What Arsene Wenger can learn from Chile's use of Alexis Sanchez
Alexis Sanchez has had few problems adjusting to the pace and power of the Premier League: the versatility of Arsenal's second-most expensive signing has allowed him to settle into his new country with relative ease.
However, his terrific debut campaign wasn't a non-stop thrill ride: it took him four competitive appearances to net his first Arsenal goal, though manager Arsene Wenger was understandably unperturbed about his player's 'slow' start to life in north London.
"He is not ready physically but I am not worried about him," said Wenger after the 2-2 draw with Everton. The Frenchman was right not to worry, of course, as Sanchez went on a run of 18 goals in his next 26 games.
An intensive Christmas schedule contributed to a run of just one goal from 12 matches – against QPR – before the livewire 26-year-old returned to his best in the emphatic victory over Liverpool.
The Chilean's tactical flexibility means that his team-mates reach a higher level just from his sheer presence
Sanchez spent the majority of last season on the left wing of a 4-2-3-1, although he did occupy a number of different roles for Wenger's outfit. It wasn't until the Champions League meeting with Galatasaray in October that he found his reference on the left, scoring and assisting another for Danny Welbeck. If you want to be overly-critical it could be argued that his displays have dipped in high-profile encounters. Sanchez did score in matches against Manchester City, Dortmund and Liverpool, but equally managed just two goals in nine matches against last season's top six.
At Old Trafford against Manchester United he was on the periphery throughout and Arsenal struggled to bring him into the match; however, against Chelsea at the Emirates, he saw enough of the ball to make a difference but couldn't break down Jose Mourinho's defensive block.
But the Chilean certainly shouldn't be judged on goals alone, and his tactical flexibility means that his team-mates reach a higher level just from his sheer presence and movement.
It's been evident throughout his career; at Udinese he moved from a wide position to become a central winger and in turn made himself one of the top performers in Serie A. His speed caused havoc for holding midfielders, and he was able to make late runs into the box to finish chances. It was this switch that led Sanchez to hit double figures in league goals for the first time in his career.
When he moved to Catalonia, it took longer to adjust to the methodology of Pep Guardiola. But Sanchez kept at it, and when he left he was only behind Lionel Messi in the side's scoring charts that season.
Hot for Chile
At this summer's Copa America in his own country, Sanchez has symbolised his national team's changeability which has allowed them to find answers. Perhaps the recent efforts of Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas are something Wenger has paid attention to. In the opening game with Ecuador, Sanchez was utilised as the lone striker. It took a penalty to break the deadlock, with Vargas arriving as a late substitute to combine with the Arsenal man and put the game beyond doubt.
Against Mexico, Vargas started as the left-wing-back in a 3-4-2-1, with Sanchez leading the line on his own once again. It quickly became apparent that Vargas was at his most effective when he ran into central positions and tried to link up with Sanchez.
Coach Jorge Sampaoli opted to switch Sanchez with Vargas when Chile went 2-1 behind and this duly paid off when the Napoli winger equalised. In the second half, the duo played closer together, although it wasn't until almost the hour mark that they started operating as a pair.
Then, in the 5-0 thrashing of Bolivia, Sampaoli finally used them in tandem from the beginning for the first time in the tournament, with a diamond midfield behind. This only lasted till half-time, as Sanchez was rested for the final 45 minutes having scored eight minutes before the break.
It's not the first time that Sampaoli has deployed the duo in this way: Chile enjoyed a decent World Cup with a front pairing. The two attackers aren't too dissimilar stylistically, although Vargas is clearly not at Sanchez's level having spent last term on loan at relegated QPR.
The Arsenal influence
Wenger could take advantage of Sampaoli's pragmatism and combine Sanchez with a like-minded forward
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With Arsenal seemingly looking to solve some issues in the transfer market, they might need an attacking solution for a true title challenge. Sanchez could be partnered with either Theo Walcott, Welbeck or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; the fluidity of two quick strikers provides problems for opposing defenders, while all of the aforementioned have played as wingers.
This enables them to drag centre-backs wide, taking up positions between the full-back and central defender, or drop deep to supply key passes for onrushing midfielders. Olivier Giroud isn't mobile enough for the system to work, although that's not to disparage the Frenchman's contributions.
Off the ball, the striker-winger hybrids would be able to press high, win the ball back quickly and help perform rapid transitions from defence to attack. Their energy means that they can alternate in tracking offensive full-backs. Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge performed similar jobs for Liverpool, which resulted in their own championship attempt.
Wenger has flitted between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 in recent years, so a diamond midfield would allow him to control the midfield and operate with a No.10 simultaneously. Mesut Özil could fill the role of Arturo Vidal, albeit in a completely different style, as the German prefers to drift laterally rather than vertically like Vidal.
There are multiple contenders to supply the passing and running from central midfield, with Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey leading the way. The Gunners are fortunate to have a number of progressive full-backs who would be more than capable of providing width.
Wenger might not be as adaptable throughout matches as Sampaoli, but he could take advantage of the Argentine's pragmatism in his starting line-up and combine Sanchez with a like-minded forward.