The term legend is one that never ceases to insight a flurry of discussion among football fans. With Arsenal, many can be attributed to the title, although in the post-Highbury years, few have quite stepped up to the mantle. While many can argue over the likes of Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, Robin van Persie or Cesc Fàbregas, one name continues to keep the discussion flowing. Alexis Sánchez. The man who could perhaps have rivalled the likes of Thierry Henry, Ian Wright and so many more, but who’s Arsenal career ended through the back door with a lot of ill-will to a man who could have been king.
Alexis Sánchez’s career began in the summer of 2014. After a frenzied start to the transfer window, Arsène Wenger set his sights on Arsenal’s left-hand side. The club had struggled on that side the previous season and the club needed a strong presence on the flank.
Sánchez seemed to tick all the right boxes for Wenger. High work-rate, technical flare, positional versatility and an engine that just wouldn’t give out. What’s more, Sánchez was about to lose out on a regular starting spot at Barcelona to Luis Suárez when he eventually joined.
Sánchez had impressed at Barcelona, but was noticeably in the shadow of a squad of other players. The likes of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Dani Alves were all at stratospheric levels of superstardom at the club and Sánchez, regardless of what he did, he was on the periphery.
Arsenal were not Sánchez’s only admirers of course. A player as good as Sánchez suddenly becoming available will have no end of suitors, but the main rival for the Chilean international’s signature, were Liverpool.
Liverpool held a distinct advantage over Arsenal at the time as they were already deep in conversation with the club over a deal for Luis Suárez and would surely make some adjustments to maker negotiations more comfortable if they were given preference in the race for Sánchez.
Arsenal on the other hand, had the ace in the hole, Arsène Wenger. The tongued Frenchman was often the trump card that Arsenal played when exploring potential targets and it proved useful here too. Wenger was already on punditry duty for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and spoke to Sánchez personally to strike a deal.
This, in the end, proved decisive. While Liverpool will point to Arsenal having the London selling point and the fact that they could pay more money, in reality, once Wenger got involved, it was pretty much game over. Sánchez joined Arsenal in a £31m deal and was handed the number 17 shirt, while Nacho Monreal moved to the number 18.
Given how Sánchez’s Arsenal career panned out, it seems crazy to think that he had detractors at the start. Many pundits wrote the deal off as being over-priced or that Sánchez would fail to adapt to the Premier League’s tempo.
Joey Barton was keen to dismiss Sánchez as being inconsistent and not up to par; but whatever the pundits had to say, they were soon left mesmerised as Sánchez burst onto the scene for Arsenal.
An assist in his first game for the club was followed by the goal that put Arsenal into the Champions League, scoring against Beşiktaş in the club’s qualifying match.
From there, the Chilean just seemed to go from strength to strength. A goal against Leicester City, was followed by a superb volley at home to Manchester City. He was on the scoresheet in nearly every competition, even forcing his way into the manager’s plans for the League Cup loss to Southampton, insisting to Wenger that he be given a starting spot, despite his need for a rest.
Everything he was touching turned to gold. He and Yaya Sanogo wrapped up Arsenal’s Champions League group stage qualification with a goal apiece and sending Arsenal into the round of 16.
Sánchez’s performances seemed to have an effect on those around him as well. Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud, Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey all began to breathe new life into their game, aided and abetted by the winger’s tireless work-rate.
That’s not to say that Sánchez’s first season with the club was a complete success. The club bombed out of the UEFA Champions League at the hands of Monaco after a pathetic display over two legs; not to mention an unfortunate run at the end of the season which saw the club win just two of their remaining five league games, twelve points behind Chelsea and five behind Manchester City.
However, the club did lift the FA Cup for the second year running, with Sánchez himself scoring a spectacular long-range effort in the 4-0 rout of Aston Villa.
Given how quickly Sánchez had adapted to life in north London and his immense partnership with Mesut Özil, it was surely only a matter of time before Arsenal added a talismanic striker to compliment the duo.
