This story first appeared in the February 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Name: Alexis SanchezPosition: ForwardSquad number: 17 Nationality: ChileanBorn: Tocopilla, Chile, December 19, 1988Joined Arsenal: from Barcelona on July 10, 2014Previous clubs: Cobreloa, Colo Colo, River Plate, Udinese, BarcelonaArsenal debut: v Manchester City (n) Community Shield, August 10, 2014 (won 3-0)First Arsenal goal: v Besiktas (h) UEFA Champions League, August 27, 2014 (won 1-0)Arsenal honours: FA Cup winner 2015, Community Shield winner 2014Chile caps: 91 (31 goals)Twitter: @Alexis_Sanchez
Nowadays, Charlie Nicholas marvels over Alexis Sanchez just like the rest of us.
Go back 30 years, however, and the Glaswegian was also bringing Arsenal fans to their feet – his flair and skill helping to illuminate an era in which English football found itself stuck in a post-1970s rut.
Charlie joined the Gunners from Celtic to much fanfare in 1983, having scored 50 goals for the Bhoys in the previous season. He would make 184 appearances during his time in north London, scoring 54 times.
Like Alexis, the highlight of Charlie’s Arsenal career came at Wembley – where he scored a matchwinning brace in the 1987 League Cup final victory over Liverpool. But is that where the similarities end?
“If anyone were ever to suggest we are a similar type of player, I would take it as a fabulous compliment,” Charlie says with a broad smile.
“Actually when I look back on myself, I was a kind of poor man’s Dennis Bergkamp. When I first arrived in 1983 I guess I was a centre forward who played with a partner, but at Celtic we were a really good passing team. Anyone who is old enough to remember me in 1983 will know that Arsenal were a kind of back to front defensive well-drilled, organised team – not particularly flamboyant. So I found it incredibly difficult to adjust into the system that existed, but I think in time I gradually became a player who operated just behind the striker.
“Alexis Sanchez is a warrior. He’s also technically very, very gifted but his never-say-die attitude is something that is quite new to me. You see it with him, with Luis Suarez. Some South Americans have this kind of street attitude and I think it’s obviously something that makes the fans immediately go, ‘Wow, this guy is really playing for us.’ The Arsenal jersey means so much to him.
“I was quite a wholehearted player in terms of wanting the ball all the time but Alexis, he’s got the whole thing. He’s got a heart when he doesn’t have the ball and he’s got a fully committed heart when he does have the ball.”
While Charlie adapted quickly to the Arsenal dressing room – thanks to the help of Graham Rix among others – he admits that it took him a year to settle on the pitch having moved south of the border. Alexis had no such problem, scoring 25 times during a superb first season in England. Charlie believes the Chilean’s “immense appetite” played a key role in what was a seamless transition from La Liga to London.
“Alexis just plays with this unique attitude,” Charlie says. “It’s like, ‘I’m here I’m going to give you every bit I’ve got and if it’s good enough, you’ll like me. If it’s not, I can only say I’ve tried my best.’ I’ve seen a lot of him and, in my opinion, he’s been a superstar. The approach he has towards his game has underpinned that.
“He’s a guy who just wants to play. He loves to play and he gives you every ounce he’s got. Even if he’s playing poorly you still feel as if something magnificent might happen. And that’s the impression you get when you watch him. If the team aren’t playing well I think to myself that he could change this game in 10 seconds. He can make things happen quickly. That’s why I love him and I would expect that that’s why the majority of Arsenal fans love him.
“And I think what we’ve got is like what we had in the past at Arsenal, when we had people that fans loved – and I’m talking all fans, not just Arsenal fans. Thierry Henry had it, Bergkamp had it and I think Alexis could have it as well.”
Charlie is a long-standing pundit on Sky’s Soccer Saturday programme. The 54-year-old still has much affection for Arsenal and watches the Gunners on a regular basis. He is, therefore, in a good position to judge the areas in which Alexis can still improve.
“If there’s a fault in his game, it’s maybe that he’s not as comfortable finishing on his left side as he is with the powerful right foot.
“He’s spectacular in so many areas. He can curl it, blast it from 30 yards, position himself in areas to score inside the area. He’s also tremendously good in the air, which a lot of people have not truly identified. I remember his header at Leicester earlier in the season – he’s got a fantastic leap.
“The only thing I’d pick out is he gets sometimes one and one with his left foot and I don’t know if he’s always that comfortable trying to finish. He’s not bad but, with his immense quality, maybe he could improve there slightly. But to be honest, I’m searching for something to pick out.”
So how would Charlie have fared if he was playing in the modern day?
“Now, you have to be an athlete,” he says. “I always loved training, even though you had a social life where you’d go for a couple of pints and play a round of golf. Now, your eating habits are monitored. Arsène Wenger has changed the football industry with these new ideas.
“I’ve always said that I’d sacrifice the four-and-a-half years I had at Arsenal for one year or even just six months with Arsène. He could get you fitter, he could get you mentally stronger, and he believed in the style of play I enjoyed – passing and moving. He would have made me quicker and more thoughtful.
“To have sat down and talked to him about what he wanted from me would have been a great mind opener for me. I just think the man’s intelligence, simplicity and beliefs are extraordinary.
“You have to embrace Arsène Wenger for a number of different reasons. But when he can make Henry so much better, he can make Bergkamp so much better, when he identifies Ozil, sees his issues and gets a response, it says a lot. He will make Alexis a better player too, as he does with everyone. I think that’s why the players love him so much.”
Would Charlie have loved to have had Alexis as a team-mate? “Oh yeah,” he concludes. I would have loved to play alongside him – he’d play one-twos with you all day. He’d graft for you too, and help you. I tipped Arsenal to win the Premier League at the start of the season and, with Ozil and the others playing so well, plus Alexis coming back, it could really be the boost that gives us the title after all these years waiting. That’s how important he’s become. He’s a winner.
“Who could dislike the guy? You know he gives you absolutely every ounce he’s got.”
DebutAugust 10, 2014The Gunners began the 2014/15 with great optimism and enthusiasm after breaking the trophy drought the previous May in an unforgettable FA Cup final. The anticipation around the new season was further amplified when Arsenal announced the signing of Alexis Sanchez in July.
After starring at the World Cup for Chile, appetites were suitably whetted prior to his debut, against champions Manchester City in the Community Shield at Wembley. He was named in the starting line-up, and impressed before being withdrawn as planned at half time.
He played a part in the second goal, and could have netted himself had Yaya Sanogo’s throughball had less weight.
“Alexis Sanchez oozes class as Arsenal fans get taste of more to come,” was the headline in the Daily Mail
The manager agreed: “Sanchez was lively, still not completely ready physically but he was very exciting. He was always dangerous, always a threat and gives us great qualities on the counter-attack.”
The Arsenal fans had a new hero to worship.
First goalAugust 27, 2014
As the old cliché goes, “he’s just repaid a huge chunk of his transfer fee with that goal.” And although Alexis remains one of the most expensive signings in the club’s history, his first Gunners strike helped pay for a huge portion of that outlay.
After a goalless draw in Turkey, Arsenal hosted Besiktas in the second leg of the Champions League qualifier. It was a tense evening. Arsène Wenger’s side were protecting a proud record of reaching the Champions League proper every year since 1999, but Besiktas proved a stubborn opponent.
There was only one goal in the 180 minutes, it arrived on the stroke of half time in the home leg. Jack Wilshere picked up possession outside the area, fed the ball to Mesut Ozil, who in turn slipped the ball through to the path of Alexis. He finished first-time right-footed under the ‘keeper to break the deadlock.
“He had a good game, not only on the technical side but on the fighting side,” the boss said at the final whistle. “He was mobile, dangerous and has shown as well he has great fighting spirit, qualities that will be very important in the Premier League.”
As well as securing Arsenal’s place at Europe’s top table for another season, Alexis’ goal triggered a run of 14 in 18 games for the Chile forward.
Goal v LiverpoolApril 4, 2015It wasn’t just the quantity of goals in Alexis’s debut season that caught the eye, but also the range and quality of strikes.
His first Premier League goal at Emirates was a searing right-footed volley against Manchester City, and he followed that with an inch-perfect free kick against Southampton in the next home game. Individual goals, headers and poacher’s efforts were all within his extensive repertoire.
When the big games came around at the end of the season, Alexis proved he was the man for the big occasion. An in-form Liverpool side visited Emirates Stadium at the beginning of April, as the Gunners homed in on another top-four finish and stayed in the title hunt.
Alexis was at his unplayable best, and he scored the third in a 4-1 win with a tremendous dipping long-range strike. The goal was personally significant too. It was his 20th of the campaign, making him the first man to reach that landmark on his debut season since Thierry Henry.
“It hasn’t been really easy but so far my spell here is a really positive one,” Alexis said in April. “I like the city a lot and I feel really comfortable in the club.
“Supporters here are very cheerful and enlivening, which is a very nice thing. I must keep on learning, though. I want to expand my knowledge of English football in general and Arsenal 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.”
FA Cup final goalMay 30, 2015Alexis ended his debut season how he began it – by lifting silverware at Wembley. But the difference this time was that he marked the occasion in a grand manner, scoring his 25th – and arguably best – goal of an unforgettable campaign. In fact it might even be described as Arsenal’s best-ever FA Cup final goal.
Five minutes into the second half he picked up possession more than 25 yards out while Nacho Monreal took away a defender with a clever overlap. Alexis didn’t need a second invitation to shoot. He wound up his trusty right foot and arrowed a rocket over Shay Given and in off the cross bar.
“That was stunning – an absolute game changer,” the beaten Aston Villa keeper said afterwards. “Sanchez has just produced a moment of sheer brilliance. The ball has moved all over the place and then off the bar. How are you supposed to get to that? He’s a special player and that’s what special players can do.”
So less than 12 months after joining, Alexis had added more silverware to his collection. He’d won the Club World Cup, Spanish Cup and La Liga title while with Barcelona, and now he was on his way as a winner at Arsenal too.
Hat-trick v Leicester CitySeptember 26, 2015After helping Chile win the Copa America on home soil in the summer, Alexis’s return to pre-season training was delayed, meaning the start to his second season was not as explosive as his first. But in late September, he burst back onto the scene with his first hat-trick in English football.
Arsenal travelled to Leicester, who were defending the last unbeaten record in the division. After going behind early on, the Gunners hit back with Alexis scoring on 33, 57 and 80 minutes to seal the points in a 5-2 win. His last was a wonderful long-range drive as he became the 100th player to score a hat-trick in the club’s history.
“He is back to his level,” Arsène Wenger said afterwards. “He won a big competition with Chile – the Copa America. I think as well mentally to adjust to the game on a mental level takes some time. I could see in training a different player in the last week or two and he has shown that today.”
The verdict from the boss
His first impressions…I first saw him when he was at Udinese, and my first impressions of him were that he was very dynamic, very direct and straight to the point. He was one of those players where his energy and level of intensity hits you straight in the face. It’s strange because he catches your eye with the level of energy and commitment he puts into everything he does. That’s what remained with me.
His spell at Barcelona…When he went to Barcelona I found him a bit timid at the start. Slowly he became himself again, but I felt at the start he wanted to adapt to the Barcelona game so much that he couldn’t express himself as much. Slowly he got into that again. I saw him as well for Chile when he played against France in Marseille, and I was impressed by him then. But I always had him in my mind.
What he learned about him after he signed for Arsenal…His enthusiasm. It’s absolutely amazing. His desire and the fact that he is afraid of nothing.
Whether he is difficult to manage…Yes, because he is so enthusiastic! He’s both easy and difficult. Easy because he always wants to be positive, but difficult because when he needs to be rested, you cannot do it. It’s as simple as that! When I managed in Japan I sometimes had to hide the footballs in training sessions because the players were so keen, so in that way Alexis is a bit Japanese.
The verdict from...Pasquale Marino
Pasquale Marino was Alexis Sanchez’s manager for Italian club Udinese between 2007 and 2009.
When I arrived at Udinese in 2007 Alexis was on loan at River Plate, but I saw some of his matches on DVD and that was enough for me to realise I would have a jewel in my hands: his natural talent was evident. But seeing him on those recordings was nothing compared to what he showed once he arrived in Udine.
The DVDs hinted at his promise, but watching him in the flesh convinced me he was a star in the making. I knew instantly that if his desire to learn was on the same level as his natural skills, he would be one of the top five forwards in the world. And that’s exactly what he is now.
"I think he’s at the peak of his powers. He’s never looked as strong as he does now, and I don’t see how he can get better"
He was easy to coach. First of all because he was very disciplined and eager to learn, and that included learning about tactics. And secondly because he wanted to become more versatile, more complete – he made a lot of progress in the timing of his attacking runs, and the shape of his movements.
His problem in that first year was that he wanted to do everything. He was a bit naive, tactically, and didn’t conserve his energy. And his decision-making when he was one-on-one with the goalkeeper wasn’t always lucid enough. So we worked a lot on his shooting, and on doing more rational movements. What made him special was that he was, and still is, crazy about football. He loves the game.
I will give you an example. If on Sunday a player had played for the full 90 minutes, the next day was dedicated to what we call ‘scarico’, which is a gentle workout. For those who hadn’t played, there was a normal training session and, at the end of it, a short bounce match. Well, as soon as the bounce match started, Alexis used to abandon the ‘scarico’ and would run up to me, almost imploring:
“Mister, let me play, just for a few minutes. Please, please, please: I promise I won’t get injured.” Football is an enormous pleasure for him. He could easily play three matches per day.
I think he’s at the peak of his powers. He’s never looked as strong as he does now, and I don’t see how he can get better. Maybe there is still scope for him to be even more lethal as a finisher. Personally, I think he could score more than 35 goals a season in any league he plays in. And if he succeeded in doing that, he would be at the same level as the two monsters of the modern game: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
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