Part 1: Ignore Positions, Focus on Attributes
Many people tend to define a player by a position. Often, these definitions paint a limited picture of a player. These definitions can cloud our ability to think about how a side can use a player or cause us to inappropriately group players together (just this Sunday I saw tweets comparing Calum Chambers signing to the United’s Phil Jones, two completely different players, because they played similar positions prior to moving to Arsenal and Manchester United, respectively). If you play Philipp Lahm as a holder, it does not mean that he has a different identity as a footballing talent. His tendencies, skills, and experience remain the same. That bundle of attributes just occupies a different role, a different area of the pitch, and are utilized differently by Lahm compared to when he plays right back. Throw in the fact that football seems to have moved into an era of greater universality, and it seems that we should define players by their attributes, not by their position.
Therefore, when it comes to picking an XI and a system, the question should not be “Is this player a striker?” or “Is this player a center-back?” Instead, a team should look to allocate these bundles of attributes (players) to areas and roles on the pitch so to maximize the value of the team.
For example, look at Sergio Busquets. He has characteristics (positional and tactical intelligence, ability to read the game, immense technical quality, etc.) to play as a holder and to serve as Barcelona’s metronome. However, against some sides (particularly a side that can press holding midfielders well), playing Busquets at center-back (or having him start as a holder and then drop deep) may represent the value-maximizing allocation of that bundle of attributes. In that deeper position, Busquets has more time and space to receive and distribute the ball, arguably his most important and irreplaceable role at Barcelona. So while a marginal loss, with respect to defending out of possession, may exist (marginal loss depends on the quality of the center-back he replaces and how the team has to rejigger the XI), the marginal gain in possession can often outweigh the loss, leading to a net benefit. By defining Busquets by the bundle of attributes he possesses and not by a position, a team can extract see that potential net benefit in particular matches (another example of attributes vs. perceived position is Jack Wilshere).
Defining a player by his attributes, rather than the position(s) he has played most often, also comes into play when discussing the future utilization of Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal. Maybe, instead of saying he cannot play up front because he has not regularly played there, it may prove more beneficial to look at the attributes he possesses and see if that bundle of attributes can produce value for Arsenal in that position.
Alexis Sanchez is not tall (5’9”), is not as strong as most top center forwards, and is not great in the air. Alexis Sanchez is quick, a willing and able dribbler (particularly during his time at Udinese and playing for Chile), never stops running, and makes intelligent runs. He can operate as both a creator and a finisher (goal conversion rate the past 3 seasons: 26.09 (11-12), 25.00 (12-13), and 28.79 (13-14)).
So, on the surface, it appears that Alexis Sanchez could not operate up front in a system that requires him to operate as a relatively static target man, who can hold up the ball like Olivier Giroud. However, as a striker, what Sanchez could provide is a perpetual and unpredictable threat to defenses.
In a more fluid attack, Sanchez’s movement and quickness could cause confusion among the opponent’s defenders. His technical ability allows him to pose a threat left, right, and center, meaning he can make runs at the back line from anywhere, in any direction. Not only could this confusion lead to goals, but it could also help to pin back the opposing fullback. In the modern game, where fullbacks play a critical role in the attack, the ability to pin a fullback deep can significantly improve a team’s ability to defend their goal (I have a deep love for no center forward, two wide forwards formations with the potential to pin four defenders with just two attackers creating an 8 vs. 6 among the rest of the outfield players).
His running, combined with his quickness, could also force defenders to play further back, particularly the center-backs (it also makes him a more potent presser compared to Giroud). This could lead to more space in the center of the pitch between the deepest midfield line and the back line, space that plenty of Arsenal players love to exploit (the opponent could start moving midfield lines back, but that leaves space for other Arsenal players and/or moves the opponent further away from Arsenal’s goal). If they do not push their line back, Sanchez’s quickness and finishing will allow him to punish the opponent in a way Olivier Giroud cannot (except against a disinterested Newcastle (4:20)).
Finally, his ability to create chances for others and drive at the defense with the ball, means that he could give Arsenal an on-the-ball threat they have not had up front for some time (maybe Wenger still thinks Gervinho could have been that man). So while Sanchez’s running and quickness could help create space for others between the back line and deepest midfield line, he also has the ability to exploit that space as well. He could dribble forward with pace; he has the ability to beat his marker off the dribble (something Arsenal seemed desperate for last season). He can play in his teammates, while remaining a threat to score. He has an all-around attacking game that Arsenal certainly lacked last season.
