Arsène Wenger is the man widely credited with dragging English football into the age of enlightenment. Proper nutrition, proper training methods, and proper passing too. But whatever success his side may achieve this season, he admits it will have been, to a great extent, down to a player who developed his craft on a few impoverished streets in northern Chile.
Arsenal’s attacking options this season are arguably the most abundant in the Premier League, but in Alexis Sanchez something is emerging that they have lacked in recent years – a true talisman.
Although Jack Wilshere is an injury doubt for Saturday’s match at home to Burnley and Tuesday’s Champions League game against Anderlecht, in Theo Walcott, Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Mathieu Flamini, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck and Sanchez, Arsenal have a wealth of talent to call upon. But in successful teams, one or more players will rise above the rest to stamp their identity on the side. For Chelsea this season it is Diego Costa. For Wenger’s Arsenal, Sanchez, through his sheer hard work, is becoming a key player.
“Every day, he wants the ball. He doesn’t walk out on to the training pitch, he runs out. He has a natural level of energy that is unbelievable,” said Wenger. “You would love everyone to have that, but it doesn’t work like that. I have said many times: when you see where he comes from, where he was born, and you think he [now plays for] Arsenal, you need to have something special, or it does not work.”
Arsenal's injury list
Arsenal's injury list
1/5 Mikel Arteta (midfield)
Like Diaby, the Spaniard is closing in on a return but the Swansea match will come to soon. The club captain last played in November.
2/5 Mathieu Debuchy (defender)
Returned in the FA Cup semi-final win over Reading but has since been ruled out with injury and Wenger confirmed he remains 'unavailable'.
3/5 Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (midfield)
Suffered a hamstring injury against Manchester United in the FA Cup and hasn't played since as it has exacerbated a groin problem. Out at least until May and facing surgery in the summer.
4/5 Aaron Ramsey (midfield)
Aaron Ramsey caught a kick on his calf during the win over Hull and was later substituted. The Welshman was rated 50/50 for the Swansea match by Wenger, but it now appears that he is a major doubt for the clash at the Emirates.
5/5 Danny Welbeck (forward)
Danny Welbeck has not played since the goalless draw with Chelsea towards the end of April after suffering a knee injury. Wenger has confirmed that the injury is 'nothing major', and that he should return to full fitness before the end of the season.
Wenger believes Sanchez shares several attributes with Barcelona striker Luis Suarez. “There are similarities between Sanchez and Suarez. Sometimes Suarez will give the ball to the opponent but he gets it back straight away. Sanchez is the same.
“They are very quick as well. If you look across Europe, South America is the only continent that develops strikers. Across Europe, at least 80 per cent of strikers come from South America. We have to question ourselves [as to] what can we add to our academies to develop strikers again.
“Sanchez, and Suarez, they played street football, park football. If you go 30, 40 years back in England, life was tougher. Society has changed. We are much more protected than we were 30 years ago. We have all changed. We have all become a bit softer.
“Maybe in our history street football has gone. In street football when you are 10 years old, you play with 15-year-olds so you have to be shrewd, you have to show you are good, you have to fight, win impossible balls. When it is all a bit more formulated then it is developing your individual skill less, your fighting attitude. We have lost that a little bit.”
Sanchez has admitted he “learnt his football on the street”, in Chile’s downtrodden north. Football was his only route out, and his friends and neighbours from that time say he was sure he would make it.
All of Arsenal’s outfield players signed in the summer – Welbeck, Sanchez, Calum Chambers, Debuchy – have delivered from day one.
“We are very happy with the quality of all four. Chambers has been outstanding. He is 19. He reminds me of the first generation of English players I had: Dixon, Bould, Winterburn, Adams, players who were ready for the fight.”
Arsenal are nine points off the top after nine games, statistics Wenger said do not reflect “the quality of the opposition”. Saturday’s visitors Burnley are bottom of the table but for Wenger, such matches are tougher than they have ever been, especially as full-back defender Kieran Gibbs faces a late fitness test and is a doubt.
“[Newly promoted teams] are technically better than 10 years ago. If you watch the games, the players are technically prepared to play in the Premier League,” he said.
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