There were a whole host of names that were linked, from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette and Gonzalo Higuaín, but at the end of the summer window, Arsenal’s only senior recruit was goalkeeper Petr Čech.
This was not ideal. Arsenal’s forward-line was screaming out for a composed and competent striker. Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott were both capable enough in their own way, but lacked the proficiency that the club so craved.
In the end, inconsistency was the main word to describe Arsenal’s season as they were unable to defend their FA Cup crown, bombed out in the round of 16 of the Champions League to Sánchez’s former-club Barcelona and were humiliated in the League Cup by Sheffield Wednesday.
Sánchez hadn’t quite hit the ground running with the same intensity as he had in the previous season. Injuries had hampered his progress and the club’s form suffered as a result, with Wenger having to rely on the inexperience of Joel Campbell to pull the club through.
It was a pretty anti-climactic ending to the season for Arsenal. Though they scraped into second place, they were outclassed by Leicester City for the title and were left to lament how such a good team had not been able to win the league with so many of their rivals falling behind them.
However, by the time the season ended, Sánchez was only seven goals behind Olivier Giroud and had an impressive eleven assists. The season had also seen Wenger experiment with the idea of Sánchez as a centre-forward, essentially operating as a false-nine.
For many fans, it wasn’t the most effective use of the former-Barcelona man, but Wenger felt differently. His workrate, movement, agility and his penchant for both an assist and a goal, meant that he was perfectly suited to the role if the need ever arose.
The following season, it did.
The 16/17 season seemed to be the season in which Arsenal told Arsène Wenger that money would need to be spent if the club were to remain competitive. Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi, Rob Holding and Lucas Pérez were all recruited as the club took their spending to nearly £90m all-in.
Olivier Giroud wasn’t able to fill in straight away, having had a fairly intense EUROs campaign, meaning that Sánchez needed to fill in in the Frenchman’s absence.
Taking on the club’s iconic number 7 shirt from the departing Tomáš Rosický, Sánchez took to his new role like a fish to water, treating fans to some of his best performances, including a well-taken chip at home to Chelsea and two jaw-dropping goals away to Sunderland. Sánchez was also essential to the club’s miraculous 3-3 draw away to Bournemouth too and played a key role in Olivier Giroud’s famous scorpion kick goal at home to Crystal Palace.
Sánchez recorded his second Arsenal hat trick (his first coming the previous season) as Arsenal thrashed West Ham at the London Stadium.
It is perhaps Sánchez’s excellent form that began to keep the likes of Giroud out of the team. Though the Frenchman eventually did regain his place, he was not a guaranteed starter as he had been in previous seasons. Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and summer signing Lucas Pérez were also paying the price for Sánchez’s electric form.
But the cracks soon began to emerge from the Chilean.
A rumoured bust-up on the training ground with Laurent Koscielny (in which Sánchez reportedly stormed off the pitch in a towering temper) led to his being dropped for the club’s eventual 3-1 loss to Liverpool in March, though he was brought on in the second half.
For Arsenal, things didn’t seem to be improving much either. A humiliating 10-2 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich sent the club crashing out of the Champions League, broken and bruised and Sánchez (as well as Mesut Özil), seriously considering his future at the club.
Arsenal’s league form tanked and they finished fifth, the first time the club had finished outside of the top four under Arsène Wenger. Despite this, Sánchez remained committed to lifting some form of silverware with the club, playing an instrumental part in the team’s win over Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final and over Chelsea in the final as Arsenal lifted the trophy for the thirteenth time.
The summer gave time for reflection. Arsenal had not been at their best the previous season, but were perhaps unlucky to finish behind a resurgent Liverpool and a poor Manchester City.
The club now had two clear plans of action: get back into the Champions League and extend Özil and Sánchez’s contracts.
Both players were entering the final year of their deals and, as a result, would be available to sign pre-contract agreements with foreign sides as of January.
