Eyebrows were raised when Arsene Wenger opted to deploy Alexis Sanchez as a centre forward in their Champions League opener against Paris Saint Germain last night. The Chilean played there against Liverpool, Leicester and Watford, but that was a necessity rather than a tactical ploy.
Olivier Giroud was given an extended break following Euro 2016, and Arsenal were still to bring in a striker in the transfer market. Lucas Perez has since arrived from Deportivo La Coruna, giving Wenger two genuine strikers to choose from. Lucas was handed his debut against Southampton and, despite some nice one-touch interplay, struggled to get into the game (not aided by a clunky team performance). Wenger admitted the Spaniard looked short of games, and Sanchez was reinstated.
This seems quite revealing about Giroud’s place in the pecking order. The French striker has been a very important player for the Gunners, but you sense Wenger is trying to wean his side off Giroud. There may be some disjointed performances during the ‘cold turkey’ phase of this programme, but Arsenal’s longest-serving manager looks prepared to take that risk.
Giroud has been a dependable crutch for his team, but his very obvious strengths sometimes mean Arsenal are forced to play in a very obvious way. Wenger could be looking for greater mobility and variation.
To borrow a word from the man himself, picking Sanchez made some sense ‘footballistically’ last night. It is easy to see why, in a difficult away game against high-class opposition, Wenger might envisage a scenario were Arsenal have to rely on the counter-attack. For obvious reasons, Giroud is not much of an asset when the team has to spring defence into attack quickly and travel big distances up the pitch. A fluid front three of Alex Iwobi, Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looked as if it might suit the occasion (it did not, for reasons we’ll get to).
Sanchez is not as quick as many people think; or rather, not as quick in the sense many assume. He is extremely sharp in tight spaces and over five to 10 yards, much in the same way Freddie Ljungberg was. However, he is not quite the type of athlete who can go through the gears in a 20 to 30-yard sprint without the ball and any counter-attacking team needs this (compare Sanchez to Walcott, Thierry Henry or a young Nicolas Anelka and you will see the distinction).
He is not a striker to whom Arsenal can just punt the ball into the channel and expect him to chase all day. The ball will keep coming back, as it did in the first half of last night’s game. Sanchez needs closer interaction with teammates over shorter distances. Wenger said after the game:
“In the first half, our midfield played a bit too far from Alexis. In the second half we played higher, and after the kick-off in the second half we had a good chance to come back, which we did.”
Amidst all this rumination, it is easy to forget that Sanchez scored the Arsenal’s equalising goal with a well-struck shot after Iwobi saw an effort saved. The former Barcelona man has many of the technical and physical attributes any team would want from their striker. He is aggressive, hardworking, strong and a natural finisher off both feet. The doubt over Sanchez is whether he has the positional discipline to hold his position in the middle and occupy centre backs.
Put simply, he does not. Sanchez likes to come short to receive the ball, and also likes to drift into the left channel. This is not an intrinsically bad thing, provided Arsenal have a runner to occupy the central space he has just vacated. The issue with Arsenal’s front three last night was that Iwobi and Chamberlain are also players who want to come towards the ball, and neither Francis Coquelin nor Santi Cazorla are the type of midfielder who is going to make runs into the box.
At Watford, Sanchez up front worked because Arsenal had Walcott on one flank, who loves to make out-to-in runs behind defences. Mesut Ozil was also adept at running into positions normally occupied by a striker, as Arsenal’s third goal that day demonstrates.
Were Sanchez at the tip of an Arsenal side that had Walcott or Danny Welbeck bursting into his space, as well as Aaron Ramsey breaking forward from deep midfield, he would have the freedom to leave his central post. Last night however, Arsenal’s side was packed with players who were either unwilling or unable to make penetrative runs without the ball. They were far too static. This made it a difficult night for Sanchez, despite his fine goal.
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