Arsène Wenger’s decision not to start Alexis Sanchez at Anfield was as strange as they come. Here Phil Costa digs deeper…
With Liverpool low on confidence after their poor start to 2017, this was a chance to win back some fans who were beginning to lose faith in him, to prove that he can still get his side to do it in the big away games. Yet there he was, sat behind the manager at kick off with a dry smile across his face, as if he enjoyed being the bad guy for a change. You simply don’t go into a game of this magnitude without your top scorer and the man who has created the most assists for ‘tactical reasons’. So what gave?
The following day, reports began to emerge that Sanchez was dropped by Wenger after he stormed out of training following a bust-up during the week. Both the Guardian and Telegraph claim that the Chilean was later confronted by his team-mates in the dressing room which is where a row erupted. That appears to have been one childish tantrum too many, with suggestions his very public on-pitch displays of disaffection and frustration have not been taken too well within the squad. It’s a decision that the manager was right in making, even if it did ultimately cost his side a chance of victory.
While the 28-year-old is undoubtedly Arsenal’s best and most effective player, he is somewhat high maintenance and this certainly feels like the volcano finally erupting after twelve months of boiling and bubbling beneath the surface. At the end of last season, when he was taken off against Norwich, he went straight down the tunnel and left the stadium before any of his teammates got back to the dressing room. Sanchez has also made little effort to hide shouting at others during Premier League matches of late, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey the pair most regularly targeted.
Despite his antics, the harsh truth is that the Gunners cannot afford to lose their star man. Sanchez has scored the most goals (17), assisted the most (9), created the most chances (63) and completed the most take ons (78) in a red and white shirt this season. He is a player with fantastic fight and fire in his belly to win every week – one of the few players in the squad that can affect games himself on a regular basis.
He found the net in the 3-0 demolition of Chelsea and away to Paris Saint Germain, but also made telling contributions at Goodison Park, the Etihad and almost singlehandedly started the fightback against Bournemouth where his side were inexplicably 3-0 down at half-time.
After the game, Wenger said, “I don’t deny that Alexis is a great player. I bought him and I’ve always played him. This decision was not an easy one to make but I have to stand up for it.” The Frenchman has negatively referred to Sanchez’s individualistic nature in the past, but it was clear that watching him crouch on his knees by the halfway line, 40 yards away from his team-mates in Munich annoyed him. He even told a reporter who suggested he’d played well, “Really?
Watch the game again. I don’t want to comment about players as individuals, but we have lost as a team and Alexis is part of that.”
The Arsenal boss is no stranger to dropping players who have been ill-disciplined.
Cast your minds back to the 2013-14 season, where Yaya Sanogo was picked ahead of Olivier Giroud against a strong Liverpool side as a result of his off-field indiscretions. In many ways that was crippling himself more seriously than he did on Saturday, because at least at Anfield he was using senior and experienced players to make up for the loss of Sanchez.
However, whatever happened that forced his hand with regards to the team selection at Anfield, the punishment came across as half-hearted. With Arsenal losing at half-time, desperation overcame authority and Sanchez was then introduced to the game.
The old adage of no-one being bigger than the club rings true, but like all good predators, Sanchez smelt blood. This situation will now turn into a player v manager scenario and plenty will opt to side with the former, with Wenger losing large sections of the fanbase while the Chilean’s stock has never been higher.
He is seen as a winner, the player whose mentality should be the benchmark for others to follow. That will see many take his corner, but there is a right and a wrong way to go about things and Sanchez has been on the wrong side of that line for some time now. No matter who you are or how good you are, you can’t go around abusing your power. The former Barcelona man wants out of the Emirates and is clearly trying to engineer a move away in the summer. Phase one is complete.
It’s not about Wenger, it’s about a player who has overstepped the mark. If the fanbase wasn’t currently so split on the manager no way would they stand for a player behaving the way Sanchez has. But football is a team game and no player – no matter how good they are – should forget that.