By Will Stratmann
As if to prove that last season’s £42 million splurge on Mesut Ozil wasn’t a one-off, Arsène Wenger recently followed it up with the £31 million signing of Alexis Sanchez. While Ozil’s subtle playmaking and clever movement makes him a fairly easy player to categorise, Alexis is a different proposition altogether.
So, starting with his preferred position, what exactly does Wenger think of Alexis?
"He can play through the middle and (on) both flanks,” he said. “He’s a striker type, and I believe he gives us many option."
Okay, so Wenger likes his versatility. So too, it appears, did his previous coaches. At Udinese, for instance, Alexis performed brilliantly as a dynamic number 10. He then moved on to Barcelona, but rather than playing in behind a central striker, he spent much of his time in Spain operating as a goal-scoring right winger. For the Chilean national team, meanwhile, the 25-year-old has regularly found himself playing up front in recent times.
In a positional sense, then, Alexis has developed into something of a jack of all trades. And this is something that Wenger loves. Indeed, a quick perusal of the Arsenal squad confirms as much, with the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere able to play all over the midfield zone, including out on the flanks. The likes of Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Ozil, as well, can readily shift between the wings and a more central role.
Even in defence, Wenger favours multiplicity. Take new signing Calum Chambers, for instance, who, in spite of cutting his teeth as a full back, is equally capable of playing either as a holding midfielder or a centre back. But if this kind of versatility is the norm for Wenger, then what is it that makes Alexis stand out? What is it, specifically, that sets him apart from the other members of the squad?
"I took him because he is a player who has the qualities of (Theo) Walcott, he goes behind the defenders off the ball," Wenger asserted. "And with the quality of his runs he can be very important for us."
His conversion rate was a staggering 29 per cent, a figure which bettered all of the world’s top goalscorers (Messi, Ronaldo, and Suarez) during the 2013/14 season
Very important, indeed, and especially in the absence of the aforementioned Walcott. Blessed with searing pace and a penchant for direct attacking play, it wasn’t uncommon to see Alexis tearing in behind the back four during his time with Barcelona. And even more importantly, it wasn’t uncommon to see him hitting the back of the net, either. Throughout the course of his most recent La Liga campaign, Alexis scored 19 times from just 66 attempts on goal. His conversion rate was a staggering 29 per cent, a figure which bettered all of the world’s top goalscorers (Messi, Ronaldo, and Suarez) during the 2013/14 season.
So to summarise what we’ve learnt so far, he can play in a variety of positions, possesses blistering pace and can finish clinically. That’s all well and good, but what happens when Walcott returns from injury? Won’t that throw out the balance of the team? Moreover, are those attributes alone really worth £31 million?
Those attributes alone? Probably not.
So why did the notoriously shrewd Wenger spend so much on him, then?
Well, to put simply, Alexis can do it all in an attacking sense. Far from just the direct wide-forward described above, the Chilean’s performance in the Community Shield perfectly illustrated the all-round proficiency attached to his game. As Arsenal looked to assert themselves in the opening stages of the game, for instance, Alexis acted chiefly as a playmaker. Rather than run in behind, he tended to drop into spaces between the lines, before then aiming to play in the likes of Mathieu Debuchy down the right, or Yaya Sanogo through the middle. Indeed he did this brilliantly in just the 12th minute, not only finding an open patch of turf and then picking up possession on the half-turn, but also effortlessly sliding a pass through to Sanogo in the process.
Once Arsenal took the lead, however, the Chilean transitioned back to his more powerful game. With the Gunners now looking to protect their lead, they sat back and waited for opportunities to break and, in the form of Alexis, they had the perfect player to allow them to do just that. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the latest addition to Wenger’s ever-expanding band of attackers was central to Arsenal’s second goal, firstly carrying the ball down the right flank with pace, before then feeding Sanogo with a perfectly-weighted through ball. The towering Frenchman then combined with Ramsey to double the lead, but in this instance, it was the dynamism of Alexis that sent his team-mates on their way.
This multifaceted display wasn’t a mere one-off. In the lead-up to Chile’s World Cup campaign, for example, he was able to tailor his game to the unique circumstances confronting his side. When manager Jorge Sampaoli needed a goalscorer against England, it was Alexis who came to the fore with a double, while against Egypt, the ex-River Plate man then drifted into midfield to provide three assists on the night. In that sense, Walcott’s return from injury shouldn’t create any issues related to balance, simply due to the shape-shifting ability of his Chilean teammate.
So, then, what is it that makes Alexis so special?
It’s his ability to drop deep, and it’s his ability to run in behind. It’s his ability to score goals, and it’s his ability to assist them. It’s also his ability to play in a number of different positions, all the while providing a mix of muscular dynamism and thoughtful subtlety.
That’s what makes Alexis so special, and it’s also why Wenger was prepared to spend so much on him.
It’s also why Arsenal’s £31 million outlay should prove to be money well spent.