If Alexis Sanchez is not already the best player in the Premier League, then his claim to considered so grows stronger each week. Sunday’s performance in Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat of Bournemouth was the latest game in which the Chilean made the difference, his influence stretching way beyond the two goals he scored at either end of the match.
Among the title contenders in England’s top flight, no player is so crucial to his club’s cause.
Perhaps the recent loss of Philippe Coutinho to an ankle injury will reveal how important the Brazilian has become to Liverpool. Diego Costa’s 10 league goals have fired Chelsea to the top, but the rise of Antonio Conte’s team, like Manchester City under Pep Guardiola and indeed Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, has been about a collective effort bending to the will of a manager rather than one key player.
In hindsight, Wenger may question why it took him so long to play Sanchez as a central striker. At the beginning of the Chilean’s third season in London, it required Olivier Giroud’s delayed return from Euro 2016 with France and another knee injury to Danny Welbeck for Sanchez to be installed there. The results have been incendiary.
“It’s ended that eternal clamouring to buy a world-class centre-forward,” former Arsenal striker Alan Smith told ESPN FC, referencing transfer links in recent years with the likes of Karim Benzema and Alexandre Lacazette. “Nobody’s talking about that now.”
Beyond his eight league goals this season, Sanchez’s perpetual motion lends Arsenal dynamism that the less mobile Giroud cannot offer. On Sunday, Bournemouth’s defenders were harried into mistakes, the prime example being Steve Cook’s undercooked backpass which allowed Sanchez to score Arsenal’s 12th minute opener. “Premier League teams now try to play from the back and if you can close down with that intensity, you might nick something,” added Smith.
His competitive instincts mean the double Copa America winner’s aggression can sometimes boil over — Bournemouth’s Harry Arter was the victim of a foul that might well have received a red card — but with Sanchez through the centre, Arsenal can now press opponents high.
The Gunners have become far more proactive with Sanchez as their centre forward. Santi Cazorla’s long absence with an Achilles problem has robbed Arsenal of a vital creative spark but Sanchez can conjure scoring chances for himself, as evidenced by the angled rocket of a shot he unleashed against the crossbar on the stroke of half-time on Sunday.
“Giroud depends on service, like I did as a player,” said Smith, who won two league titles with the club in 1988-89 and 1990-91. “With Sanchez, give him the ball in good areas and you always think he can find a bit of a wiggle room and maybe get a shot off.”
Pushed further forward and centrally, Sanchez is no longer operating at cross purposes to Mesut Ozil, as sometimes happened when both were operating from the left-hand side.
On Sunday, after coming on as a late substitute, Giroud pulled up with a hamstring problem soon after supplying Sanchez for his tap-in second. Wenger may have lost his “Plan B” option for a while as a result, which may be problematic. There are concerns about Sanchez’s workload, especially after a “low grade muscle” injury was reported while on World Cup qualifying duty in South America this month.
Though not at his best during Arsenal’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United, or during last week’s 2-2 Champions League draw with PSG, Sunday saw Sanchez blast back.
“Even when he looks dead, he’s still alive and has the resources to do something special,” said Wenger. “He has that gut feeling to find that extra gear to be dangerous when the ball comes to him.”
Wenger has lamented the departure of many stars during his 20-year Arsenal reign, but does not appear worried that Sanchez will follow the likes of Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie through the Emirates’ exit door.
The 27-year-old, signed from Barcelona for around £35 million in the summer of 2014, has just over 18 months left of his current deal to run, with reports that he will require a weekly wage beyond £200,000-a-week (which would break the club’s wage structure) to renew.
These days, Arsenal command sufficient finances to meet such demands, with repayments on their stadium under control. “Arsenal can afford to pay big wages now,” said Smith. “I don’t see why he wouldn’t be happy in London. Where is he going to go? He’s not going to go back to one of Europe’s top clubs and Arsenal are on that next level down.”
Wenger gave relaxed, amused replies on Sunday when quizzed on Sanchez’s contract situation. “We have some time in front of us,” he said. “You like us to spend money, so you should be happy.”
Reinvention as a striker has made Sanchez almost irreplaceable to Arsenal and it has also made him perhaps the most potent individual in Premier League football.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.