While Arsène Wenger remained outwardly optimistic that both Sánchez and Özil would commit to the club in the long-term, privately, Arsenal braced themselves for one or both leaving.
With Özil, the situation was complicated. The player was happy at Arsenal, but his wage demands were far beyond what Arsenal were happy to play and the club could not afford to play chicken with the player and his agent, Dr. Erkut Sögüt.
When it came to Sánchez, the situation was very straight-forward. The club’s failure to qualify for the Champions League had resulted in his wanting to leave. Many clubs had begun to circle, but a reunion with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City was the most attractive to the player.
Though Sánchez never publicly made his stance known, Arsenal were well aware of the situation. However, as far as Wenger was concerned, until a bid presented itself, the club had to continue to make preparations with Sánchez in mind.
The summer rumbled on before, in the last week of the window, Manchester City made their opening bid. £50m.
City’s plan was obvious. Arsenal had, privately, set a price of £60m for Sánchez’s signature and would not accept a penny less. City knew that Arsenal were under increasing pressure to shift Sánchez before his contract position became untenable and had hoped that the lateness of their bid would tempt Arsenal into selling.
Arsenal, commendably, stood firm to their price. The stance softened somewhat, when they accepted a £55m + £5m in add-ons offer. It wasn’t ideal, but the club weren’t about to go pushing their luck.
The agreement was accepted on only one condition; Arsenal sign a replacement first. This was one of the drawbacks of City’s late approach. Their bid being accepted on deadline day did not really leave Arsenal with enough time to find a replacement. Nevertheless, Arsenal had a £92m bid accepted by Monaco for Thomas Lemar.
Everything looked to be going swimmingly until Lemar rejected the offer. The deal was coming far too late in the window for the player and, as he was on international duty with France at the time, would not have sufficient time to discuss the matter with his agents or family, so the deal was cancelled. So too was Sánchez’s.
For his part, Sánchez was devastated. Frustration built from all ends.
City were furious that Arsenal had cancelled the deal, while Ivan Gazidis was fuming over City’s tactic of bidding as late as possible in order to drive the price down. Sánchez was angry at City for keeping him waiting and at Arsenal for not sanctioning the deal. In the end, everyone suffered. City didn’t get the player they needed, Sánchez didn’t get the move he wanted and Arsenal were stuck with a very upset and unimpressed player.
The disappointment seemed to take its toll on Sánchez and he never really returned to the electric form of the previous season. Though he still grabbed some important goals (such as a last-minute penalty away to Burnley), Sánchez cut a frustrated figure and it was clear that his teammates had had enough.
His relationship with Aaron Ramsey had never exactly been harmonious, however, the two knew how important each were to the team, but it was obvious from their on-pitch body language that both players were not getting along.
Sánchez scored his final goals for the club with a brace away to Crystal Palace in a 2-3 win. The most telling sign of all was that the Chilean ran off to celebrate, but none of his teammates joined him.
All seemed supremely uninterested, none more so than Jack Wilshere, who turned away in disgust as the winger celebrated with his customary knee-slide in front of the cheering Arsenal fans.
The players had had enough. Arsène Wenger is famed for his more calming and paternal nature with players, but the squad felt this was not reigning Sánchez in enough. His intense demeanour, win-at-all-costs attitude and his abrasive and erratic behaviour on the field was enough for everyone. Sánchez was confronted on more than one occasion by his teammates and eventually, needed to train separately from the squad in order to keep things civil.
The January window mercifully rolled around and now Arsenal had a real nightmare on their hands.
Mesut Özil was now free to agree pre-contract agreements with foreign clubs and Sánchez was practically begging to leave.
However, an interesting development occurred. While Manchester City had been the frontrunners for the Chilean’s signature in the summer, they were now in competition with their local rivals Manchester United for the player.
Of course, City had no intention of getting anywhere close to the £55m + £5m in add-ons offer they tabled in the summer, but were still interested in the player. A swap deal with Raheem Sterling was rejected, but both clubs remained in contact.
