In a little under a week Alexis Sánchez's life has been turned upside down. When the Arsenal forward woke up last Thursday, on transfer-deadline day, he was assured that he would complete his endlessly trailed move to Manchester City, the one he had wanted and made no secret about pushing for.
It did not happen for a number of reasons, chief among them Arsenal's failure to close an incoming deal for the Monaco player Thomas Lemar, despite an offer to the French champions of €100 million.
That night Sánchez played in a World Cup qualifier for Chile at home to Paraguay. They lost 3-0. Then, on Tuesday, he and his international team-mates faced Bolivia. They lost 1-0.
Rather abruptly, Chile have slipped from fourth place in the South American standings to sixth – with two matches to play, the first at home to Ecuador, the second away to Brazil. The top four nations qualify automatically, with the fifth entering a play-off. Chile’s hopes have been left hanging by a thread.
Sánchez is not, generally, given to public pronouncements, but he poured out his heart on Instagram after the defeat in Bolivia. “You get tired of being criticised with reason and without reason, you get tired of those who want you to lose, you get tired of saying to yourself: ‘I’ll get up again,’ after crying after a defeat,” Sánchez wrote.
“You get tired of telling the world and people who are with you that everything is going well. And the worst is that no one ever realises how that makes you feel. I have the No 7 of Chile on my back and it is a huge responsibility. That’s why it makes me sad that journalists and bad people criticise without knowing.”
It did not take a psychologist to detect a man whose frustration is overwhelming and whose focus has to be open to question. Sánchez will now come back to a club he wanted to leave and attempt to unscramble himself for the potentially fraught home fixture in the Premier League against Bournemouth on Saturday.
Sánchez was not the only Arsenal player who wanted out and was denied his wish. Héctor Bellerín told Arsène Wenger at a meeting in early July that his heart was set on a move to Barcelona, and later in the window Shkodran Mustafi voiced a desire to leave. Both have stayed. The Mesut Özil stand-off rumbles on – the midfielder is running down the final year on his contract, although he lacked suitors over the summer – and what of players such as Mathieu Debuchy and Jack Wilshere?
But it is Sánchez’s situation that has drawn the bulk of the headlines, and the backdrop to his return is a sense of battle fatigue in the dressingroom. Some of his team-mates have had enough of him and the whole soap opera, and they felt it would have been better for the club to have taken City’s money and moved on.
Instead those players and everyone else must prepare for another season-long plot line. Last time out it was Wenger and the will-he-won’t-he saga of the manager’s contract renewal. There is no will-he aspect to the Sánchez story; he will not stay beyond next summer and the expiration of his deal, but, nonetheless, it is surely an unwanted distraction.
The scrutiny on him promises to be relentless; every performance and every gesture will be viewed through the prism of his wish to leave. Sánchez might have felt the weight of the Chile No 7 shirt, but what of his Arsenal jersey? Despite everything he remains the club’s most talented player, and the imperative will remain on him to make the difference.
Wenger can be expected to talk up the positives of the retention of Sánchez at his press conference on Thursday morning. This is a player who is defined by his warrior spirit and simply wants to play and win when he steps on to the pitch. Everything else is forgotten. The club’s hierarchy are confident that Sánchez’s innate drive will slice up the other issues, particularly in a World Cup year. How they need Chile to find a way to the finals.
Arsenal’s thin ice
Arsenal also feel that they deserve credit for not selling a player with one year on his contract for a fee of £60 million, or about €66 million, which is what City offered last Wednesday night. In the past they have relented in similar situations – think Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri – but this time they put on-field interests ahead of money in the bank.
That said, they would have sold Sánchez if they had been able to sign Lemar, and it reflects badly on them that even the offer of nine figures in euro could not get the deal over the line. Furthermore, selling Sánchez and not bringing in a replacement would have been akin to tossing a match on the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal are on thin ice if they want praise for choosing not to torch the place.
At the start of the summer it would have been the dream scenario to keep Sánchez, and Wenger will back himself, as ever, to sweet-talk the player back around. But the manager has been damaged by the affair, simply because of how adamant he had been since the opening press conference of the preseason in Australia that the club would not entertain any offer for Sánchez. In the end that proved to be untrue. Arsenal have since claimed it was a case of them playing hardball. The layman might call it talking bullshit.
Dismayed Manchester City
City, for their part, were dismayed at the deal’s collapse, having had indications from Arsenal that it would happen because Lemar was coming to north London. They felt that Arsenal’s position on Sánchez had softened around the time, in early August, he reported an abdominal strain that saw him miss the opening two games of the Premier League season. Arsenal maintain that the injury was genuine.
Arsenal would say they ran out of time to complete the finer details of the Lemar move, namely the personal terms and a medical, particularly as he played for France against the Netherlands on the night of the deadline. On the other hand there were reports in France that Lemar had turned down Arsenal. Where, City wondered, was the London club’s due diligence on the player before a €100 million offer?
It has been a summer in which Wenger has broken his transfer record for the striker Alexandre Lacazette and beefed up his defensive options with the free-agent purchase of Sead Kolasinac. He believes that his team are stronger than last season.
But there have also been mystifying decisions. Why did Wenger start Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 4-0 debacle at Liverpool, days before the England player completed his transfer to the Merseyside club? Maybe it was because, to quote Wenger, Oxlade-Chamberlain was "100 per cent" certain to stay at Arsenal.
Then there was Lucas Pérez, stripped of his shirt number and pressed towards the exit only to be loaned, rather than sold, to Deportivo La Coruña. Wenger had paid €20 million to take the striker from Deportivo last summer.
In training Wenger has tried several approaches, and it would not surprise the players if he ditched his three-at-the-back formation. The search for the perfect blend continues. Sánchez, drained and disorientated, must be a part of the solution.