’s one touch and then he strikes.
His play is very much like a centre-forward – in fact in some ways his style of play is more like a striker than a winger. He rarely runs to the by-line and prefers to come inside off the flank and when he receives the ball to feet, he runs at defenders and has the ambition and drive to beat players and work a shot at goal.
With Olivier Giroud already at the club as well as young Yaya Sanogo and the prospect of Loic Remy also arriving this summer, Alexis Sanchez will probably not starting out as a centre-forward.
It wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest if at some stage in the season, Wenger plays him there and he seizes the opportunity. Wenger will work with him at London Colney to test him out and see if that is an avenue worth exploring, and if there is, it could work out for everybody - except Olivier Giroud.