Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Is Sanchez the right man for Barcelona?

He’s coming. No he’s not, or maybe he’s not. No he definitely is, but for what price? 30, 40, even €50million were at one point demanded but eventually, finally, at least one of Barcelona’s summer signing sagas was completed last week when Alexis Sanchez completed his transfer from Udinese for a very reasonable initial sum of €26 million, with potentially a further €11.5 million in variables.

Pep Guardiola stated last week that his priority for the upcoming season was a striker. A position needing all the more reinforcing once Bojan Krkic completed his transfer to Roma over the weekend. But while Sanchez fits Guardiola’s demands and is undoubtedly a player of great talent, the question remains whether the Chilean fits the Barcelona mould and what role he will play in the coming months?

From Barcelona’s point of view there would appear to be a number of concerns.

Firstly, how do you improve on perfection? On the face of it a first summer off in four years for their host of Spanish internationalists should give them an added freshness, as should the experience of winning the Under-21 European Championships for the La Masia graduates that took part. But in a front three of Leo Messi, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez who scored 98 goals between them last season and complement each other’s skill sets perfectly, where will there be room for Sanchez?

One answer is that there isn’t. That Serie A’s 2010/11 Player of the Year will perform a supplementary role to give extra rest to those three and give a different option is things aren’t going to plan.

Another is that Pedro’s place on the inside-right will come under threat, but that seems hugely disrespectful to a player who has scored 45 goals in the past two seasons and more importantly performed when it has mattered most. He rescued his side with an equaliser in the last minute of the Club World Cup final, scored the winner in the European Super Cup, in the crucial 2-0 victory at the Bernabéu that sealed the title in 2010, in the 5-0 mauling of Real at the Camp Nou, in the Champions League semi-final for the past two seasons and of course the opener in the Champions League final itself in May. In other words, a big game player.

Any threat to Pedro’s position would also indicate a dramatic reduction in any playing time for Ibrahim Afellay and Jeffren who played important stop-gap roles at different times last season.

Either way, the Sanchez signing and the potential arrival of Cesc Fabregas at the Nou Camp will impose a new demand of Pep Guardiola’s managerial skills; that of keeping star players who aren’t involved happy. In his three years in charge he has only lost one key player due to discontent at the lack of playing opportunities when Yaya Toure, frustrated at being overtaken by Sergio Busquets in the midfield achor role, was attracted by the guarantee of a first-team place (and a few briefcases of cash) in moving to Manchester City.

There are other playing style problems to be resolved in the Sanchez signing. Primarily that his greatest strength is his devastating pace on the counter-attack. It was in these transitional phases of play that he so impressed while in Udine and at times with Chile at both last summer’s World Cup and the recently completed Copa America.

The only problem is that Barca don’t often get the opportunity to counter-attack simply because so many sides refuse to attack them in the first-place. Against packed defences it is normally Barca’s intricate passing around the 18-yard box that creates the opportunity rather than a 60-yard burst from one end of the pitch to the other.

Another signing target early in the summer, Giuseppe Rossi, would appear to fit into this template more easily than Sanchez. Not only does Rossi have La Liga but he is more suited to the subtle passing game that Barca have perfected over the past three years.

Most importantly of all though, with Bojan gone, Villa is now the only player in Barca’s squad with experience of playing as a centre-forward. Sanchez joins a number of players capable of playing in the wide areas: Villa; Pedro; Afellay; Jeffren; even Iniesta and Messi have occupied these positions in the past. But Rossi would have offered the option of playing as a more traditional number nine should Messi ever be unavailable or rested from the false nine position he has played to devastating effect in the past two years.

The final and most dreaded question and comparison for the Chilean is that of another Serie A star who Barca saw as the final piece of the jigsaw, of having something that they didn’t currently have – Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Ibra’s failings during his time in Barcelona are now completely overblown. It wasn’t the disaster that most try to claim. The Swede scored 21 goals, including the winner in the season’s opening Clásico, but the idea of adding a big man to complement Barca’s array of little magicians didn’t work as planned. Loyal to the tiki-taka method of moving the ball meant they were still reluctant to swing in crosses to make best use of Ibrahimovic’s height and his inability to play wide as well as through the middle caused an inflexibility that was only solved once he was replaced by Bojan for the final part of the season.

This is not a criticism of Sanchez’s wonderful ability, but a question of whether he will be able to harness that ability to the best effect in Catalunya. He could prove myself and others to be completely wide of the mark, but it seems that, like in 2009, having won the Champions League, Barca have spent big to get something they don’t have rather than replenishing a short squad with the ideals that got them there in the first place.

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