It’s an old question, but when was the last time Arsenal had a leader? The days of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva, maybe? If not a born, natural leader, then at least a winner, a man whose presence on the pitch is more than enough to inspire his teammates and create a winning mentality?
Perhaps the answer to that question, if things had worked out differently this season, could well have been Alexis Sanchez. As it stands, though, his exclusion from the starting lineup against Liverpool show that his particular brand of leading by example rankles with Arsenal’s current squad.
In fact, there have been signs of it for quite a while, now.
Sanchez has really looked like the only winner in the squad. Perhaps their best player, though he and Mesut Ozil are undoubtedly the two undisputed top class members of that team. What is certain, though, is that Sanchez is a more intense player, more of a ‘born winner’, so to speak.
After Olivier Giroud scored a late equaliser against Bournemouth to bring Arsenal back to 3-3 at the Vitality Stadium in January, the Frenchman was joined by some other players in celebrating a last-gasp goal. Except, it wasn’t really a goal worth celebrating. There was still time to grab a winner, and in any case, a draw away to Bournemouth is hardly a result worth writing home about, even if the Gunners did find themselves three goals down with 20 minutes to play.
Sanchez’s reaction was seemingly to throw a strop, visibly showing his anger and disappointment with the result to everyone watching. It was portrayed – as these events always are in the media – as both a petulant strop and the reaction of a winner whose team had let him down. It probably can’t be both.
It was a similar story only a few days later as the Chilean was substituted at Swansea during a 4-0 victory, reported presciently in The Telegraph as a warning to Arsene Wenger.
Why should it have been a warning to Arsenal? Sanchez was, by most accounts, just proving that he’s the kind of winner that Arsene Wenger hasn’t had in his team for over a decade. But that now seems to be exactly the problem.
Precisely because Arsenal haven’t had that kind of player in over a decade, their squad is now made up of nice, obedient boys who have created a culture that seems sorely at odds with the mentality a world class talent like Sanchez possesses.
The similarities with Dimitri Payet and Luis Suarez won’t be far from coming: the Payet case is fresh in the memory, the Suarez case less so, but also involved Arsenal.
Payet refused to play for West Ham and moved to Marseille in the January transfer window. Slaven Bilic’s side hit dreadful form in the first half of the season before picking up magnificently after Payet’s departure: it was almost as if he was a bad apple infecting the barrel, and his presence in the first half of the season was actually the cause of the bad form.
Luis Suarez seemed unhappy at Liverpool as Arsenal themselves famously bid one solitary pound above his release clause. The Uruguayan was persuaded to stay at Liverpool before nearly guiding them to the Premier League title the next season and moved to Barcelona for almost double what Arsenal were prepared to pay for him.
Sanchez’s contract dispute seems like it has put the Chilean – and Ozil, too – in a similar position to Payet: they are demonstrably Arsenal’s best players, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the mentality of the club is the source of their frustration.
The difference, though, is that removing them from the squad didn’t see the Gunners play any better against Liverpool at the weekend, not in the same way that removing Payet from the West Ham squad seemed to have a positive effect on their team.
The Suarez situation feels more familiar, but Arsenal don’t have the tools that Liverpool possessed to get the positive outcome Liverpool managed.
As pointed out at the start, Arsenal are severely lacking in a leader. Suarez, when he wanted to leave Liverpool, had players like Steven Gerrard telling him to stay. It means something serious when a legend of the game – a man who lifted the Champions League in the most unlikely of circumstances – tells you to give it another year. It surely means much less to Sanchez if Theo Walcott or Laurent Koscielny make the same plea.
In the end, the only player on the same plane of superstardom as Sanchez is Ozil, himself in a similar state of unhappiness at the club.
It’s tempting to think that if Arsenal hadn’t spent the last decade creating such a meek and rudderless culture around the club, they’d have more winners, more superstars, and more determination in the side than they do right now. Currently the only source of those things is Sanchez. Sadly, if they did have more of those things, they could possibly persuade their best player to snap out of his current mood.
Instead, Arsenal’s problem has come full-circle: when they finally do manage to find a player with the right sort of mentality, they simply can’t match his desire.