When Jamie Vardy opened the scoring for Leicester against Arsenal. Few could have been surprised, because it was typical Arsenal. They had their first choice defence of Petr Cech, Hector Bellerin, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscienly and Nacho Monreal. They were missing most of their holding midfielders, but still had enough to make a long ball over the top something that should be easily defended. Instead, they were caught out, on the back foot when it went in, and for the next few minutes.
Theo Walcott, to his credit, squeezed in a shot five minutes later in a one-on-one against Kasper Schmeichel. It wasn’t the most convincing finish, as it rarely is with Walcott when he plays up front, but all goals count the same. It was an improvement on his wretched performance against Newcastle, anyway, and his nil-inspired offering as Arsenal self-parodied against Chelsea last week.
Nevertheless, it was Alexis Sanchez who was the instrumental player in their victory over Leicester, scoring midway in the first and second halves, and putting the game out of reach with a goal 10 minutes from the end of the match. Mesut Ozil was there, as he often is, and that’s all you need to really say about him and Olivier Giroud. Sanchez is demonstrably so much better than any other Arsenal player in a way not seen since Robin van Persie got fit for two seasons at the Emirates, showed everyone he deserved to be playing somewhere he could win the league, and promptly did one.
The advantage for Arsenal now, and this is meant in the most positive sense possible, is that unlike Van Persie when he joined United, his career is on a downward trajectory (admittedly, Van Persie’s soon was, but the point is that moving from Arsenal to United was then a step up). As established as Arsenal are as one of the better sides in Europe, Sanchez left one of the very best to ensure regular football. His own ability might yet improve after leaving Barcelona, but unless something revolutionary occurs at Arsenal, he won’t improve his CV by any astonishing measure.
Almost 27, and with his style of play requiring exceptional fitness, strength and speed, allied to his ability, it’s fair to estimate that Sanchez will have two more seasons at the top of his game. Compared to Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, players who were reasonably similar in those three physical qualities, it is not impossible that this could be his very best season before the exertions of his career start to pull him down, slowly (see Ronaldo) or alarmingly (Rooney). In his favour is that he has played relatively few games compared to those players at a similar stage in their respective careers.
Sanchez, like Van Persie, Rooney and Ronaldo at various points, is a player who can make the difference for a side. He is not necessarily able to inspire those around him, as the very best can, but his goals and assists are now at the heart of the side in a way Arsene Wenger and fans presumably would come from Ozil the season before. Only if Ozil, pretty much the same age as Sanchez, can similarly impose himself on games, will Arsenal ever matter outside of London again.
Which is why the rest of Sanchez’s team-mates must make the very most of his influence and contributions. He is surrounded by mediocrity otherwise.
The defence is an absolutely reasonable one to have, as is the midfield, but there is nothing exceptional there. In attack, Giroud and Walcott are excellent deputies to have, it’s just that Wenger appears to have forgotten to buy someone for the first-choice XI.
These, though, are established criticisms of Arsenal and Wenger, and nothing special has happened since the Arsenal game that necessitates reheating them extensively. What is more interesting is the potential of Sanchez to define his post-Barcelona career with at least one brilliant, memorable and influential season, and to make it really count for something. At United, Van Persie gave United Alex Ferguson’s last title, and very possibly their last title for several years to come.
He, too, did it in a team that wasn’t expected to do much, even by those within the club. David de Gea was still inexperienced, the defence was superannuated, as was the midfield - or in some respects, not even there - and Rooney become a liability not to be trusted on the pitch. It’s not an analogous situation for Arsenal exactly - theirs is more a side of never-will-bes whereas United’s was largely hasbeens, but there was a significant batch of average talent in both squads.
It was demonstrated that in the right year, meaning a year when the competition are off their game, the best team doesn’t have to be especially brilliant to win the league, it just has to do enough by whatever means possible.
Arsenal visit Olympiakos as they try to put their Champions League qualification attempt back on track. As effective as Sanchez is, we can rule out any serious success in this competition, even if they remain likely to qualify into the knockout rounds. The English sides are not part of the dominant group in Europe at the moment, so it’s not only Arsenal’s and Wenger’s fault that they won’t compete for the trophy this season. But what is more interesting for Sanchez and Arsenal is next weekend’s game.
They play Manchester United at home. Traditionally, even last season when they were truly poor, they lost to United. The season before, under Moyes, they could only draw 0-0 in one of the most painfully dull games of all time. It is part of the club to be picked off by United, even when their opponents aren’t trying, or are enduring a rough time of it. Right now though, Chelsea are adrift, City are wobbling, and United are deeply flawed. Sanchez could make the difference this season, and winning on Sunday would be an excellent start.