Week for Wenger
A Sthe manager who best articulated how it feels to lose players during the international break, Arsene Wenger faces a worrying week. And it is not just the short-term effect of extra wear and tear that is keeping the Arsenal boss awake at night – it is the real prospect of losing his two biggest stars at the stroke of a pen.
Contract talks with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have stalled and the moneybags Manchester clubs are lurking. Both City and United are able to double the Arsenal men’s salaries whereas Arsenal will only give them a generous but carefully calibrated increment. Money talks and it could be that the unthinkable happens next year.
This would be a killer blow to Wenger who finally seems to have put together a side that is emerging as a worthy successor to those of his triumphant early years. And Ozil and Sanchez, playing in more advanced roles than previously, are the main reasons for the resurgence. Indeed, the Gunners are fancied in some quarters to end their long title drought in 2017.
Losing both next year is, of course, the worstcase scenario and Arsenal had until this month been optimistic that they would stay for at least another couple of years. They are enjoying the greater freedom of their new roles, are happy at the club and with life in London. Why would they want to leave?
Only last month Wenger acknowledged that convincing Ozil and Sanchez that Arsenal could challenge for the title was key to keeping them. He said: “I think these kinds of players can raise a little bit above the financial aspect of the game because they are not poor and they have to look really at the football side. It is more about whether the club can meet their needs on the football front.”
Well, winter wobbles notwithstanding, Arsenal are doing that. The additions of Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka have provided greater steel and depth to the defence and midfield, while the two men in question have given more of a cutting edge up front. However you look at it, Arsenal are genuine title contenders.
To an outsider, there would be no reason to leave. Things are going well and neither City nor United offer guarantees they would go better in Manchester. Indeed, United just about guarantee it could be some time before it does. But they do offer something more than an extra tranches of cash: for both players there is the chance to play for a former boss.
City’s Pep Guardiola brought Sanchez to the Nou Camp and although he didn’t get the best out of him, the Chilean is known to relish a second chance of playing for the Catalan master. Ditto Ozil and Jose Mourinho. The German is one of the few who enjoyed playing for the United boss at Real Madrid, generally stayed aloof from the civil war that raged, and would not be averse to a reunion.
If either of them left, Gooners would be sure to disown them as mercenaries and it would be true to the extent that both would be at least £50k a week richer. But it is the lure of working for another former boss that Wenger cannot quantify. Combined with the cash, that could just tip the balance.
Plenty, then, for Wenger to ponder as he prepares to return his side to Premier League action with a Saturday lunchtime clash with none other than his old enemy, Mourinho.
Grateful that Ozil has for once been kept in the garage by Germany, Wenger could be relieved to find that Sanchez’s fate is no worse than being “dumped in a field with no petrol”, as he put it in his memorable phrase.
What the Arsenal boss would be incandescent about is if the Chilean has done any more damage to the hamstring that kept him out of last Thursday’s clash with Colombia. Pressured to play in the crucial qualifier against Uruguay today – a decision Wenger has already called “suicidal” - Sanchez will be up against defenders not known for the kid-gloves approach.
The 27-year-old has already admitted that he ignores Wenger’s pleas to take a break, saying: “The manager sometimes says to me, ‘Have a rest’ but I don’t want to rest,” he told the club’s official website. “I was born to be a footballer and, God willing, I will be able to continue doing that. As you know, I’m passionate about football.”
That passion will be inflamed by national pride as Chile find themselves in a dog-fight to reach the next World Cup finals. It would be a disaster for the Copa America champions not to be in Russia in 2018 and you can understand them pulling out all the stops against their bitter rivals.
Wenger will be watching from behind the sofa as even relatively minor damage to Sanchez’ hamstring could be enough to derail Arsenal’s season. And the manager will be desperate to have his star striker available to take on a wounded Mourinho.
Even though Arsenal are the form team and United are struggling, he will be wary of the Portuguese. On the other hand, if Arsenal can carry on where they left off and put United to the sword, it would hardly be sweeter: besides plunging a sworn enemy into crisis, it could help keep the dynamic duo at the Emirates and the Gunners in contention for the title.
Jurgen Klopp (left) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan at Borussia Dortmund. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jose Mourinho (right) at Manchester United.