Chilean idol Alexis Sanchez performed solidly for Barcelona during his three-year stint at Camp Nou. But it would be fair to say that, despite decent numbers and a handful of scintillating performances, the Nino Maravilla often failed to reproduce his best football while representing the Catalan giants.
As Sanchez gears up for a new challenge in the English Premier League, a change of position could prove just as important as a change of scenery in galvanising the forward and helping him rediscover the form that once made him one of the top young prospects in world football.
New club Arsenal have just as much reason for wanting the best out of Alexis. The north London club are not known for their dramatic forays into the transfer market, the prevailing strategy under manager Arsene Wenger for the last decade being to bolster the side with young prospects who can be sold on for a profit when the time comes.
But for the second summer transfer window running, the Gunners have upset the odds. Mesut Ozil's arrival 12 months ago has been followed by the acquisition of the 25-year-old, for a reported transfer fee of around £35 million, per The Guardian. The key to happiness for both Arsenal and Sanchez, will be moving him immediately into the centre of the pitch.
Standing at just 5'7", Alexis is far from the archetypal physical Premier League centre-forward. Nor is he, with a club strike-rate of one goal every three or four games, amongst the most prolific strikers in the game. But focusing merely on his ability to put the ball in the back of the net takes away some of the central abilities of the Chilean's game, attributes that were also diluted by three years out wide, playing second-fiddle to Lionel Messi in Barcelona.
As Michael Cox noted in an article prepared for Arsenal.com, one of Sanchez's great strengths is his versatility. "It’s not often you would hear both ‘power’ and ‘creativity’ to describe a footballer—often powerful players and creative players are very different beasts. But Alexis is a true all-round attacking threat," he explained.
Alexis' final World Cup game was a perfect example of his versatility. In Chile’s unfortunate second-round defeat on penalties to Brazil, he started as a right-sided forward, attempting to sprint in behind the opposition defence. From that position, Alexis scored Chile’s equaliser.
But after an hour, coach Jorge Sampaoli removed Eduardo Vargas, a similar player to Alexis, and put on Mauricio Pinilla, an old-fashioned central striker. Alexis' role changed, and he switched from an outside-right position to an inside-left role, collecting the ball deep, linking midfield and attack, looking to play through-balls. Indeed, his neat one-two with Pinilla led to the striker thumping against the bar in the dying moments of extra-time.
Alexis showed he can play either role - he can be the Thierry Henry, or the Dennis Bergkamp. Power and creativity.
Partnering Alexis with the burly Olivier Giroud up front would give Arsenal the perfect big man, little man combination, allowing their new signing to both play off his team-mates' flicks when he holds up possession and also turn the tables by supplying the France international with a dazzling array of passing. Ozil will no longer feel isolated in the creative engine room; Alexis has the ability to drop back into the hole and provide a further passing option, easing the pressure on the World Cup winner and stretching rival defences.
Sanchez thrives when he is at the heart of play. It is not enough for him to wait in the area, feeding off the work of others. He wants to create as well as finish, start a move up the pitch before surging forward and closing in on goal. He is a thoroughly modern player, who acts without a predetermined position. It is no surprise that under the unorthodox Marcelo Bielsa and his disciple Jorge Sampaoli in Chile, the Argentines' fluid, hectic style brought the best out of their star pupil.
Wenger is another manager with the tactical knowledge and adventure to get the best out of his new man. Put Sanchez in the middle, with the license to roam across the field, and the results could be spectacular for the Gunners this season.