Now, he will probably have his fair share of dispossessions. In La Liga, he was successful on only 36/103 take-ons in 2013-14 and succeed on 26/65 take-ons in 2012-13, which puts him at Luis Suarez level efficiency, without the Suarez level volume (did show Julian Draxler level efficiency + volume for Chile at the World Cup, going 22/34 in four appearances). However, that high up the pitch, the value of successful dribbles is quite high (dribble past the back line and you could find themselves 1-on-1 with the keeper and/or forcing the backline to panic and scramble). When these dribbles do not come off, the team loses possession far away from goal, often with plenty of defenders behind the ball. Therefore, the balance between dribbling volume and dribbling efficiency probably lies closer to dribbling volume in those advanced areas, compared to all other areas on the pitch. It could be that Sanchez’s riskier playing style should be placed as high up the pitch as possible, and could help alleviate Arsenal’s shot volume woes.
After all of this talk of attributes and positions, can we look at any games in which Sanchez showed an ability to play up front? More importantly, can we find a game where Sanchez operated up front and alone? The answer is yes. Let’s go back to December 10th, 2011, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.
Part 2: Alexis Sanchez vs. Real Madrid
This Clasico took place in the middle of the Pep Guardiola-Jose Mourinho era of the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry. After trying to park the bus against Barcelona in previous encounters, Jose Mourinho opted for an intense high pressing game, in an attempt to stop Barcelona from playing out from the back and to create turnovers high up the pitch. All four members of Madrid’s back line looked to aggressively close down any Barcelona player in front of them. And in this match, where Mourinho looked to dominate the game athletically, Alexis Sanchez was more than up for the task.
While Pep Guardiola does quite a bit of tinkering throughout this match (push Alves up high, moves Puyol to RB to better defend Ronaldo (who squandered some fantastic chances), moves Busquets to CB to get him more time and space, allowing Barcelona to more easily build from the back, etc.) and Barcelona exhibit a high degree of fluidity (so many different players are popping up in different locations throughout the match…this team was ridiculous), Sanchez operates as their most advanced attacker, with plenty freedom to move horizontally, in an attempt to get behind Real Madrid’s back line.
The first thing I noticed about Alexis Sanchez is that he never stops moving. During his 83 minutes on the pitch (in his first La Liga Clasico and about four months into his time at Barcelona), he constantly makes runs beyond the back line, putting immense pressure on Real Madrid’s defense. And these runs come from a variety of locations, covering the whole width of the pitch. His quality on the ball and his athleticism seem to give him the confidence to make straight runs, diagonal runs to the center from the right or left, and runs from more central areas into wide areas. The persistence and the lack of predictability of his running gave Real Madrid problems for the entire match.
For example, in this passage of play, Sanchez makes an initial run from the center to the left, into the space Fabio Coentrao vacated in an effort to close down Andres Iniesta. Pepe follows. Sanchez pulls out of the run, circles back, and runs into the large gap between Pepe and Ramos, a gap created by Pepe following the initial run by Sanchez.
Now, his running did not seem random and thoughtless. He did seem to have a preference for attacking the gap between the fullback and the center-back. As I said in Part 1, attacking that gap has the advantage of exploiting the space vacated by an advancing fullback, and the potential advantage of pinning the fullback in a deeper position that he would prefer. It can help to drag defenders, particularly Real Madrid’s aggressive center-backs, giving his teammates time and space on the ball. This can be seen in the .gif below. Here, Sanchez makes a run from a central position to the right, into the CB/LB gap, and creates space for Xavi to receive the ball at the top of the box left of center).
These runs from Alexis Sanchez, in the center forward position, could help create space for the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, etc. in the final third (these runs, like a lot of Sanchez’s attributes, would also be valuable in a shadow striker role in a 4-4-2, wide forward in a 4-3-3, or one of the attacking trio roles in a 4-2-3-1).
In this match, with Real Madrid so eager to close down any Barcelona player in front of them, Sanchez did well to run into the spaces that Real Madrid defenders concede with that proactive approach. He scored his goal this way. In that move, Sergio Ramos goes forward to close down Messi (who has just beaten three Real Madrid defenders off the dribble). Sanchez runs into the Coentrao/Pepe gap, toward the space Ramos would have occupied, receives the pass from Messi, and scores.
