It’s a summer of reckoning for Arsene Wenger, as he enters the battle to keep his biggest star at the club, with Manchester City lurking dangerously close.
Known to the locals as La esquina de Diablo – Devil’s Corner – Tocopilla is a mining port town of 24,000 people, located in the north of Chile, sandwiched between the Atacama Desert on one side and the South Pacific Ocean on the other. In the middle of the town, just off from a large roundabout, Alexis Sanchez stands with his hands on his hips, absurdly grinning in a full Chile football kit, complete with Nike socks and boots, the Golden Ball from last year’s Copa America at his feet. The statue, which was unveiled in March, is one of several tributes to Tocopilla’s most famous son – including a street name.
It’s telling that Sanchez was only given his first pair of football boots when he was 15 – by the town’s mayor. As a child, Sanchez would play on the street, against older boys from the neighbourhood, barefoot – skipping and hopping to avoid stones – an education which Sanchez claims informs his playing style to this day.
How much of Sanchez’s character was determined by the poverty of Devil’s Corner and how much is innate, is impossible to say. Certainly, his determination, desire and drive – so instantly recognisable today – were traits he possessed as a youngster, too. In an interview with FourFourTwo, Alberto Toledo, manager of Sanchez’s local team Arauco, remembered one particular game:
“He picked up the ball in our box, dribbled past the entire team and, looking exhausted, arrived in the opposition box, where the keeper made a harsh tackle.
Under the burning sun, without caring about the pain of the kick he’d just received, and almost incapable of speaking after his long run, he stared at the bench, imploring me to allow him to the take the penalty kick. Pure Alexis Sanchez.”
Sanchez made the move from his local club to Cobreloa in 2004. The next year, at 16, he made his debut for the club and in a couple of years, was on his way to Udinese for £1.7 million. He played his first game for the Chilean national team the same year. Following spells on loan with Colo-Colo and River Plate, Sanchez made his European debut with Udinese in 2008.
At 22, having been voted Serie A’s best player and already with 40 international caps, Sanchez made the dream move to Barcelona. It was time to rub shoulders with Messi and Iniesta. If Sanchez’s first two seasons were somewhat a bedding in process, he exploded into life in his third and final year, scoring 21 goals, including this peach against Real Madrid.
The following summer, Sanchez signed for Arsenal. Wenger was buying a complete, experienced, skilful attacker, who could play across the belt of attacking midfield as well as a centre-forward. By the time Alexis drove into London Colney, he had already made 71 appearances for Chile and scored 24 goals. Still only 25, his best was yet to come. He is now, by not an insignificant margin, the club’s best and most productive player.
Thirty goals and seventeen assists last year make that difficult to argue with. In fact, Sanchez was the Premier League’s third-highest goal scorer, despite only playing half the season on the left wing. The boy who played barefoot on the streets of Tocopilla is now a national hero too; with 38 goals, El Niño Maravilla is his country’s all-time top goal scorer, leaving some illustrious names in his wake.
Over the past three years at the Emirates, Sanchez has become incredible to watch, both a snorting, raging demon-bull of a footballer and at the same time a white-gloved magician, full of poise and cunning, ghosting past defenders with the most delicate, subtle feints and jinks.
But the Chilean now represents something of a problem for Arsene Wenger: he doesn’t want to play for Arsenal anymore. Having not signed a new deal with the club, it’s no surprise that the saga has kept sports editors busy for the past year or so. In an interview given to Canal 13 in July, Sanchez said: “I’ve already taken my decision, but now I depend on Arsenal and to see what they want. My idea is to play and win the Champions League … For now I’m at Arsenal and my contract finishes in another year.” Sanchez has yet to formally request a transfer but this isn’t a man enthused about his current employment situation.
What are the choices available to the club at this point? Arsenal has already tried throwing money at the problem – reportedly offering Sanchez a new contract worth in the region of £300,000 a year – but even Wenger doesn’t believe that a deal can a reached. Sanchez, then, can either be sold, or forced to honour the last year of his contract. It has to be said that neither of these are particularly good options.
Because his current contract expires next summer, should Sanchez be sold now, it would not come close to the full market rate. While making all the necessary caveats about the difficulties in judging the worth of a player in the current market, I think it’s reasonable enough to estimate Sanchez’s value as a player to sit somewhere near the £100 million mark. With one year left on his contract, however, the proposed sums of money being offered for Sanchez have been between £50 million and £70 million; well short of what the club would want.
Added to this is the fact that there are only a limited number of football clubs with the financial clout necessary to both pay the player’s fee, and match his salary expectations; the likes of PSG, Bayern Munich and Manchester City. Bayern ruled themselves out earlier in the summer, because Sanchez’s wage demands were too high. PSG has just spent the best part of £200 million on a certain Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior. It seems unlikely that they’d go after Sanchez too. That leaves Manchester City – a domestic, direct rival. Selling the club’s finest player to Manchester City could surely not be stomached. It would be such a backward step for a club whose repeated aim is to compete with the best.
