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English Premier League in focus: Arsenal's Wenger hopes Sanchez sparks sustained challenge for title (video)


Alexis Sanchez cost more than three times the £11million ($18.5 million) Arsenal parted with to sign Henry in 1999, a sign, if one were needed, of the rate of inflation in the European transfer market. Supplied photo

The symmetry was striking. Fifteen years to the exact day since Arsene Wenger signed Thierry Henry, sparking a metamorphosis from under performing winger to virtually unplayable striker, Arsenal paraded a new recruit who may be the long-awaited successor to the Frenchman.

Alexis Sanchez cost more than three times the £11million ($18.5 million) Arsenal parted with to sign Henry in 1999, a sign, if one were needed, of the rate of inflation in the European transfer market. Their circuitous routes to north London both have an Udinese connection. Sanchez made his name at the Serie A club, forming a partnership with Antonio Di Natale that yielded 39 goals in the 2010/11 season and earned him a move to Barcelona.



It was at an Udinese game, at the tail end of the 1998/99 season, that Wenger ran the rule over Henry, a former protégé of his at Monaco but then losing his way at Juventus. Wenger flew back to Paris with Henry after the Uefa Cup qualifying match and told him he would restore him to his favoured striking role if he joined him at Arsenal. A haul of 228 goals in 377 appearances tells you all you need to know about the success of the switch.

The number 17 had barely had time to dry on the backs of the thousands of Alexis shirts flying out the doors of the Arsenal shop on Saturday before the debate started to rage about the Chilean making a Henry-esque switch from patrolling the flanks to the focal point of the attack.

Should Alexis, as he likes to be known, start ahead of the ponderous Olivier Giroud at the apex of Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 formational? Or does Wenger station him on the right of a midfield three who operate in between the line of the opposition's midfield and defence?

Michael Owen, who knows a thing or two about the art of playing on the shoulder of the last defender, is adamant Alexis should be Arsenal's attacking spearhead.

Mikael Silvestre, the former Arsenal defender, disagrees.

"Arsenal have already got that type of player," Silvestre told Goal.com. "Quick, sharp, fast – they have enough of them already in Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla.

"Sanchez could have gone anywhere after his tremendous World Cup but I do not think he is the type of player the club need right now."

Wenger could be forgiven for wondering if can do right for doing wrong. Implored by many to spend Arsenal's cash reserves, he is now questioned for not spending it wisely.  True, Alexis and Walcott are similar players but Walcott has missed large chunks of the last three seasons and is one of the most injury-prone members of Wenger's brittle squad.

Alexis will help provide much needed pace to Arsenal's attacking play, stretching the opposition defence and creating more space for Ozil to weave his magic and thread defence-splitting passes.

But what the arrival of Ozil and Alexis, for a nearly £90 million ($151.7 million), does do is raise the level of expectation at the Emirates. Given that the league table is increasingly determined by the size of your budget Wenger has performed wonders to keep Arsenal on the coat tails of the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City.

Between 2008 and January this year, Arsenal had a net spend of £11 million ($18.5 million). Chelsea's was £328.7 million ($554.5 million) and City's £509.6 million ($857.9 million).

Critics of Wenger will argue it is the trophy cabinet and not the balance sheet that reflects success, but if that were solely the case, that would make Jonathan Greening, a Champions League winner in 1999, more successful than Dennis Bergkamp, for whom glory in Europe's top club competition remained elusive.

The clever trading of players by Wenger (he generated nearly £90 million ($151.6 million) for KoloToure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Alex Song and Gael Clichy – and received a further £15 million ($25.2 million) in sells on for Cesc Fabregas and Carlos Vela this summer) combined with Arsenal's commercial pull and the revenue generated by their cash cow of a stadium, means they will not suffer from Financial Fair Play. In fact, they are set to prosper while others face fines, squad restrictions and transfer embargoes.

Yes, they may have gone nine years without a trophy before they won the FA Cup in May, but their stadium, built in recessionary times and not at the expense of the football beautifully served up on the field, represents a trophy in itself. Ask Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham about the challenges of building a new stadium. Yet Wenger helped achieve that and never finished outside the top four.

Manchester United had a poor season last season and finished seventh.  

The Gunners have not won the title since 2004 but success in football, after all, is cyclical. Barcelona went six years without winning La Liga around the turn of the millennium and yet they have been held up as the greatest club side of the last decade.

Barca and Arsenal met in the 2006 Champions League final and now Wenger is hoping his new recruit from Catalonia can spark a sustained challenge for the top honours.

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