When Thierry Henry arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 1999, many doubted his ability to replace Nicolas Anelka. Henry had gone through a difficult time at Juventus and was primarily seen as a wide forward or winger. His reputation as a striker was almost nonexistent.
Arsene Wenger saw something in him that Henry himself didn’t believe was there. In Amy Lawrence’s book, Invincible, the players recalls: “I was saying to myself: ‘Hang on a minute, I am in the French national team, I won the World Cup as a winger. Am I wasting my time trying to relearn being a striker?'”
But from his time with a younger Henry at Monaco, the Arsenal manager identified qualities he believed would see him succeed. And 228 goals later, Henry departed — and remains — the club’s all-time leading scorer.
Fast forward to the start of the 2009-10 season, and the Arsenal manager was in need of a centre-forward. Emmanuel Adebayor had misbehaved his way to a big-money move to Manchester City and Eduardo da Silva had never properly recovered from the horrific leg break inflicted on him by Martin Taylor.
Rather than scour the transfer market, Wenger again sought what he famously refers to as an “internal solution” and turned to Robin van Persie. As was the case with Henry, the player had his doubts.
“I never really thought that I would end up as a main striker,” said Van Persie. “I wasn’t even convinced about it. I wasn’t so sure, because I didn’t really play there so much.”
Once again, Wenger’s instincts were spot on. The Dutch international was a huge success in a role he considered unfamiliar at first, even if he did leave the club under a cloud when he signed for Manchester United.
Now, in 2016, it appears as though Wenger is doing it again with Alexis Sanchez. The Chile international has played most of his football as a wide forward. For Arsenal, he has spent periods on the left and on the right with occasional cameos up front.
With the clamour for a world-class striker growing each summer, the manager looked at the market and made attempts to sign Luis Suarez and Gonzalo Higuain. Although Wenger brought Lucas Perez to Arsenal this summer from Deportivo La Coruna, the Spanish striker was never going to be first choice. Instead, he was a player who brought quality, experience and depth to the squad. Olivier Giroud’s role is set in stone, and Wenger knew he needed something different — something that Sanchez could provide.
Speaking this week, Sanchez revealed he’d been studying videos to help him learn how to flourish with this new responsibility.
“He asked me to play there so I said fine,” said Sanchez. “I looked up some videos on the internet to see how I needed to adjust my movement and I’ve been adapting since then.”
This might sound like a very hands-off approach in terms of coaching, but there’s undoubtedly work going on at the training ground. Wenger doesn’t just tell someone to play in a new role without guidance or instruction. However, a key part of it is trusting in the intelligence of the player as he takes up his new position.
Wenger taps into players’ desire to achieve, make things work and become important for their team — as well as the self-improvement that motivation brings. Anybody who has seen Sanchez play will know he cares more about winning than anything else. His willingness to push himself physically to the very limit can be counterproductive at times, but it’s such an integral part of his character that it’s practically impossible to rein him in.
Arsene Wenger saw not just talent, ability and potential in Sanchez as a striker, but a man who had the desire to really achieve there. On top of what Sanchez gives on the training ground, he’s doing his homework on the internet and studying others who can help his game improve.
It’s still quite early in this latest experiment, but with 10 goals for club and country thus far, it’s one that shows very promising signs. If Sanchez can come close to repeating the exploits of the others, it would go some way to helping the Gunners take their first Premier League since 2004.