So, Arsenal can’t sell and won’t sell. Option number two, and the one Wenger has chosen, is to force Sanchez to play through the final year of his contract. But this isn’t a good option either. It’s rare that clubs let want-away players run their contacts down in this way – and for good reason. Sanchez will simply leave the club for free next summer. He’ll go to Manchester City, and, what is essentially a £100 million asset, will have been lost for nothing. That’s not good business and makes little sense from a footballing perspective either.
There is something definitely admirable about clubs digging their heels in, resisting big money offers for star players, and ignoring the shenanigans of players and their agents (see also, Coutinho v Liverpool). It’s nice, for once, to see Arsenal assert itself in this way. And, yes, Wenger’s argument that the club must keep its best players has weight, and no one would know this better than the man who has lost entire squads to seemingly greener pastures. But this feels like a stance of principle, not of pragmatism. By forcing Sanchez into the last year of his contract, Arsenal are losing out on tens of millions of pounds for a sake of one season’s worth of football.
If, on the other hand, Arsenal was able to sell Sanchez, that money could obviously be reinvested in the longer term. Arsenal’s is a squad, I believe, that needs some major surgery but even ignoring that, the club has eight players with less that twelve months on their contracts – including that of Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere, Cazorla and Gibbs – players that might also all leave for free. This is a team that will need considerable investment next summer.
As an Arsenal fan, it’s difficult to crack what the club should do in this situation. But taking everything into account, I find myself (perhaps surprisingly) leaning towards the sell option. Sanchez is an incredible individual talent and one I think actually impossible to find a like-for-like replacement for. And yet, and yet. For all his talent, for all his brilliance, Sanchez is not the perfect player and there is an argument to be had as to whether he really works in this Arsenal side.
Arsenal’s best period last season corresponded with Sanchez playing as a centre forward. Following a miserable game against Liverpool on the first game of the season, a strong run of form saw Arsenal win ten games and draw three. On the 1st November 2016 Arsenal sat second in the table, level on points with Manchester City and Liverpool, and had qualified top of its Champions League group. A 3-0 win again Chelsea, 6-0 against Ludogrets, 4-1 wins against both Sunderland and Hull were proof a free-flowing Arsenal attack spearheaded by Sanchez, Iwobi and Özil. Sanchez was the very tip of that spear. With the dip in Iwobi’s form that followed, Sanchez was moved from centre forward to the left wing of what became in essence a 4-2-3-1.
As a winger, Sanchez still dazzled and scored and assisted. But, especially in this team, his individual talents are somewhat offset by his liability in possession. Sanchez gives the ball away. A lot. And I don’t mean attempts at through-balls, or raking cross field passes. I mean simple, five yarders. There is a carelessness to his game that you’d have thought three years at Barcelona would have drilled out of him. Sanchez’s passing accuracy is woeful – 73% (by way of comparison, Özil’s passing accuracy is 87% while Eden Hazard’s is 84%).
For a side like Arsenal, whose fall backs are often pushed high up the pitch, this carelessness has proven fatal. Sanchez’s importance to the team must be understood in this context. He is also dispossessed a lot. Last year, Sanchez lost the ball on average 3.4 times per game (not including his wayward passing). Again, if we compare that statistic to other top-tier attackers in the league, we begin to see the where the difficulty with Sanchez lies. Last year Eden Hazard was disposed on average a mere 1.6 times per game.
Sanchez’s ability, or lack of it, to retain possession matters less when he plays upfront. A striker losing the ball high up the pitch is rarely going directly lead to the concession of goals. But Wenger just spent £52 million on a centre forward, and a very good one at that. You would suspect, therefore, that Sanchez’s time spent in that role will be limited. Arguably, Wenger should have bought a left-sided play-maker instead of Lacazette, freeing Sanchez to play upfront, but that’s a debate for another day.
It would appear that Wenger has found a short-term solution to this problem. The 3-4-3 formation means Sanchez can play on the left side of the front 3, playing higher and narrower than he would have before, giving him more protection if he loses the ball. I say a short-term solution because I doubt Wenger will stick with it – it wasn’t part of a long-term tactical masterstroke but more an act of desperation – Wenger trying to wake his players up from the terrible run of form they found themselves in. In fact, when push came to shove in the closing stages against Leicester and Stoke, Wenger again moved to a back four.
So, where does all this leave Arsenal? As I said, I don’t think there are any good options for the club at this point. Wenger has clearly made his mind up – he won’t give his blessing to the sale of Sanchez. After Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Stoke it’s easy to see his reasoning; while I think there are a number of problematic issues with the team at the moment, it’s hard not to feel that Sanchez would have made some difference that day. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that this is a decision made in the short term. The squad needs some serious surgery and, as it stands, eight players could all leave Arsenal for free next summer. That’s a lot of players to replace and Arsenal will need cash to rebuild. We must think beyond the 2017/18 season.