Arsenal won't see the best of marquee summer signing Alexis Sanchez just yet. The one-time FC Barcelona attacker finding his best form will be a process, but one that is worth the wait for the Gunners.
Sanchez has struggled somewhat during his last two matches for Arsenal, which resulted in draws against Besiktas and Everton. The Chilean was substituted in both games, even coming off at half-time against the Toffees, after struggling to adjust to Arsenal's style of play.
Finding the right method of play for Sanchez is now more important with natural centre-forward Olivier Giroud possibly out for the next three months with a broken foot, per Matt law of The Telegraph.
There's two things to note about Sanchez's time with Arsenal so far. The first is how the challenge of adjusting to a new league and a new style of play hasn't diminished his effort.
The forward is still a tireless worker. His willingness to harass Everton centre-backs Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka, along with his annoyance when team-mates didn't follow suit, is a very good sign.
It shows a player who is ready to fight to win and who will work hard to get better. So while he might be struggling now, Sanchez's talent is not in question. If the effort is there, you should believe the rest will follow for a talented player.
Sanchez never stops running on and off the ball— Culann Davies (@CulannDavies) August 19, 2014
That's one reason why manager Arsene Wenger is right not to be worried about the early season form of his new signing, per BBC Sport: "He is not ready physically but I am not worried about him. Once he will be at his best physically his confidence will come back."
As for the rest of it, the style of play is the key. Specifically, Arsenal fitting their style to Sanchez. Although the two may seem like a natural fit in theory, things haven't run so smoothly in practice.
Put simply, it was disappointing to see the way Arsenal played with Sanchez as their main striker against Everton. If you're like me, you'd have welcomed Wenger's willingness to try Sanchez through the middle instead of Giroud, who was dismal against Besiktas.
But the disappointment came from seeing Arsenal attack Everton as if it were Giroud still leading the line instead of Sanchez. The Gunners' approach was based on the familiar short and intricate exchanges of passes, all leading to a fixed central point.
Usually, those passes lead to Giroud, who at his best is a natural target man. However, with Sanchez up front, Arsenal have a more mobile target. Specifically, they have pace and more expansive movement to aim for.
Sanchez needs to be released from various positions and distances on the field. That could mean through the lines between both centre-backs, or in the spaces between a central defender and full-back. It could also mean playing a ball over the top for the fleet-footed Chile international to chase.
Most important, Sanchez has to be released quickly. Passes aimed toward him must be played suddenly to take advantage of his natural acceleration.
More deliberate build-up suits Giroud and the midfield runners who break either side of him from deep. That's why it's no coincidence the Gunners played better when Giroud entered the fray at Goodison Park.
A methodical approach essentially wastes Sanchez. But if Giroud is sidelined, he could be about to spend more time through the middle. That will demand a quicker mode of passing.
Of course, Arsenal already have their quick-releasing quarterback in the form of Mesut Ozil. Unfortunately, rigours at the 2014 FIFA World Cup have denied the Germany international full preparation for his second season in North London.
Wenger on Alexis: 'Tactically he needs to improve his understanding with the players but overall I'm happy with his attitude.' #AFCvCPFC— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) August 16, 2014
That's one reason why Ozil and Sanchez, who've also never played together before, looked like strangers. It again reminded me of this excellent column written by Tim Stillman for Arseblog.com:
I think Arsene Wenger will want as much familiarity in the middle of the pitch as possible. Özil oils the wheels for our runners and that will hopefully allow Alexis and Ramsey to provide more of a cavalry for Giroud to call upon. The French striker lost the ball more times than any other player on the pitch on Tuesday evening and completed just 52% of his passes. Rustiness partially explains this, as does a pitch that basically turned the ball egg shaped. But a lot of it was down to a lack of support too.
Stillman's central point is that connections will take time to develop within a squad incorporating new players at key positions, as well as welcoming back significant figures.
For instance, Arsenal's ideal forward line this season could be Sanchez and a fit-again Theo Walcott flanking powerhouse Giroud. But getting the most from that trio is going to require approach play versatile enough to quickly release pace, as well as patient enough, when the situation demands it, to suit Giroud's strength.
But that kind of tactical flexibility is one of the main reasons why Sanchez was signed in the first place. It's just going to take a little time see the plan come to fruition.
But once Sanchez and his new team-mates click, it will be worth the wait.