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 Posted by Michael Cox
Aug 5, 2014

Versatility is Alexis' greatest weapon

Arsenal's marquee signing Alexis Sanchez made his debut for the Gunners against Benfica in the 74th minute.

Managers will be particularly busy over the next couple of weeks: assessing their budgets, drawing out their ideal starting XI, making ruthless decisions about who to drop and predicting the impact of new signings.

- Dall: Sanchez is not the answer for Arsenal

And this, alas, is simply supporters considering their fantasy teams.

Fantasy leagues are up and running around the world, and one of the most surprising decisions of the Premier League's official game is the status of Arsenal's 30 million-pound signing Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean international is somewhat peculiarly categorised as a midfielder, which seems like something of an administrative error, but also says a lot about Arsene Wenger's approach to solving his goal-scoring worries.

On one hand, Arsenal's signing of Alexis isn't a typical Wenger move: he's a multimillion-pound footballer accustomed to playing at the highest level, and Wenger rarely spends 30 million pounds at the drop of a hat. Last year's signing of Mesut Ozil has proved to be the start of a new era, rather than the exception to the old rule.

On the other hand, it's a classic Wenger signing, the most Wenger-esque signing you could ever wish to see, and Alexis's fantasy league categorisation sums it up. Arsenal need a new striker, so what does Wenger do? He signs a player who could be considered a midfielder. It's one of the most Wenger-ish things Wenger has ever done.

Alexis Sanchez is simultaneously a classic Arsene Wenger signing and an anti-Wenger signing.

Make no mistake, though -- Alexis can play as a centre-forward, despite the fact that he's not a centre-forward. It's a contradiction, but then in modern football, the top-level centre-forward is peculiar -- very few of the genuinely top-class centre-forwards are naturally centre-forwards. As football becomes increasingly universal, with defenders expected to start attacks and attackers expected to start the defensive pressure, the players at the extremes of either end are less typical of their positions.

There is certainly a group of classic strikers still around: Karim Benzema, Falcao, Robert Lewandowski, Mario Mandzukic, Edinson Cavani, Gonzalo Higuain. But they're generally considered on the second rung, not quite among Europe's elite.

The most devastating centre-forwards are not actually strikers. Robin van Persie was once considered a No. 10, Lionel Messi guarantees goals but is more of a false nine, Sergio Aguero is best on the shoulder of the last defender, and Luis Suarez was often fielded from the flank. Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic once played as more of a second striker than an out-and-out goal poacher -- but these are the most devastating centre-forwards around.

That's the reality of modern strike play -- you can't insist a player isn't a centre-forward because "there's more to his game." There's more to Van Persie or Suarez's game, but they've dominated the Golden Boot award for the past three seasons. As an individual, they might not believe their best position is up front, but in the context of the side, it often is.

That's the situation with Alexis. His positional development has been interesting, as he's played a variety of attacking roles in recent years. He started as a flying winger, before he was converted to a counterattacking No. 10 at Udinese, and became accustomed to a wide-forward role at Barcelona. At Chile, meanwhile, he increasingly became more of a central forward, albeit in a system that was actually strikerless.

At the World Cup, Chile's second-round exit on penalties to Brazil summed up Alexis' versatility. He spent the first half of the contest playing as an outside-right, making runs in behind the defence. For the second half, however, he dropped deeper to become an inside-left, playing through balls and linking play nicely, teeing up Mauricio Pinilla for his shot against the bar. That's Alexis -- he can go long or come short, drift right or drift left. He's a true all-rounder.

That's what Wenger wants from his players -- all-around footballing ability. His greatest striker by far, Thierry Henry, was the master of this. He was Arsenal's highest player up the pitch, yet he spent much of his Arsenal career on the left, perfecting the art of cutting inside and curling the ball towards goal, a training ground drill he'd worked on relentlessly at Monaco -- time and time again, simply dribbling inside, cutting past a cone, and finding the far corner.

Was Henry an out-and-out striker? Of course not. But he was Wenger's best player, and close to the best player the Premier League has seen. He could be ruthless, but he could also be creative, dropping deep to link play. In 2002-03, he failed to win the Golden Boot award because he set up Freddie Ljungberg three times in a final-day victory over Sunderland -- the only time a Premier League hat trick has been created by a hat trick of assists by the same player.

This is precisely what Alexis will do as a striker. In Arsenal's second Emirates Cup game, a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Monaco, he started up front but continually dropped deep, received the ball in pockets of space, then played in teammates. He's constantly on the move, always varying his position intelligently, and his acceleration over the first few yards is extraordinary. His finishing, meanwhile, is often extremely clinical, and despite often playing in deeper positions, he's efficient at getting into the 6-yard box for tap-ins.

"He is a striker and he's a good finisher," Wenger said at the weekend. "I like the fact he can play left, right, up front, and that's why I went for him."

Alexis will offer Arsenal great versatility in the attacking third as well as sublime finishing.

As centre-forwards go, he's completely different from Olivier Giroud. Giroud is tall, Alexis is small. Giroud is slow, Alexis is fast. Giroud plays with his back to goal, Alexis is always sprinting forwards. Giroud takes up central positions, Alexis is found in wide areas.

It means Wenger has great tactical options -- Alexis can either be an accompaniment to Giroud, perhaps starting from a wider position, or an alternative to Giroud. The best strike partnerships offer two different styles, and this seems perfect: defenders won't know whether to defend deep or high.

Alexis won't play up front every game, and might start the season on the wing. Until Theo Walcott recovers from his serious knee injury, the most logical format for Wenger's side is Giroud as the central striker, and Alexis attacking from the right side.

"At the moment I want to see him in both positions, but I took him because he is a player who has the qualities of [Theo] Walcott, he goes behind the defenders off the ball," Wenger said. "And with the quality of his runs he can be very important for us."

By the end of the season, though, Alexis should be Arsenal's first-choice centre-forward -- you can guarantee he won't be considered a midfielder by fantasy leagues this time next year.

Michael Cox

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He is based in London and writes the Zonal Marking blog about football tactics. He also writes postmatch analysis for the Guardian and contributes regularly for FourFourTwo. You can follow him on Twitter @zonal_marking.

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