10 July 2014

So, we've signed Sánchez. What's this mean for the squad?

By now, I'm sure you've heard that we've signed Alexis Sánchez. I won't pretend to be the one breaking the news to you. Financial details are still forthcoming, but it's official, at least as far as Arsenal.com is concerned. By this point, we're ready to start sussing out what his arrival will mean. Is he the striker we've longed for? How will he fit in? What does his arrival mean for the likes of Giroud, Walcott, or Cazorla, among others? He may not seem to be as top-drawer as Diego Costa or Edinson Cavani, but part of this implies that his potential is not yet tapped. His arrival, now that it's confirmed, heralds a fair number of changes for formation, strategy, and tactics, with all of those changes trending positively for the squad and the club itself.

On one hand, Sánchez is not an out-and-out striker; he's not a direct replacement for Giroud. As such, Giroud still figures largely in the club's plans for the upcoming season. Sánchez, for as gifted as he may be, does not strike me as one to simply supplant Giroud as our number-one #9. Instead, he offers an alternative as well as a competitor; depending on our needs and our opponents, we might see Giroud or Sánchez played at the top of our 4-2-3-1. If that doesn't tantalize or satisfy, consider that we could also see Sánchez as a second striker behind Giroud in a more-fluid formation in which numbers mean little if anything.

Whatever the case may be, we should consider what Sánchez's arrival might mean for players currently in the squad. For one, he's played on the right wing for most of his time with Barcelona. This might imply that he and Walcott will compete for time on the right, alongside Giroud. However, Barça play something closer to a 4-3-3, so we're not talking apples-to-apples here. Therefore, the "Sánchez or Walcott" debate is off to a false start already. After all, the signing of Sánchez is predicated at least in part on the notion that the right wing is Walcott's, and that we are looking to strengthen our striker position. With that ind mind, it's perhaps more-instructive to look at Sánchez's performances for Chile, where he was playing atop a 5-3-2. In these situations, he often ended up as the most-forward of Chile's players, offering himself up as a target for hold-up play or to create chances for himself. In either role, he excelled, at least well enough to earn consideration in a more-central role.

What this means, then, is that we will rely less on Giroud throughout the season. For his many attributes and flaws, Giroud has been a bit of a square peg in a round hole. Whether by mentality, skill-set, or orders, he occupies a fairly well-defined and predictable role and area on the pitch: from center-circle to penalty box, you will find Giroud. He runs vertically, rarely if ever venturing wide or making diagonal runs to create space behind himself. This, in turn, has frequently forced our wide players to stay in similarly vertical channels along the wings. Even given Cazorla's tendency to drift centrally, this has resulted all too often in a very static, repetitive attack, bereft of the kind of creativity or versatility that Wengerball is predicated on.

With Sánchez playing through the middle, we'd be far less reliant on a traditional target-man, the kind who can bring down balls and hold onto it until other, more creative types make runs. Giroud, for as good as he's been at that, has hindered as often as he's helped. Bring on Sánchez, and defenders will no longer know whether he'll be pinging a pass back out to the wings or turning to shoot. Heck, they'll no longer know where he'll be, whether he's playing through that same vertical channel or interchanging with Walcott on the right or Cazorla (?) on the left. With Chile, he's shown that he's more than up to the task of playing as the #9, receiving and holding onto the ball until reinforcements arrive. With Barcelona, he's also shown that he's creative enough to receive that ball and create for himself, carving out opportunities in and around the box.

In any case, the arrival of Sánchez could just liberate the Arsenal attack. No longer would we be quite so wedded to a static attack with Giroud at its center, hoping that other, more creative types running off his shoulders and out on the wings might come up with something. With Sánchez in the midst of things, we could very well see the return of a more-fluid attack, one in which it's far more-difficult for defenses to know where the threat comes from and through whom. Will Sánchez stay central, or will he drift out towards the right, allowing Walcott to slice in? Might Sánchez peel off towards the left, vacating an area into which Cazorla or Podolski can run and have a go?

Without making too much out of the man before he's even played a minute for Arsenal, Sánchez's signing opens a lot of doors. We're no longer confined to a lumbering, sluggish, and tactically limited center-forward. In Sánchez, we now have a man who can create chances for himself off the dribble, find teammates to pass to, or distort defenses with his runs. I challenge any defense in the Prem to deny those options to him and to Walcott, Özil, Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere, and Ox at the same time. Deny one of those options to one of those players, and he chooses another option or another player, and the process begins anew. It's like trying to fight a hydra: cut off one head, and another pair or more replace it. So it may be with Sánchez.

If you don't like the hydra, consider the Arsenal amoeba, a formless, shapeless attack that defies description because of the amorphos assemblage of its moving parts. Positions means little, if anything, as players move and flit about as occasions arise.

It's a thing of beauty. It's Wengerball in action.

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