The signing of Alexis Sanchez has left me elated, but it shouldn’t leave anyone surprised. Looking back at the last 12 months, we should all be kicking ourselves for not calling it sooner. The clues were there all along.
The trail begins last summer, when Arsene Wenger gave us the clearest indication as to the sort of striker he was interested in signing. He abandoned negotiations over Gonzalo Higuain to focus all his energies on Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. He even went as far to claim he was never “especially” interested in the Argentine. At the time I dismissed it as mere rhetoric; now I wonder.
In Suarez, he found almost everything he was looking for. A striker with pace, mobility and versatility. Someone who could play alongside Olivier Giroud as well as instead of him. Someone with the desire to hound defenders as well as the skill to baffle them.
There was no point adding another hulking number nine. For better or worse, the Suarez deal collapsed. Months passed and rumours linked us with the likes of Marios Mandzukic and Balotelli. I remained dubious. Like Higuain, they’re principally target men in the Giroud mould. They’re nothing like Suarez, the player Wenger was prepared to break both the bank and an unspoken ethical code to get.
There was another clue, too. In November of 2013, the manager told the assembled journalists.
I have said many times that Europe still produces many fantastic football players, but if you look well we do not produce strikers well. Very few, all of the big strikers come from South America.
The criteria were clear. Quick, nimble, tigrish and mobile – and possibly, given Wenger’s comments, South American. You didn’t need to be Sherlock. Hell, you didn’t even need to be Sherwood.
Enter Alexis Sanchez. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet (I haven’t the flexibility, for one thing) I first mentioned his name back in April. Even then, I should’ve arrived at it sooner. I watched Sanchez produce a masterclass at Wembley for the Chilean national team in the very same month Arsene Wenger heralded South American strikers. That came halfway through an outstanding season for Barcelona, in which he scored 20-odd goals and made nearly as many assists.
The World Cup confirmed that this was a player whose star was very much on the rise. He was superb for Chile, playing a crucial role in their victory over Spain and almost knocking out Brazil long before the Germans humiliated them on home soil.
While the rest of the world woke up to Sanchez this summer, I suspect Arsene was on the case long before. The World Cup’s not what will have brought him in to Wenger’s sights. It will, however, have brought up the price considerably. Those who know best say the deal could total £35m. Even as a huge fan of the player I’d say that’s a bit steep.
But we paid it. And sometimes, that’s what you have to do. We bullied Liverpool and Juventus out of the reckoning because we wanted the player enough. We were bullish, we were bold and we got the deal done. I like that. I’ve missed that.
For Barcelona, Sanchez has played predominantly on the right-hand side of the attack. I expect him to start his Arsenal career there too, covering for the injured Theo Walcott. However, it’s my firm belief that when Walcott returns it will be Sanchez, not Theo, who gets a run as a centre-forward.
He’s much more suited to it than the Englishman. He has the touch required to receive passes fizzed in to him from a distance. He has the desire to chase down lost causes, and the dribbling ability to squeeze between markers. In recent months, he has added a coolness in front of goal to his game. Some may question his size, but there is not an ounce of fat on Sanchez’s stocky frame. There’s not an ounce of cowardice in his character either. I watched the likes of Gary Cahill and Phil Jones bounce off him at Wembley. I saw Thiago Silva chasing shadows in Belo Horizonte.
If Luis Suarez can thrive as a centre-forward in the Premier League, so too can Sanchez. Our man has much of the brilliance, without the biting. He has the tenacity, without the teeth. For all those times when off-field issues intervened with on-field matters, I never wanted Suarez. In Sanchez, I feel like we’ve got the next best thing.
Arsene does too. It’s taken 12 months, but in Alexis Sanchez he’s finally found the man to fit the mould. I can’t wait to see him in action.
Alexis Sanchez is wearing the new Arsenal Puma kit, which is available from JD Sports.