The intelligence and the ability to exploit those gaps, combined with the passers of Arsenal, could lead to plenty of goal-scoring opportunities for or set-up by the Chilean, particularly against teams with center-backs (or fullbacks) who want to close down the space in front of them (Vincent Kompany comes to mind).
Sanchez did not do much dribbling in this match. His job was to give Barcelona a vertical threat and ability to punish Real Madrid’s front-foot defending. Also, with Lionel Messi on the pitch, the role of primary dribbler/risk-taker was occupied. At Arsenal, Sanchez will probably take on the role of primary risk-taker/dribbler. So, if he plays in the center forward position, he may come deep to receive the ball more often than he did in this match, in order to drive at opposing defenders. There was a particularly impressive dribble from Sanchez that not only showed his technical ability, but also his strength and balance.
Hold-Up Play/Back-to-Goal Play
For all of the criticism of Olivier Giroud, his strength and ability to hold the ball up did play an important role in Arsenal’s attack. That ability bought time for Arsenal’s midfielders to make runs towards or behind him. So while playing Alexis Sanchez could prove beneficial with respect to fluidity, athleticism, running, technical ability, and finishing, it may be that an inability to play with his back to goal or hold the ball up could prove too great of a cost for Arsenal. In his performance against Real Madrid, he did show some promising signs that he could provide some of the back-to-goal and hold-up play that Arsenal have recently desired from their center forwards.
Most of Sanchez’s back-to-goal play involved receiving the ball with the intention to quickly move it. In this passage of play, Sanchez comes deep to receive a pass from Gerard Pique, and he is immediately pressured by Pepe. With his first touch, he successfully flicks the ball to an open Messi. He runs forward; Ramos gets caught ball-watching and Marcelo can’t get in front of him. He lifts his hand for a ball over the top. Fabregas, instead of hitting the outswinger with his left, cuts inside, tries to play Sanchez in with his right, and the ball goes to Iker Casillas.
Another instance of Sanchez looking to move the ball quickly, with his back to goal, came in the 74th minute. Here, Sanchez and his teammates engage in some quick passing about 35 meters from goal. This ability to quickly and accurately pass the ball makes Sanchez quite the upgrade over Olivier Giroud, who can often struggle to play the right ball, unless it comes off his first touch. So, while he may not be able to perform the more traditional back-to-goal role (something that relies more on brute strength and a wide body), Sanchez’s quick passing, with his back to goal, could allow Arsenal to play at a higher tempo. In the final third, this quickness of thought and action could lead to better 1-2s, more openings created in the defense, and more openings exploited by Arsenal.
If we consider the benefit of back-to-goal or hold-up play being the ability to maintain possession so that the team can better allocate the other 10 players and better control the flow of the play, then Alexis Sanchez’s quick feet could offer a different manner for Arsenal to enjoy those benefits. We can see that in the .gif below. Gerard Pique had just intercepted Sami Khedira’s chip, outside of Barcelona’s box. Real Madrid are looking to press high up the pitch, in order to win possession back. Angel Di Maria does succeed in separating Dani Alves from the ball, but the ball finds the feet of Sanchez. Sanchez dodges a charging Di Maria, keeps the ball a safe distance from Xabi Alonso, and plays it back to Iniesta. At this point, Barcelona have successfully kept possession, slowed the pace of play, and now have greater control over the flow of the match, which allows them to better protect their 3-1 advantage.
Sanchez also showed a few instances of more traditional hold-up play with Sergio Ramos hounding him. In this .gif, he successfully fends off Ramos, and plays a pass for Xavi. Three years later and a much stronger player, Sanchez may have enough strength, combined with his quick feet and technical ability, to hold up the football well in the Premier League, mitigating the cost of starting him at center forward over Olivier Giroud.
While Alexis Sanchez’s positional history does not suggest that he could perform well up front, he has a set of attributes that could prove highly valuable to Arsenal in that role. Even though the Clasico against Real Madrid represents only one data point, it also stands out as a magnificent performance, one that showcased many of the attributes we associated with the Chilean, in a solitary role up front, against one of the best teams in the world. So while I do not know if Arsene Wenger will field Alexis Saanchez up front, I do think he has the potential to succeed in that position.