I will not lie to you. Prior to a few weeks ago, I had seen precious little of Alexis Sánchez.
Not an avid viewer of Italy’s Serie A, I was ignorant of his exploits with Udinese. By virtue of having watched all 63 games of the 2010 World Cup, I’d apparently seen 335 minutes of him representing his native Chile, though his largely ineffectual performance made little impact on the memory. Early in the year I disregarded rumors linking him with a move to FC Barcelona- the rumor mill is not selective in such matters.
However, by early June, Sánchez had become the belle of the summer transfer ball. His name now a fixture in speculative reports linking him to a €25+ million move, he was the target of most of the top clubs in Europe. FC Barcelona remained in the mix, along with, among others, England’s deepest-pocketed trio and two of Italy’s big three.
So apparently this dude is the real deal, huh?
After scoring nine goals in 79 appearances during the previous two seasons, at the ripe age of 22, Sánchez took his game to new heights in 2010-11. In his third and final season in Northeast Italy, he was the driving force behind Udinese’s 22-point improvement (from 44 to 66) and accompanying meteoric rise to fourth place in the league table (from 15th), which earned the club a two-legged tie (August 16 & 24) with Arsenal with a 2011-12 Champions League berth at stake.
In 33 games in all competitions in 2010-11, Sánchez netted a dozen goals, including four in just 52 minutes in a 7-0 route of Palermo in February. In doing this, he broke the Serie A record for goals by a Chilean player in a single game, besting the superstar duo of Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano. However, simple goal tallies alone are insufficient when gauging the impact of Serie A‘s reigning Player of the Year.
For starters, he is blessed with fantastic speed, incredible skill and strength beyond what one might expect from his 5’7" frame. Willing and able to track back into the defensive half to win the ball and nothing short of devastating once he’s got it, Sánchez is a veritable Swiss Army knife. His ability to spectacularly knife through multiple defenders, occasionally humiliating three or more with little more than a well-executed juke, is, to borrow an analogy from American football, reminiscent of Barry Sanders. At his best, he looks like Cristiano Ronaldo in a Lionel Messi costume.
Real deal? You tell me:
Now, lest you think these sweet looking rose-colored shades have blinded me to any issues that Barcelona may face with their talented young addition, a couple of potential concerns:
Lack of size in attack. This is something of a reach, but this kind of unfettered optimism cannot be allowed to go unchecked.
This is one diminutive crew up front. Of Barça’s current (we’ll deal with you-know-who if/when he arrives) top eight offensive players- Messi, Sánchez, David Villa, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Thiago, Pedro and Ibrahim Afellay- a whopping five stand just 5-foot-7 and only one (Afellay at 5’11") is taller than 5-foot-9.
With that said, thanks to the squad’s absurd stockpile of talent, a lack of size has not been much of an obstacle for the FC Barcelona sides of recent years. It’s also worth noting that the attack hasn’t actually gotten any smaller this summer, as the summer’s only noteworthy departure (Bojan) is identical in stature (5’7") to the incoming Sánchez.
Plus, how did 6-foot-5 Zlatan Ibrahimović work out for everyone?
Like I said, it’s a reach.
Allocation of possession. With the exception of the occasional stroke of Messi-onic genius, the Barcelona system is predicated more on the short pass than the long run. Sánchez undoubtedly has the physical capability to thrive in such a system, but has not been conditioned to fit into the system. In fact, on last season’s Udinese squad, he appeared to inhabit something of a Messi-Ronaldo role.
The newcomer is saying all the right things about learning and fitting in with the Barcelona style of play, but two stylistic factors stand out as potential pitfalls. First, as evidenced by his aggressiveness in turning upfield, last season he clearly embraced the idea of being his team’s primary decision maker. However, it’s imperative that he understand and embrace his place on the food chain with this squad.
Allocation of playing time. To the previous point, while Sánchez is clearly a brilliant player, he is joining an attacking core comprised of equally brilliant, more established players. While neither boasts the kind of cache that accompanies Sánchez to Camp Nou, Bojan Krkić and Jeffrén Suárez, talented young players in their own rights, sought out the exit in search of greener pastures. Actually receiving playing time will be no concern for Sánchez, but with an attack that features the likes of Messi, David Villa, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Pedro, the brilliant-this-summer Thiago and perhaps another midfield playmaker, there may be times when it’s less abundant than he’d prefer.
Until next time…
In case you missed it earlier in the week, check out my look at this summer’s notable departures from the Barcelona squad.
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