Alexis Sanchez showed Arsene Wenger was wrong to drop him at Anfield
It was in the 27th minute when they visiting fans began to sing the song for their hero. He had just been given the signal to warm up, having spent 27 minutes dumbfounded.
‘Alexis Sanchez, baby!’ Arsenal’s travelling contingent bellowed. ‘Alexis Sanchez, oooh, oh!’
There was nothing wrong with the Chilean, we could see as he limbered up. No sign of him moving gingerly, no extra layers to protect him from the cold. Sanchez, the top Gunner, had been placed on the bench for the biggest Premier League game of Arsenal’s campaign.
Arsene Wenger’s thinking? He wanted a more direct approach against a Liverpool defence that five days earlier had been exposed by Jamie Vardy’s pace at Leicester.
It made no sense to anyone, least of all Sanchez, whose future at the Emirates Stadium is in the balance.
His goals have secured seven points for Arsenal so far and this contest appeared tailor-made for his star quality. It was a contest, above all, that was crucial to shaping Arsenal’s ambitions for the remainder of the campaign, so why leave out the man most likely to have a positive bearing?
In those first 27 minutes, Arsenal found themselves a goal behind. By the end of the first half, the deficit had been doubled and, most damning of all, Wenger’s side did not touch the ball once in Liverpool’s penalty area.
There have been some superb Arsenal performances at this stadium down the years but the paucity of this one, bereft of guile and inspiration and energy, was arguably the worst of the Premier League era.
Liverpool were functional in building their lead but their opponents were horribly subservient.
Sanchez wouldn’t have stood for it. His refusal to sign a new £180,000-per-week deal maybe worrying Arsenal’s hierarchy but he is not the kind of player who takes his contractual issues on the pitch, he has that same ferocious will to win as all the top South American performers.
Brendan Rodgers, when he was Liverpool manager, was heartbroken that he couldn’t sign Sanchez in the summer of 2014. Rodgers invested a significant time talking to the Chilean, trying to convince him, and was adamant he would have been perfect to fill the void left by Luis Suarez.
When you have a player like him who is so good, one who would effectively improve every team in the Premier League, why put him on the pitch as often as you can?
Certainly Jurgen Klopp would have done a double take once the teamsheets were published and Sanchez wasn’t selected.
Belatedly, Wenger saw the error of his ways, hauling off Francis Coquelin during the interval and ushering Sanchez into the fray, a move that was the signal for his name to be sung by those crammed in the corner of the Anfield Road end.
What followed in the next 45 minutes merely exacerbated the initial selection. Arsenal got their first meaningful touch in Liverpool’s area within 120 seconds of Sanchez being on the pitch – Olivier Giroud’s header was palmed away by Simon Mignolet – and suddenly they looked a different team.
Prowling on the left hand side, with that squat physique that screams power, every time he got on the ball, you could see Klopp fidgeting that little more uncomfortably in his technical area.
Sanchez created the goal that dragged Arsenal back into the game, a slide rule ball that allowed Danny Welbeck to slip his effort beyond Mignolet, and he almost pilfered an equaliser in injury time, exchanging passes with Hector Bellerin before having a shot charged down.
In the next attack, though, the hosts surged up the pitch and made sure of three points.
As Liverpool’s players hurtled to celebrate with Gini Wijnaldum, Sanchez pulled his shirt up to cover his face in an attempt to mask his disappointment.
He was fooling nobody. This was a big night, one that may lead to Arsenal’s unbroken sequence of top four finishes under coming to an end. It might also be the night that persuades Sanchez his time being their top Gun is approaching its end.
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