It was inevitable that Alexis Sanchez’s first few appearances for Arsenal after the passing of the transfer deadline would attract considerable scrutiny. When his move to Manchester City collapsed in the final hours of the summer window, it fuelled speculation that Arsenal would have to deal with a surly, sulking striker. In truth, that’s exactly what we’ve seen — only it’s nothing new. Sanchez is only about as grumpy as he’s always been.
It was a slight surprise to see the Chile international picked for the Carabao Cup tie with Doncaster Rovers. Star players are usually afforded the night off on occasions such as this, but instead Sanchez was put through his paces for the full 90 minutes.
Wenger’s motives for picking Sanchez have been questioned. Was this apparent demotion a punishment for the player’s desire to leave the club? The Gunners boss has subsequently dismissed those suggestions out of hand, saying: “There’s no disguised attitude on my side. I just try to get him back to full fitness. I gave him a long holiday [this summer] and after that long holiday — this year he had a real rest — he came back not really fit.
“It took us time to get him back and then he got injured. So if you add the injury and the rest time it was a bit long. But last night you could see that he’s coming back sharp now.”
It was a curious performance from Sanchez against Doncaster. He seemed to play for his own ends, frequently eschewing the opportunity to play a straightforward pass to a teammate. He was openly furious with some of the younger players, and at one stage screamed abuse at teenage debutant Josh Dasilva. Sanchez’s mood generally vacillated between frustrated and furious.
However, amidst the on-field emotional fireworks, there have been moments of real quality. That’s the compromise you accept with Sanchez — his negative attributes are generally outweighed by his positive contribution.
Take the Europa League win against Cologne. For long periods he looked incredibly rusty, struggling to keep hold of the ball and dribbling into dead end after dead end. Then, almost out of nowhere, he produced the moment of the match. Sanchez chased what looked like a lost cause out on the left flank, drove infield and lashed a brilliant shot into the far top corner from the edge of the box. It was breathtaking to behold — and crucial in turning the game in Arsenal’s favour.
Once again, he made the difference against Doncaster. Although it was Theo Walcott who tucked home the game’s only goal, he was played in by an outrageous long pass from Sanchez. Dropping deep to act as the team’s playmaker, he flighted a ball over two lines of defence, gifting Walcott a clear run on goal.
Sanchez is a strong character — and strong characters don’t change easily. His frequent outbursts on the pitch are not necessarily an indicator of his unhappiness. He loves nothing more than playing for his country, and it’s rare that a Chile game ends without almost every one of Sanchez’s international teammates being on the receiving end of a verbal volley.
In truth, many of these issues were present with Sanchez last year, and it did not make him any less important to the team. He is not a continuity guy. He’s a star player, not a team player. There is little smooth about him. He makes simple things look difficult, but can make the impossible plausible. Sanchez’s mercurial volatility is what makes him absolutely vital to Arsenal.
Wenger has intimated that he now considers Sanchez ready to start in the Premier League against West Brom on Monday night. Arsenal fans will hope they see the same old Sanchez — a misfiring, moaning match-winner.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.