Alexis Sanchez the final piece to complete Arsenal
Chilean attacking midfielder may be transformed into a striker by Arsene Wenger
Alexis Sanchez challenges Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko during their Emirates Cup game. Arsenal paid Barcelona €39 million for the player after he starred for Chile at the World Cup finals in Brazil. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
In his early days at Barcelona Alexis Sanchez was given the nickname “Cachai?”, which translates loosely into English as “do you understand what I’m saying?”. The point being: no, they didn’t. Sanchez is from Tocopilla on Chile’s far northern seaboard, a place where the locals speak in a brogue so thick with slang and grammatical oddity that Sanchez basically had to learn to speak Spanish in order to communicate properly with his new team-mates.
While it is tempting to see a favourable Arsenal-based omen in this – Patrick Vieira was given the nickname “What?” in his early days at Highbury – then it must be said Arsenal’s €39m summer signing already looks entirely in tune with his new surroundings. This is perhaps unsurprising given the obvious tessellation between player, manager and club.
As Sanchez prepares to take part in his first competitive Arsenal fixture against Manchester City at Wembley tomorrow it is hard to imagine the tactical demands of his relocation to north London have been cause for any great culture shock.
This is, after all, a club where the only real fluency required is a command of the international language of the attacking midfield, and where Arsene Wenger’s obsession with his ever-fattening roster of inside-forwards has gone from an exasperated in-joke to a point of endearing late-career eccentricity.
The signing of Sanchez from Barcelona has pushed Arsenal’s spending on nimble-footed midfield attackers to €188m in the last five years, while in the same period Wenger has spent just €16m on functioning centre-forwards – albeit Sanchez could yet end up redressing that imbalance a little given the early uncertainty over where exactly he might end up playing.
Obviously needsAlready there is a suggestion Wenger intends to convert him into the kind of pacy, hard-running central striker his team so obviously needs, just as Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie were both ushered in from the left wing and transformed into refined and thrillingly complete central strikers.
Sanchez has the speed, close control and finishing ability to suggest he might thrive as a cutting edge. His goals in Chile’s 2-0 defeat of England the last time he played at Wembley were evidence enough: the first a severe little poacher’s header nipping in front of Leighton Baines at the far post; the second a finish of real craft, racing in on goal and dinking the ball over goalkeeper Fraser Forster with a delightful sense of ease.
Deep-lying roleFor now though Sanchez is likely to settle in at Arsenal in a more familiar deep-lying role. With this in mind, and with Yaya Sanogo likely to start in front of a pedigree midfield at Wembley – the footballing equivalent of marching into battle in full Napoleonic regalia and then pulling out a popgun – some will conclude that for a second successive season Arsenal have spent a large amount of money on a player they don’t really need.
Just as Mesut Ozil has been dismissed at times as an attacking midfield luxury too far, so there will be a temptation to see in Sanchez a William Carvalho-shaped hole, a Radamel Falcao-flavoured absence.
This, though, is to overlook the qualities he does bring, most obviously a refreshing sense of brawn and purpose.
Arsenal’s falling away in winter last season was marked out by a general sense of attacking entropy, not just a lack of pace but a lack of boldness. Sanchez was compared by his new manager to Neymar this week, but it is his non-Neymar qualities – upper body strength, hard-nosed direct running, a touch of nastiness – that will add something distinct to this Arsenal team.
Sanchez looks like an upgrade wherever he plays, most obviously in an attacking midfield trident with Aaron Ramsey and Ozil, a deliciously potent prospect.
Creative powerhouseIf the prospect of this delightfully versatile centre-forward cum roving creative powerhouse seems almost too good to be true it is worth remembering that Sanchez arrives in the Premier League with plenty still to prove.
In 2011, after a supremely productive season at Udinese he was voted the most promising young player in world football in a Fifa poll ahead of Gareth Bale and Neymar. The same year he signed for Barcelona and seemed a perfect fit for the highly mobile, highly fluid Guardiola-era forward line.
In the event, his time at Barcelona was marred by some niggling injuries. Last season was his most productive with 19 league goals and overall his record is fine: Sanchez played 141 matches under three different managers at Barca, scored 47 goals and provided 34 assists.
There have also been 10 goals in the last year for Chile, for whom Sanchez has occasionally played as a central striker, but more often as an attacking midfielder, from where his Arsenal career is also likely to be launched.
A defensive midfielder or a proven goalscorer might have provided a more complete starting XI, but the suspicion is Wenger gave up trying to create a complete team some time ago, and is instead set on creating a completely Arsenal kind of team.
Unusual directionSo Wenger has thrown his lot in with the polyvalent, ball-playing inside-forward, of whom Sanchez is at least a more concentrated form, a player of unusual directness and precision.
Quite where he starts – and indeed where he ends up after that – promises to provide not just a fascinating subtext, but a potentially vital detail in the progress of this emerging team. Guardian Service