Sanchez: The missing link in the Villa midfield
There's a buzz around Villa Park. The signing of Carlos Sanchez has put a positive spin on the club's summer transfer activity, and as Villa prepare to host Newcastle on Saturday lunchtime there's one major question: will the Colombian midfielder make his debut?
A lack of match fitness and training time with his new teammates might throw up an obstacle, but manager Paul Lambert might throw him in anyway. Even an hour of Sanchez would be well received. He hasn't played since the World Cup and the pace of the Premier League will probably catch him off guard. Even so, there's a clamour to see Sanchez in the claret and blue at the very first opportunity.
Many an honest Villa supporter would admit to knowing little of Sanchez prior to the World Cup when, if one were able to take their eyes of the superlative James Rodriguez for a moment, they might have seen "La Roca" (The Rock) diligently doing the job of giving Colombia's defence some valued protection. His club career, however, has been rather low in profile: A single season in La Liga with Elche in 2013-14 and before that, several seasons in France with Valenciennes. At 28 years old, it might be suggested that Sanchez is a late developer.
So, why the excitement? To understand that is to appreciate the situation at Villa. To give the Sanchez signing some context, he is the third-most expensive transfer during Lambert's reign in charge. At 4.7 million pounds, he sits only behind strikers Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak. An investment of that amount is modest by Premier League standards: Less than QPR paid relegated Cardiff for Jordon Mutch, for example. Resigned to free transfers, splashing almost five million on a single player feels almost reckless and giddy. "He's a real coup for Villa," admitted Lambert. Praise indeed from a manager rarely moved to sound quite so enthusiastic.
More importantly though, Sanchez could be the player Villa have been missing for years. That's no exaggeration. Ever since Gareth Barry defected to Manchester City in 2009, the club has struggled to find a player so well suited to the art of a defensive midfield role. Stiliyan Petrov was intelligent and professional enough to do it reasonably well until serious illness enforced premature retirement, but the Bulgarian was more comfortable in a creative position and Villa missed out by having to restrict his game.
Nigel Reo-Coker could have been a success. He certainly had the opportunity and the dynamic energy, but too frequently a winning tackle was swiftly followed by a wasteful pass or heavy first touch. Turnovers in the wrong half can be costly. Chris Herd and Ciaran Clark both might have settled into defensive midfield roles, but neither really had the chance to establish themselves. Neither has Karim El Ahmadi. The Moroccan is an efficient passer and closes players down well enough yet has never been given that specialist defensive task.
Latterly, Ashley Westwood has been Villa's deepest midfielder, but it's become apparent that he is lacking that much-needed physical presence. Not only that, he has more to offer further upfield. Westwood is an expansive passer with an impressive range of delivery and as last season showed, he has an attacking side to his game. His long-range blockbuster against West Brom was spectacular but equally impressive was his first-minute opener in the home win over Hull in May, when he strode to the edge of the penalty area and side-footed in from 20 yards.
As such, don't automatically expect Westwood to be the fall guy when Sanchez starts playing. The advantage of having the Colombian means Villa's midfield gets an anchor man and Westwood and Fabian Delph should benefit from that security behind them. If Sanchez can look after the defensive side of the midfield duties, Westwood can float and probe and pass, and Delph can burst box-to-box -- running at opposing midfielders and disrupting their shape.
With Sanchez to call on, it may be that Lambert uses a midfield diamond more often. It's been a popular formation with the manager in any case but now all parts of the jigsaw fall neatly into place. Sanchez as the base, Westwood and Delph either side, and an attacking midfielder at the tip. Perm any one of Charles N'Zogbia, Jack Grealish or Joe Cole for that slot. Leandro Bacuna and Kieran Richardson are adaptable options too for the right and left or even the most forward point.
In theory Sanchez is a good fit. Given his club career, Villa is a genuine step up for him. He has spoken warmly of the club and those comments should be taken as sincere, rather than empty press conference speak, because there is that link through Colombian compatriot and former Villan Juan Pablo Angel. Sanchez will have been aware of Villa as a younger man; of that there is no doubt. Of course, at Villa he'll be coached and cajoled by two men who certainly knew how to boss a midfield in their playing days: Not just Lambert but assistant manager Roy Keane.
Sanchez has said his idol is Claude Makelele. The Frenchman had to wait until late on in his career, too, before arriving in the Premier League. He was 30 when he signed for Chelsea but made a tremendous impact over five years, and so much so that holding midfielders are commonly referred to as playing the "Makelele role".
Villa have been searching for their Makelele for five years. Sanchez might just be the right man at the right time.