A won­der­ful Arse­nal sign­ing – un­til he wanted to go to City

There is a sense Alexis Sánchez is a bril­liant foot­baller who has still to find his de­fin­i­tive level

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Bar­ney Ronay

You can’t al­ways get what you want. But if you try – and you’re not too scarred by a com­plex, dead­line-week, dual-ju­ris­dic­tion triple-swoop in­volv­ing both Ra­heem Ster­ling and Thomas Le­mar – some­times you might find you get what you need.

Manch­ester City might have been fly­ing even higher at the top of the league and have scored more than their 35 goals had Alexis Sánchez signed from Arse­nal in late Au­gust. Who knows, as the fix­ture list starts to bite, City’s fans may look on their bril­liant but cal­low front line, and think wist­fully of Sánchez’s ra­zor edge, his more sea­soned war­rior spirit.

But it does seem a fairly dis­tant prospect right now. In­deed, as Arse­nal and Sánchez travel to the Eti­had to play the league lead­ers to­mor­row, a jour­ney Sánchez seemed so de­ter­mined to make per­ma­nently in the sum­mer, it is hard not to take a step back and marvel at the un­fore­seen con­se­quences of one of the more com­plex botched big-money moves.

City were gen­uinely keen on sign­ing Sánchez. The move fell apart as Pep Guardi­ola re­jected the idea of let­ting Ster­ling go the other way. Re­vived on dead­line day the whole thing col­lapsed for a sec­ond time as Arse­nal’s own move for Le­mar flat­lined. At the end of which we have, for now, a clear set of win­ners and losers. Undis­rupted by big-name ar­rivals, and given their head by Ser­gio Agüero’s re­cent in­jury prob­lems, City’s youth­ful Je­sus-Sané-Ster­ling front­line has been al­lowed to set­tle into one of the most ex­cit­ing things around in Euro­pean club foot­ball right now.


Ster­ling’s im­prove­ment, in par­tic­u­lar, is surely re­lated in part to Guardi­ola’s heart­en­ing re­fusal to let him leave as a Sánchez makeweight. To date he has 10 goals and two as­sists this sea­son. Best of all he looks happy, a player start­ing to find his most ef­fec­tive gears.

At which point, en­ter Sánchez, who seems to have spent the past three months head­ing the other way; who has one goal in seven league games this sea­son; and who has looked some way off his best self.

City were said to be an­gry at the way Arse­nal re­fused to sell Sánchez at the last. At it stands to­mor­row may just pro­vide a lit­tle more ev­i­dence that per­haps this was a deal best left un­done. But then, even af­ter eight sea­sons in Serie A, La Liga and the Pre­mier League, Sánchez re­mains an in­trigu­ingly opaque A-list foot­baller.

In his early days at Barcelona he earned the nick­name “Cachai?”, which trans­lates as “know what I mean?”, a ref­er­ence to the blank looks in­duced by his north Chilean brogue (Sánchez even ended up tak­ing Span­ish lessons for a while). There is still a sense of cachai about Sánchez now, an un­de­ni­ably bril­liant foot­baller who has still to find his de­fin­i­tive level, and who is clearly still both­ered by his in­con­clu­sive spell at Barça.

Not that his best qual­i­ties are in doubt. In an Arse­nal team de­fined in re­cent years by a sense of some­thing a lit­tle too com­fort­able, Sánchez has been an in­vig­o­rat­ing tonic. Only Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku and Agüero, all ca­reer No 9s, have more goals in the Pre­mier League in that time. Sánchez has been a won­der­ful sign­ing.

Right up un­til the mo­ment he wanted to stop be­ing one and play for City in­stead.

It is a move that would at least have ad­dressed the wider ques­tion of whether some very dis­tinct qual­i­ties re­ally can work in a gen­uinely A-list team. In an in­ter­view last year Sánchez sug­gested it was only a wrong turn or two that had pre­vented him be­ing hoist aloft on the Messi-Ron­aldo pan­theon.

Oth­ers might sug­gest there is a rea­son why his three years at Arse­nal have been the most pro­duc­tive of his ca­reer, that it is only in a team where he can be the star that he has truly flour­ished: those streaky patches, the oc­ca­sional waste­ful­ness with the ball, the pe­ri­ods where he stops run­ning, all ex­cused by his own star sta­tus.

It would be un­fair to sug­gest Sánchez’s time at Barcelona was a fail­ure. He was in­jured a lot. He scored or made 81 goals in his 141 matches. But there is no doubt Sánchez has thrived with club and coun­try as the king­pin rather than as a high-class en­sem­ble player.

It was Udi­nese’s man­ager Fran­cisco Guidolin who ef­fec­tively dis­cov­ered the Arse­nal-is­sue Sánchez, mov­ing him from waste­ful wide at­tacker to a star No 10 seven years ago and ig­nit­ing his ca­reer in the process. Sánchez was voted most promis­ing player in the world in a 2011 Fifa poll and was plucked out by Barcelona the same year.

Slight smear

At the end of which there is an el­e­ment of the Peter prin­ci­ple about Sánchez’s sta­tus now. Are the gifts that make him so ex­cep­tional in a team where he can be the at­tack­ing star the same qual­i­ties that make him un­suit­able in a team where pos­ses­sion is ev­ery­thing, where there are stars of equal or greater mag­ni­tude?

If there is a slight smear on his won­der­ful Arse­nal record it is his poor re­cent scor­ing record against the best teams. He has one goal in his past 12 games against City, Chelsea, Manch­ester United, Liver­pool and Tot­ten­ham.

At times Sánchez has seemed to rebel against this, a man play­ing his own, furious game within a game. Dur­ing his sum­mer sulk it was hard not to think back to an ex­tra­or­di­nary 10-minute spell against Bay­ern Mu­nich in the 5-1 de­feat in Bavaria. That night Sánchez ran around the pitch in a mist of anger, scor­ing a goal, and burn­ing him­self out for the rest of the game: a foot­baller in a state of pro­found on-field tantrum, dis­play­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously both his strengths and his weak­ness.

Given the youth­ful egal­i­tar­i­an­ism of City’s at­tack it is tempt­ing to won­der ex­actly how he might have af­fected the bal­ance of this team. To­mor­row would be an ex­cel­lent mo­ment to start an­swer­ing that ques­tion, to of­fer Arse­nal’s sup­port­ers a lit­tle sweet­ener af­ter the sum­mer; and to erase, at least un­til Jan­uary, mem­o­ries of another mo­ment of un­com­fort­able in be­tween.


Alexis Sanchez: has one goal in his past 12 games against City, Chelsea, Manch­ester United, Liver­pool and Tot­ten­ham.

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