It is only five weeks since Arsene Wenger suggested, rather strangely it seemed at the time, that Alexis Sanchez entering the final year of his contract was “an ideal situation” for Arsenal.
In the intervening time, Sanchez has nursed an injury which conveniently kept him out of the start of the season as he tried to find an escape route from the club. He then played appallingly when he was available, in the 4-0 defeat to Liverpool on Aug. 27. Then there were reports his own teammates wanted him sold before the deadline passed, scuppering a £60m move to Manchester City. Sanchez was furious and reportedly never wanted to play for the club again and he erupted on Instagram after two poor results with Chile, opening a window into his tormented frame of mind. To top it off, Wenger admitted on Wednesday that holding Sanchez to his contract could effectively end up costing the club £140m.
Ideal, this is not. Rather, to put it bluntly, it is a complete mess. Arsenal do not have the £60m Manchester City offered, nor a replacement, after Monaco’s Thomas Lemar turned down the chance to illuminate the Europa League. Even more worryingly, there are obvious concerns they do not even have the same player who had scored 72 goals in 144 appearances for the club before the start of this season. Searching questions have to be asked about whether Sanchez is ready to contribute as before, having seen the move he set his heart on evaporate on deadline day.
There is a sporting argument for holding Sanchez to the final year of his contract and allowing him to leave on a free, but it only makes sense if two conditions are met: (a) that Sanchez performs to an optimum level and (b) that Arsenal do too, and make a decent fist of at least challenging for a major trophy, which this season means the Premier League. It is still early in the season but anyone who watched the Anfield performance and considered this a potential title-winning team has thrown themselves head first into a wonderful fantasy land. Keeping hold of Sanchez and doing nothing in the league is simply a waste of everyone’s time.
And if Arsenal are to achieve anything this season they will have to have Sanchez, who is by far their best player, on top form. There appears to be little chance he will sign a new contract now, so this is it. The last stand. Can Wenger get enough out of him to make it even remotely worthwhile to have turned down City’s offer? That is the calculation Arsenal are left with.
The initial signs over the international break were hardly promising, with Sanchez bearing his soul via Instagram and saying he was “tired of being criticised” by media and sections of the Chile support. But another Instagram update on Wednesday evening appeared to offer more hope.
A post shared by Alexis Sanchez (@alexis_officia1) on Sep 6, 2017 at 1:34pm PDT
The emphasis on “FOCUS” was what Wenger, and every Arsenal fan, wants to hear. That must be Sanchez’s task for the next nine months as he approaches the World Cup next summer, should Chile qualify. But we have to ask ourselves to what extent this proclamation was just a canny piece of PR. Sanchez’s personal standards are widely known to be elite and he is a relentless ball of energy, but the failure of the move to City may have had an effect on his commitment, even subconsciously. Can he really refocus so quickly and effectively?
It is a tricky position for Wenger to be in. Sanchez wanted to leave, Arsenal, ultimately, were willing to sell him, but here they are, locked together until January at the very earliest and likely through to the end of the season. The team’s hopes of achieving their targets effectively rest on the shoulders of a player who doesn’t want to be at the club. His Instagram update may have declared he was returning “home”, but the player was very energised by the prospect of leaving Arsenal, and London, this summer.
A home match against Bournemouth at the weekend seems like a good opportunity to examine his focus. There will be far sterner tests ahead, and Arsenal need Sanchez at his sharpest if they are to have any chance of negotiating them.
Tom is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport