“He is doing extremely well,” Thierry Henry enthused. “He is going to score goals but it is his all-round game that I am so impressed with. That has no price. As a fan you are waiting to have a player like that. Finally we have one.”
It didn’t take Alexis Sanchez long to justify the hype. Receiving the ball on the right-hand side of the penalty area after fine link-up play between Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere, the forward looked up and calmly swept a low shot past Tolga Zengin.
That matchwinning goal against Besiktas last August was his first for the club and perhaps his most important so far, ensuring Arsenal’s place in the Champions League group stage for the 17th consecutive season.
"The supporters here are very cheerful and enlivening, which is a very nice thing, and my team-mates are really kind too. My goal now is to take Arsenal as high as possible"
Alexis hasn’t looked back since. His first Premier League goal followed four days later, at Leicester, and he emphatically announced himself to English football in his next appearance - acrobatically volleying past Joe Hart in Arsenal’s 2-2 draw against Manchester City at Emirates Stadium.
The goals have kept coming, albeit not as frequently since the turn of the year. Nonetheless, be it clinical curled finishes, precise free-kicks, thunderous long-range strikes or slaloming solo runs, the Chilean’s showreel of superb strikes has grown ever longer during a virtuoso first season in north London.
City boss Manuel Pellegrini hailed Alexis as “the best player in England” shortly before the forward helped Arsenal to win at Etihad Stadium in January, while Arsène Wenger has praised the speed with which the 26 year old has adapted and integrated himself into the squad.
There was more approval from Henry too. Arsenal’s all-time record goalscorer has described the Chile forward as a player “we should all be happy with”. Alexis is the first player since Henry to score 20 goals in a debut season at Arsenal.
The way he reached that milestone, deftly shifting the ball away from Kolo Toure before arrowing a fierce shot into the roof of the net in the impressive recent 4-1 win over Liverpool, is a fine example of the poise, touch and explosive finishing capabilities he possess.
Arsenal fans have taken Alexis to their hearts and voted him as the club’s player of the month three times in a row between last September and November. They have come up with a song, serenading him with ‘Alexis Sanchez baby’, to the tune of The Human League’s 1980s hit ‘Don’t You Want Me’.
The man himself is pretty pleased with his start to life in London too and, having helped Arsenal win the Community Shield on his debut, now has his sights set firmly on more silverware.
Alexis, how would you sum up your first season in England?
I am well adapted to the country and the league but of course I must keep on learning. I want to expand my knowledge of English football in general and of the club and my team-mates in particular, but overall I love this league. At the end of the day, football was invented in this country, right? I live where football was invented. That makes me really happy.
How easy was it to settle in, both at Arsenal but also in London?
It hasn’t been really easy but so far my spell here has been a very positive one. I like the city a lot and I feel really comfortable at the club. The supporters here are very cheerful and enlivening, which is a very nice thing, and my team-mates are really kind too. My goal now is to take Arsenal as high as possible.
What facets of your game and your character helped you to settle quickly?
Ever since I started watching the Premier League, I found English football very appealing. I hope to keep on learning from my team-mates and to keep on improving day after day. That’s what I’m here for.
Let’s go right back to the start. Do you remember how you became interested in football as a child growing up in north Chile?
I always liked football. I loved it since I was a child. I remember telling my mother I was back from school, even if I had skived the lessons just to play football throughout the day. It didn’t matter to me playing with school shoes on. I just wanted to play. Football helped me forget my worries and problems. I can’t be without a football at my feet.
Did the worn out shoes or a blank schoolbook offer hints that you hadn’t been?
Despite my worn out shoes and broken trousers I always said yes when I was asked if I had been to school. On the other hand, when I was asked about my broken clothes I said I fell down. I always found a good excuse to keep on playing football.
What was life like in Tocopilla?
When I was a kid I had to go to school every day. After the lessons I´d go to a grocery store to get some fruit or a bit of bread just before playing football. Football is very popular in Tocopilla. Sometimes I played and sometimes I stared at another game, ready to join in, in case a player was missing. I was happy to come into a game despite having school uniform on.
It wouldn’t take long until you got scouted for those kickabouts…
That’s right, although I was the youngest of all. I was about 13 years old, whereas the majority of the guys playing those games were about 25 or 26 years old. I learnt how to cope with knocks and tackles.
Which players did you idolise in those days?
I didn’t have any particular idol as I didn’t watch much television, but I admired those Chilean players who were successful at the time, guys like Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano. My mum is my biggest idol.
Can you tell us the story about the mayor of the town and your boots?
There was a time in which I had no football boots as my mum didn’t have money to buy a pair for me. I begged for new boots at home, but unfortunately my mum couldn’t pay for them. At that time I was the most important player for Arauco, the municipality’s football team. My mum went to Arauco's city hall to ask for some sort of grant to the town’s mayor so I could have a new pair of boots. I wasn’t aware of her move until one night at 10pm a delivery van stopped at my doorstep with some brand new boots for me. I put them on straight away and I started playing in the street. I was really happy about that.
Did you dedicate your first goal in your new boots to her?
Yes I did, although during my first games with my brand new boots I focused more on the boots than on the game itself.
How challenging was it to move to Europe at such a young age?
I can adapt well to anything as long as I play football. Football is my passion and I am happy as long as I chase a ball.
How does the Premier League differ from what you were used to at Barcelona?
Here in the Premier League you can get beaten 3-0 by a team near the bottom of the table. That’s not an unusual thing in English football and is also why any prediction ahead of matches can be very deceptive. Regardless of how good or bad the team you play against is, you can feel that there’s a huge crowd and pressure everywhere you go. I really like that.
Do you think it was easier to win matches in La Liga?
That depends really. When I played for Barcelona, I knew that some home games were going to be easier than some others as the team had plenty of confidence. That confident mentality helped Barcelona players to win games. However, a confident mentality may not be enough when it comes to the Premier League. Your opponent is going to run and fight endlessly, regardless of your confidence levels.
Is the high tempo the most surprising aspect of playing in Premier League?
It is indeed. Every team is really strong. For instance, you cannot take for granted any in-game score in this league. Any team can score goals in the last minutes of the game and I like that. Arsenal have impressed in the FA Cup again this season, memorably winning at Old Trafford en route to Wembley.
How did you feel after beating Manchester United at their own stadium?
Very tired! It was a really physically demanding game, a box-to-box one. I got back home both happy and exhausted. The team played the game with a great attitude and with a genuine spirit to win it from the very first minute. We never put our head down against a top club like Manchester United and that attitude gave us the victory.
The win at Old Trafford wasn’t the first time this season that the team displayed that competitive and hardworking side to their game either…
That’s true. We also played like that away at Manchester City. We showed a great winning mentality that day. If we add that to the very talented squad we have we will be able to beat anyone.
We’re in the closing months of the season now. How do you feel about the team’s chances?
It’s all down to us. If we want to stay in the top four or climb some places in the table we must maintain the winning mentality. I always say that mentality is a crucial aspect in a football environment. If a footballer goes on the pitch with the right mentality, he will perform well.
What’s the team spirit like at Arsenal? How do you feel you have integrated here?
I’m a happy man who chats to everyone. My aim is to improve in every training session. I love to play with the ball so much that sometimes they ask me to relax and leave the ball a bit! I want to win titles for Arsenal. We have the right team and the right players to do it. We have everything to collect silverware.
How positive is the environment in the team at present?
I would say it’s very positive, not only among the players, but I would say that extends to the staff too. Everyone at the club is always available for us and that’s a great thing for us to have as players.
Which of your team-mates have impressed you the most since you arrived at the club?
When I arrived at the club I didn’t know the players that well, but I was really surprised by everyone’s quality. I’m not saying this just because it’s my obligation to do it as a club player. Every Arsenal footballer has an amazing quality. Being part of a team like this makes me very proud and I am willing us to win many titles here.
You seem to have struck up a real understanding with Santi Cazorla. What can you tell us about him?
Santi Cazorla is a spectacular player. You never know whether he will kick the ball with the right or the left foot. Besides, he moves with short but quick strides, which is a remarkable trademark too. Although I knew about his quality, playing alongside him makes me very happy.
Finally, you passed 20 goals for the season recently. Which has been your favourite for Arsenal so far?
I really like a free-kick I scored against Southampton in the Capital One Cup. It was during one of my first games for the club, we got a free-kick about 25 yards out and I managed to score. I screamed with pure joy when I saw the ball hitting the net.
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