Should Arsenal play Alexis Sanchez as a central striker?
The Chilean has all the attributes to play up front but that could also be his undoing
It has been four seasons since Robin van Persie left Arsenal for Premier League rivals Manchester United and the bitter truth is that Arsene Wenger is yet to replace him with a dominating world class striker to lead the line. A long line of pretenders have followed and have found moderate success but none as much as the Dutchman in his last 18 months at the north London club.
Granted, Van Persie also had his problems with injury and did not play a full season fit until his final campaign where he scored 37 goals in all competitions (30 in the league). But that is the kind of clinical player that Arsenal have been craving for while Wenger refuses to splurge in the transfer market.
Olivier Giroud has been a decent addition to the squad but is yet to prove that he is the real deal over the course of an entire season. He was brought in as Van Persie’s replacement, albeit in a different type of role, and has been moderately successful with his back to goal but is not consistent enough.
Danny Welbeck was signed only because he wanted out of Old Trafford after being overlooked in favour of the bizarre experiment that was Radamel Falcao and so far the English striker’s rotten luck with injuries has kept him out of action for months at a time.
That leaves the only other decent signing to have actually made a huge impact at the club – Alexis Sanchez. Arsenal can thank Liverpool for selling Luis Suarez to Barcelona leading to the Chilean bidding farewell to the Camp Nou and two seasons with the Gunners has seen him score 42 goals, including 25 in his first season.
Wenger tried to sign Jamie Vardy from Leicester City and chasing his signature suggests Wenger is looking to move away from possession football. But Vardy rejected the Gunners’ advances while Gonzalo Higuain looks more interested in staying in Italy which means Wenger is back to square one.
Which leads to the question; can Wenger play Alexis Sanchez as a striker?
Alexis has all the qualities of a striker
Ever since his move to the Emirates, Wenger has deployed him mainly as a wide forward – a role that saw him and Pedro succeed at Barcelona thanks to Lionel Messi’s withdrawn striker role. His first touch, his ability to move quickly with the ball, his acceleration and devastating ability to shoot from anywhere in and around the box made him the perfect choice for Wenger who firmly believed in quick transitions – the ideal player for Wengerball.
“He is a striker and he's a good finisher. I like the fact he can play left, right, up front and that's why I went for him. When I bought him he can play centre forward or second striker or on the flanks.” – Wenger
However, Alexis has been deployed as a central striker on very few occasions. If Wenger could persist with Theo Walcott for so long and give him umpteen chances to lead the line in Giroud’s absence when he was injured, he could sure as hell give Alexis a shot too.
The Walcott experiment was a massive failure. His pace, his only promising attribute, was quickly negated. Though he could find the target on occasions when given the chance, his efficiency in front of goal reduced drastically – especially after returning from injury. His hesitation in going in for one-on-one battles and near-negligible presence in the air made him a liability compared to his threat from out wide.
That is where Alexis excels. Wenger always said the best strikers were South American because of their inherent quality to fight for the ball. European players nowadays undergo a lot of technical coaching and are deprived of situations where they must have the ball at all costs. That is not the case with players from countries such as Argentina, Chile and Brazil who have had a different upbringing that promotes skill first and teamwork later.
The Chilean has scored goals from all angles – both inside and outside the box. His never-say-die attitude has seen him retain the ball in physical battles with defenders and win headers near the six-yard box in spite of being only five-and-a-half feet tall.
The only problem was that whenever Alexis deployed up front he did not have a world class playmaker behind him. When both he and Mesut Ozil play, Alexis moves to the flank. Playing as a second striker did not work either as it deprived the Gunners of a player in midfield and saw many players’ roles changed to accommodate him.
But can Alexis succeed at Arsenal as a striker?
The answer to this question is both yes and no. Alexis has all the necessary qualities to survive as a no.9 – he is tenacious, plays with an urgency that many players lack and is a tireless worker who will also defend for the team.
But his mentality, work ethic and hunger for the ball is also a problem. There were many instances in the past two seasons where his ball-hogging slowed down Arsenal’s tempo and allowed defences to recover. While Giroud will look for the first available option to pass when his back is to goal, Alexis is more than likely to take it upon himself to score.
While that is not a complaint at all, it is something defenders have figured out and thwarted – which is why Alexis has been frustrated many times in the 2015/16 season. When there were options for a pass, defenders committed to covering Alexis knowing full well that he would shoot.
If deployed as a central striker, he would be receiving the final pass and he won’t be involved in the buildup. That may entice him to drop deep (or move wide) like he does currently to receive the ball and create opportunities. This could prove to be counter-productive without a man in the box or final third. The Chilean loves to be in the thick of the action and being the target man like Sergio Aguero may not exactly suit his game.
His best role is playing off a striker who can both occupy defenders and be the decoy. Giroud plays that role to perfection; as we saw in Euro 2016, leading to Antoine Griezmann having a fruitful tournament thanks to the Arsenal striker’s knockdowns, dummies and layoffs.
Alexis as a centre-forward is an experiment worth trying when defences play a high line. His searing pace would be ideal for that kind of scenario. But as we have seen with a huge majority of Arsenal games, the opponents tend to sit deep and give them a wall to break down – a primary reason for the lack of goals in the first half of most games last season. It has also been Walcott’s Achilles heel for years and something he is yet to overcome.
In such cases, Alexis is better off feeding off a striker and causing problems when he has time and space to work his magic. Some of Arsenal’s best moves involved Ozil and Alexis playing in tandem and it had to do with the Chilean drifting in rather than playing in limited space up front.
For now, Wenger is better off playing Alexis as a wide forward rather than confusing his role on the pitch and experimenting all over again. But should the opportunity to play him as a central striker arise, it would only happen if Wenger tried to out-think his opponent’s tactics rather than play his own game – something we have rarely seen from the Le Professeur .