They say a week is a long time in football, so a year must represent an eternity. It’s certainly felt like that at Arsenal, where the most drastic of transformations has taken place in that time.
Cast your minds back to the opening day of last season, where the Gunners’ 3-1 defeat at home to Aston Villa was met by a chorus of boos and well-documented fan meltdowns. Fast-forward 12 months and Arsenal boast the FA Cup in their trophy cabinet, the signing of Mesut Özil and, now, another thrilling addition in the form of Alexis Sánchez.
Much like the transfer of Özil on deadline day last year, this deal represents a real shift in the club’s policy and ambition. Years of surviving on a very limited budget since the stadium move in 2006 have finally bore fruit as Arsenal can now flex their muscle in the transfer market, and genuinely compete with clubs backed by billionaire owners.
Suggestions that Arsène Wenger simply doesn’t like to spend have been emphatically squashed as he’s forked out north of £70million on two players. That’s what this is about – the statement of intent and feel-good factor it brings off the pitch, as well as the very obvious qualities the likes of Özil and Sánchez bring on it.
Arsenal have bought players from Barcelona and Real Madrid in the last year – two of Europe’s elite, of course – and not just teenage rookies that have been warming the bench. You could make a strong argument that – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo obviously aside – they have lured the best players from those clubs to North London. Of course they were both looking to restructure and needed to sell to finance moves for Gareth Bale and Luis Suárez, but that shouldn’t take any shine off the fact Arsenal have managed to sign genuinely world class individuals.
So what will Sánchez bring to the Gunners? To name but a few: pace, power, technique, workrate and productivity, as his record of 21 goals and 11 assists last season will testify. Perhaps more importantly, he is an outlet for the aforementioned Özil. The German suffered a dip in form and some terribly excessive criticism midway through last season, which coincided with the absences of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott.
Without that duo, Özil lacked teammates who could run in behind opposition defenses, and get on the end of his trademark through balls. Alexis solves that problem, and brings versatility in that he can play on either flank or indeed through the middle as the lone striker.
Wenger spoke last summer of looking for players who could function both with and without Olivier Giroud – insisting that the French striker was very much still a big part of his plans. In Sánchez, he has found just the man.
Giroud has proven his worth as something of a flat-track bully, with a very respectable record against sides in the bottom half of the table, but has typically struggled against stronger, better defences. The signing of Alexis allows Wenger to be flexible in the way he sets up his team offensively.
To my eye, Arsenal have two ways of playing nowadays. The first is the possession-based, patient build-up style of football synonymous with the Cesc Fábregas era. In this they have the likes of Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, and even Lukas Podolski who look to ‘probe,’ and use Giroud as a sounding board for one-twos and link-up play in and around the opposition penalty area.
Their other style of play is a counter-attacking set-up more associated with the famous Invincibles side. Here, they look to, as countless commentators a decade ago used to purr, “turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye.” Ramsey is one of the best around at those quick midfield transitions, and Özil is at his most devastating on the break, looking for pacey attackers like Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and, of course, Sánchez to finish moves.
Against the top sides, particularly away from home, where they notoriously struggled last year, and where they may not see as much of the ball, this may prove an effective tactic to employ, and Alexis will only improve their effectiveness in that.
I would imagine, certainly at the beginning of the season with Walcott still out injured, the Chilean will be used from the right with Giroud maintaining his place at the tip of the Gunners’ attack. As the season progresses, however, particularly considering the Frenchman’s limitations against the top sides, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Sánchez used down the middle, with Walcott operating from the right.
With Podolski, Yaya Sanogo and potentially Joel Campbell as well, Arsenal suddenly have plenty of depth in this department, when they were desperately lacking here at times last season, when Giroud had to carry the burden all by himself. I think the variety of options Alexis brings to the Arsenal attack make him a far more valuable asset than an out-and-out number nine such as Mario Mandžukić, Mario Balotelli or Karim Benzema would have been.
His goal record is excellent – only Messi, Ronaldo and Diego Costa scored more in Spain last year, and with Arsenal’s creative midfield he certainly won’t be shy of goalscoring opportunities at the Emirates Stadium. Sánchez’s work ethic is also well-documented, and has been showcased at the World Cup where he was terrific for Chile, scoring twice.
Much like Özil, at 25 it’s not unreasonable to suggest that there’s plenty more to come from Alexis Sánchez. He has all the attributes to succeed in the Premier League and could well prove to be the perfect addition as Arsenal look to build on their FA Cup success.