Alexis Sanchez should be a star for Arsenal, but the Gunners are taking a gamble in asking him to play a new role up top.
Arsene Wenger seemed surprised by the question. After confirming that Olivier Giroud will be out until December after surgery on a fractured tibia, he was asked if Alexis Sanchez could fill in at center forward in the interim. "Not just for three or four months," he said. "He can play there his whole life. I bought him to play as a striker."
Perhaps he will be proved right. It was, after all, Wenger who turned Thierry Henry from being a gifted but inconsistent winger into one of the most feared center forwards in the world, and if he believes he can do the same with Alexis — who is more consistent than Henry was when he made his transition — then there’s no reason to doubt him. There is, though, some way to go yet, and more cynical Arsenal fans can hardly be blamed if they see in Wenger's determination to play Alexis as a central forward a missed opportunity to sign a proven striker.
Alexis scored the vital goal against Besiktas that took Arsenal into the group stage of the Champions League for the seventeenth successive season; he worked hard and is clearly a very fine player. He is not yet, though, a natural striker — or even a false nine — in this Arsenal side.
There was a moment in the first half when Arsenal broke, with Mathieu Flamini winning possession and playing a finely weighted ball out to Mesut Ozil on the left flank. He took the ball in his stride and charged forward, clearly aware of Alexis, who is lightning fast, hurtling up the pitch about 10 yards inside him. This, you thought, was an Arsenal fan's dream: Their two biggest signings leading a thrilling breakaway.
Ozil looked inside. A glance was exchanged. Alexis checked his run and spun infield in anticipation of a low angled cross. It didn’t arrive: Ozil had slipped a ball down the line, expecting him, after checking, to accelerate beyond his marker. There was a moment when Alexis seemed baffled, looking about in a fluster, unable to understand where the ball had gone. Then he saw it, understood, and shared another glance with Ozil. Whether Alexis had made the right run or whether he should have gone where Ozil had expected him to go is impossible to say. What is clear is that the two of them have not yet struck up an understanding.
That’s natural. This was only Alexis' fourth game for Arsenal; Ozil has played one fewer, his preseason having been slightly delayed by Wenger's determination to give Germany's World Cup-winners a few days extra to recharge. The thought of them in tandem is beguiling: The roadrunner energy of Alexis, all whirring limbs and manifest effort, and the deceptive calm of Ozil, a player who, at his best, controls games almost by suggestion. Nobody created more chances than Ozil at the World Cup, yet he did it in such an understated way that there were many who insisted he hadn’t had a good tournament.
Alexis clearly did have a good World Cup and, even if he and his teammates are still working out each other’s games, there have been signs of great promise in the early weeks of his time at Arsenal.
"Alexis had a good game," Wenger said after the Besiktas win. "He was mobile, dangerous and showed great fighting spirit. These are qualities that will be important in the Premier League."
That was true enough. He took his goal neatly, pouncing after Jack Wilshere, completing a one-two with Ozil and almost running into him. In the final quarter-hour, after Mathieu Debuchy had been sent off, Alexis' movement and capacity to draw fouls were Arsenal’s prime release. But there was little to suggest his ability and work-rate would not better be deployed deeper, coming from behind a striker, rather than operating as that striker himself.
There was another instance early in the second half when, released by a superb pass from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla bustled into the left side of the box. He drove a low ball across the face of goal and, with Alexis two or three yards from getting a touch on it, it went out for a goal-kick. There’s always a danger in reading too much into any single incident — who knew what else Alexis may have envisaged, what possibilities he may have seen? — but it was hard not to think then that a more natural leader of the line would have been sprinting for the back post sooner than Alexis did. After all, if the ball were cut back, he knew Oxlade-Chamberlain was making his way into the top of the box.
But it's not just about movement and instinct. Alexis simply doesn't have the bulk to hold the ball up or win headers as Giroud did in the second half against Everton on Saturday. His prime asset is pace, which may anyway be better deployed from deeper. If he is to be the No. 9, he — and Arsenal — become reliant on the precision of those around him. It's true that that’s how Barcelona plays, and it's equally true that Wenger, looking to create his simulacrum of Rinus Michels' Ajax for the modern age, dreams of a similar swirl of diminutive attacking midfielders. But that is a tiny and distant star to be aiming for.
Alexis will settle and will build a mutual understanding, and the early signs are that he will have a bright future at Arsenal. Whether it will be at center forward, though, is less clear.