When Alexis Sanchez was a boy, growing up in the Chilean mining settlement of Tocopilla – “the Devil’s Corner” – he would wash cars outside the local cemetery, box in the street and perform acrobatics in the town square as a means of earning money for his penniless family.
These days, his work is worth rather more. In the summer, Arsenal paid a reported £32 million for his services. The hope is that their supporters will in turn part with a small fortune to see a striker who is surely the most exciting of all the Premier League’s recent acquisitions.
Never mind Cesc Fàbregas or Diego Costa, who have signed for Chelsea, or indeed Ander Herrera, whose arrival at Manchester United has been overshadowed by the personality of his new manager, Louis Van Gaal. The player most likely to light up the forthcoming English season is the 25-year-old former Udinese and Barcelona striker whose pace, strength and sheer goalscoring potential were underlined at the World Cup finals in Brazil.
Arsenal’s fans are beside themselves with anticipation. Sanchez made his debut for the club in last weekend’s Emirates Cup, but his first competitive appearance, ahead of the club’s league opener against Crystal Palace on Saturday, will be in today’s Community Shield encounter with Manchester City at Wembley.
It will be the highlight of an intriguing match-up – the league champions against a club whose FA Cup victory in May gave them their first trophy in nine years. Sanchez isn’t just an eye-catching player who will improve Arsene Wenger’s side, he is a statement of intent, a symbol of their long-awaited plan to mount a genuine title challenge.
Arsenal have always claimed that their frugality in the transfer market, their clear football philosophy and their emphasis on homegrown talent would enable them to emerge better than most from challenging financial times. They have always argued that, once the stadium debt was cleared, and the economic playing field levelled, they would be in a position to capitalise on increased matchday revenue.
Now is that time. While Wenger has been able to spend around £60m this summer – his highest-ever outlay – Manchester City have been conspicuously quiet on the transfer front. Their inactivity is thanks mainly to a financial fair-play penalty, which they have tried to circumvent – much to Wenger’s disgust – with the loan signing of Frank Lampard.
It will take much more than today’s match to establish whether there is to be a changing of the guard, or – more likely – a closing of the gap between these teams, but the new dynamic is fascinating. There is no mistaking Arsenal’s growing ability and willingness to compete in the transfer market.
After the £42m purchase of Mesut Ozil a year ago, Wenger has added Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy and David Ospina to his squad for this season, although Sanchez is the biggest indication that the tide could be turning. Not only has his signing got Arsenal fans salivating, it has served also to sicken Liverpool, who thought – not unreasonably – that they could acquire him as part of the deal that took Luis Suarez to Barcelona.
Sanchez is being billed as the game-changer for Arsenal, the missing link in their quest to become the real deal. The player never quite settled in three years at the Nou Camp, where the team was built around Lionel Messi, but it will be different at Arsenal. There, he will be the team’s talisman, with the freedom to do what he does best. It has worked at international level, where he has scored 24 goals in 71 appearances for Chile.
Sanchez has everything – goals, assists, deceptive upper-body strength and a determination to run, at pace, with the ball at his feet. It is a throwback to the days when he was nicknamed “ardilla” (squirrel) on account of the scampering about he did across rooftops, up trees and over walls in search of lost footballs. More than anything, his versatility appeals to Wenger. He can play wide left, wide right, behind the striker, or alone up front. With just one orthodox centre-forward (Olivier Giroud) capable of leading the line this season, the suggestion is that Ozil, Sanchez, Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and the rest will have to be flexible in the kind of “false nine” system that worked for Germany at the World Cup.
Sanchez had a break from football after his country’s penalty shoot-out defeat by Brazil in the last 16, and he was short of match fitness in last weekend’s friendlies against Benfica and Monaco, but it will be no surprise if he finds the scoresheet at Wembley this afternoon. That, after all, is where he scored both goals in a 2-0 defeat of England last November, replicating the feat of Marcelo Salas 15 years earlier.
Of course, spending more than £30m on a player is no guarantee, as Fernando Torres, and Andrei Shevchenko proved at Chelsea. Arsenal need look no further than Ozil, who had a disappointing first season in London, for a reminder that the transition to English football is far from easy.
And doubts persist about Arsenal’s backbone. Sanchez, who thrives as part of Chile’s energetic pressing game, will bring much-needed physicality to his new club’s attacking thrusts, but their weakness under pressure remains. The perception is that, until they secure a world-class holding midfielder – if not Sami Khedira, then William Carvalho – their soft centre will continue to be exposed by their heavyweight rivals. Arsenal have won none of their last six matches against Chelsea, none of their last six against Manchester United and only one of their last eight against Manchester City.
That said, they appear to be moving in the right direction. They finished 19 points behind the champions three seasons ago. A year later, the gap was 16. Last season, it was seven. Alisher Usmanov, the Russian business magnate who is Arsenal’s second-largest shareholder, captured the mood recently in a rare interview. “The club is very well placed to succeed,” he said. “I think we begin a new era for Arsenal where we win trophies.”
First it was the FA Cup in May. Now they must try for the Community Shield, a lesser trinket admittedly, but a trophy all the same. With a little help from Sanchez, it might just become a habit.