Alexis Sanchez cut through the cool spring light of Wembley, a red blur headed straight for the ball. The ball, like it wants to do, looped up unpredictably and hit Alexis in the hand. Punched and now tamed, Alexis took control of the ball with a touch, and drove straight at goal.
The noise of the stadium grew dim, the players around him grew dark and fuzzy. He didn’t even see Ramsey standing offside between him, the ball, and the goal. He probably didn’t even see Courtoise, the giant Chelsea keeper, standing between him and the goal. All he saw was the net rippling. It was the perfect goal to end a career season at Arsenal.
It was also the perfect goal to capture Alexis Sanchez’ time at Arsenal. From the moment he first set foot on the pitch in an Arsenal shirt he has shown this preternatural ability to focus in that final predatory moment before scoring.
His first goal, he literally stole off the foot of Jack Wilshere. Özil played in a one-two with Jack but Alexis, full tunnel vision going, saw nothing but the ball and the rippling net, and nipped in ahead of Wilshere and finished. Everyone in the stands and on the field seemed shocked for a moment, “does that count? Can a player really do that?” Both questions that we asked for his first goal and again for what looks to be his last.
Alexis cut a petulant figure this winter. Often seeming to be at war with his teammates, he sulked and pondered on the pitch while Arsenal struggled. After the 5-0 win over Southampton in the FA Cup, Arsenal lost seven of their next ten matches, including a combined 10-2 destruction at the hands of Bayern Munich.
This was Alexis’ nadir. These were the matches where he would often be seen stooping on the pitch, hand on his chin, staring at a piece of grass and contemplating his future. And right in the middle of this low ebb, with reports circulating that there were problems in the dressing room, Wenger tried to drop Alexis. Wenger tried to punish Alexis and dropped him from the starting lineup only to tuck tail and bring him on at half time in a 3-1 loss to Liverpool.
It was Arsenal’s defense which failed. Arsenal allowed 26 goals in those ten matches. Alexis scored five for Arsenal and added an additional two assists but his offensive contributions were like throwing pebbles at a mountain.
In a panic, Wenger changed the system. He switched the back four to a back five, added an additional center back, and despite conceding just as many shots and big chances, conceded just seven goals in the last ten games of the season. Alexis scored eight goals to close the season out, including a run of six goals in the final five games of the season.
There’s a funny thing that Wenger likes to say. It’s about how a manager can get praise for changing his tactics at half time and yet no one mentions how that same manager got his tactics wrong from the start. The same applies in this case of Arsenal and their newfound “defensive rigidity”. If Wenger gets the praise for changing the system, we should also wonder exactly why it took him so long to make this change.
The answer is that I don’t give Wenger praise for this change. It wasn’t brilliant planning. It was luck born of desperation. Wenger gets credit for putting aside his ego, finally, and making a change which literally forced his team to stop being so suicidal in attack. But he lucked into this system, just like he lucked into the midfield partnership with Coquelin and Cazorla which was so effective two years ago.
And Alexis knows this. Alexis is used to playing for managers like Pep Guardiola and Jorge Sampaoli (who is a student of the legendary organizer Marcelo Bielsa). Alexis knows that with better organization, coaching, and management, you can take a small team of underdogs – like Chile – and win it all. Or that at the very least you need a baseline of management that Arsenal didn’t even seem to come close to approaching these last two seasons.
Alexis saw the title go to Leicester last season, who did what Chile has done in the Copas America for the last two years. Alexis saw Chelsea play solid football this season. And Alexis saw up close and personal what an organized and focused team like Bayern Munich can do to a team that is trying to play jazz football. Alexis is able to focus, to shut out all the distractions, and to get the job done, and he needs the same from his teammates and manager.
So, it’s no surprise that Alexis cut a despondent figure this winter and is off to a new team this summer. London is too flat for this Chilean. He needs to do some mountain running with his dogs in Bavaria.
And when the story of Alexis Sanchez is told, it will have the same undertones as the Fabregas story and the van Persie story; that yet again Arsenal had a special talent which they wasted. It won’t be long before special talent starts saying no to even coming to Arsenal.