City were banking on the player’s relationship with Pep Guardiola and the persistence of Txiki Begiristain to convince the player, but Manchester United were quietly confident too.
Fernando Felicevich, Sánchez’s agent began to speak more in earnest to Manchester United. This effectively ended City’s interest in the player. City did not like the idea of being second best and started to find Sánchez and Felicevich’s demands far too exorbitant.
Eventually, a deal was struck with Manchester United, much to the footballing world’s surprise.
For Arsenal, the deal made sense. They now had the funds to agree a new contract with the mercurial Mesut Özil and would receive Henrikh Mkhitaryan in return, a player that Wenger had tried to sign previously, while United got a very unhappy and out-of-form Sánchez.
It was a very bizarre move for Sánchez and United, however. For the latter, Sánchez wasn’t really the player the club needed so badly. United were hardly lacking in either central or wide areas and their defensive style of play under José Mourinho was a far cry from the free-flowing attacking football that Arsenal played.
For Sánchez, it was even stranger. For all his talk of ambition, he was walking away from what looked to be a guaranteed Premier League winners medal, not to mention a reunion with an attacking manager who desperately wanted him at the club. He was also locking himself into a very defensive style of football. A style which relied on him tracking back far more than it relied on his attacking flair.
That is, ultimately, where his story with Arsenal ended. A fairly anti-climactic ending to such a promising Arsenal career. However, his stint at Manchester United seemed to undo a lot of his good work at Arsenal for many.
Sánchez absolutely failed to hit the ground running with United and is largely considered by many to be the worst signing in the club’s long history. No one could have possibly predicted just how badly it would turn out for him or the repercussions it would have.
In fact, things went so badly for Sánchez, from day one, that he actively spoke to his agent about returning to Arsenal, though by this point, the damage was done.
He was no longer the first name on the team sheet for his club or for the Chilean national side. Sánchez now cut a depressed figure on the field. Each lacklustre performance bled into the next one as he failed to make an impact.
For Manchester United, the effects were just as bad. Sánchez’s staggering £500,000-a-week salary decimated the club’s wage structure and led to the departure of Ander Herrera and the hugely inflated new contracts for David de Gea, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.
United and José Mourinho may have thought that they were getting one over on their old adversary Arsène Wenger, and were perhaps hoping that Sánchez could have the same impact that Robin van Persie did when he switched from north London to Manchester, but alas.
Plenty of players leave Arsenal under good and bad pretences. Cesc Fàbregas’ departure was not entirely defendable, but not as bad as the fallout from the likes of Samir Nasri, Ashley Cole, Emmanuel Adebayor or van Persie. Despite this, all of those players are remembered for their contributions to the club. While Sánchez’s memory has already faded away.
Sánchez is perhaps one of the few examples of a player whose time at Arsenal is affected more by his performances post-Arsenal than the ones at Arsenal.
The level of drop-off from his performances at Arsenal compared to Manchester United tend to cover a lot of the good the former-Barcelona man did in N5.
Sánchez was often the standout player in the team, even when playing badly. He was the star of two FA Cup wins, a dependable workhorse who demanded the very best of his teammates and a player who’s hard-work, dedication and willingness to improve endeared him to the fans.
In the end, Sánchez has already faded in the memory of many. The later stages of Sánchez’s career have come to define him, when, in reality, he was perhaps one of Arsène Wenger’s greatest ever signings and perhaps the best Arsenal player to have played at the Emirates Stadium ever since it’s construction.
You have to wonder how Sánchez remembers Arsenal and how much, if at all, he laments the fallout of his time there. From being one of Wenger’s favoured sons to being shuttled off to Serie A after a dreadful spell at one of the biggest clubs on the planet, mustn’t sit well with the player.
In the end, footballers are remembered for their performances and their trophy haul and while Sánchez was with Arsenal he had both, but on a personal level, he leaves to English clubs behind who are happy to see the back of him and not many teammates who will be clapping him off the field come retirement.