Alexis Sanchez’s deployment as a lone striker in the Arsenal setup has started to prove something of a success in recent weeks, particularly after what was a rocky start to the season.
Pretty ineffectual performances against Liverpool, Leicester and Paris Saint Germain saw calls for the Chilean to be returned to the wing, where he has proved so effective in the last two years.
The feeling persists among a lot of fans that Sanchez isn’t really suited to the striker’s role, and playing him up top stops him from being as potent as we all know he can be.
A hatful of goals and assists in games against Watford, Hull, and Basel have helped to change a few minds, though, and, in truth, has made it look as though Arsene Wenger has shown a stroke of genius in getting the best out of a player by shifting his position.
But was it always the plan to play Alexis up front alone this of the season, or has his emergence as an extremely effective goal-scorer and creator in recent games been more a case of good fortune?
Given that Sanchez missed a large chunk of the team’s pre-season exploits, in which new systems and positions would inevitably have been tried by Arsene and his team, the suspicion would be that this wasn’t pre-planned.
But, there again, when you consider that Arsene made a bold move to sign Jamie Vardy early in the summer, a player who has made his name as the industrious line-leader, you wonder if the lone striker was a tactic Arsene was set on introducing after all, though perhaps not specifically for the Chilean.
In an interview with the club website ahead of the Burnley game, Arsene said: “[Alexis] adds mobility and link play, short combinations, and I think he gets better into that role. I feel that in every single game he is getting better and that is what encouraged me because, at the start, the first two games, people were not really convinced but there is always a progression in his game.
“I believe there has been a physical progression because he started a little bit behind physically everybody else.”
It’s true, fans really were not convinced by the decision to play Sanchez up front and, reading between the lines here, it seems Arsene was also unsure, suggesting that the decision was born out of necessity rather than design.
When we lined up to take on Liverpool at the Emirates for the season opener, we were missing Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott had been pushed out to the wing, and Lucas Perez was still plying his trade for Deportivo, in Spain.
Against that backdrop, it seems as if Sanchez, given his overall quality and willingness to run through brick walls for the team, was rather thrust into the system because we were short of other realistic options.
We all know how that particular game panned out, and the performances in the following games weren’t exactly much better – leaving a lot of fans soured to the idea of Sanchez up front.
Wenger persisted with it, however, and crucially, the improvement seen in midfield, particularly in the intensity of play and the willingness to press, has seen Sanchez blossom.
As a player who likes to charge around and close players down anyway, the new style of play suited him perfectly and has afforded him countless opportunities to get at defenders, pick out runners from deep and, indeed, get himself into dangerous areas in the box.
While it would perhaps be unfair to Arsene to say that he really stumbled into a winning system, I do feel that circumstance and good fortune has played a part.
It seems clear that, given the attempt to sign Vardy, and the subsequent purchase of a similar player in Perez, Arsene was seriously entertaining a change of style for the team, perhaps in a bid to ape the title-winning formula of Leicester.
Whether or not he intended for Sanchez to be the missing piece in the attacking puzzle remains, to me at least, very doubtful.
I think sheer hard work, and plenty of fine tuning on the training ground, has made this particular square peg fit very nicely into the round hole that was created by the European Championships, and the failure to sign the striker he wanted.
As the weeks go by, I hope that Sanchez continues to thrive in his new role and we see plenty more of the hard graft and beautiful football we have enjoyed this last month.
Who knows, together with the decision to send Theo Walcott out to the wing, it may just prove one of Arsene’s greatest moves.