Is Alexis Sanchez the closest Arsenal have come to replacing Thierry Henry?
If there is one virtue that defines Arsenal and their fans right now it is patience. But that patience has been tested time and time again in the last 10 years or so. Some have resorted to hanging up huge banners at games protesting one thing or another.
This unrest is a result of the lack of silverware and it’s no big secret. But in the last 3 seasons, there has been renewed optimism that maybe the glory days are not too far away for the club.
Highbury, Arsenal’s spiritual home was a place that rarely sat down during games especially in the late 90s and the early 2000s. Most of the time it was one player in particular who was responsible for several instances of applause during a game.
His name was Thierry Henry and he was and will always remain the king of Highbury. The French magician was a sight to behold in his prime. There was hardly a dull moment when he was on the ball. Defenders were terrified at the prospect of playing against him.
Arsenal have never had a team of the charisma or the ability and chemistry the ‘Invincibles’ possessed in a long time. While the game has changed which has also resulted in a new approach to football from teams and managers, there are certain players who remain irreplaceable.
The ‘Talisman’ factor
Henry is arguably the type of player the club has struggled without the most since his career in North London ended. For a long period, the Gunners did not have a player with that sort of influence on a team.
Whenever the team needed a moment of inspiration they would look to the Frenchman and more often than not he would produce them as well. But now the Gunners are closest than they have ever been to finding a new talisman
Alexis Sanchez arrived for a fee of £35 million in 2014 after he failed to satisfactorily adapt to a star-studded Barcelona team. It turned out to be a shrewd piece of business by Wenger and for the second season in a row, Arsenal had purchased a marquee signing after the arrival of Mesut Ozil the previous season.
Sanchez brings with him the same game-changing moments Henry had when he was terrorizing Premier League defenses. We have seen that on several occasions in a short space of time but arguably his form this season is the most encouraging sign that he could be Arsenal’s talisman.
Last year, the Chilean had what many claimed to be an off-season, but despite those criticisms he still managed 17 goals in 41 appearances, not to mention the three months he spent on the sideline due to injury.
The left to center transition
When Thierry Henry arrived at Arsenal in 1999, he had come off a very disappointing season with Juventus. He was a winger by trait and it was at Monaco where he made a name for himself.
Juventus came calling but he never fit the system. His lack of goals led to a lack of confidence. He was also played out of position in a more defensive wing-back position rather than the traditional winger.
Henry admitted his surprise to Arsene’ decision to play him as a striker. It turned out, Henry was a striker all along! He went on to become the record goalscorer for the club. But it was Wenger’s insight that helped Henry realize how good he can be as a forward.
Since the departure of Robin Van Persie, Arsenal have been screaming out for a world class striker. Olivier Giroud is no slouch but he’s failed to ever break the 20-goal mark in a season.
Any top team needs a forward who can score more than 20 goals a season. Alexis Sanchez started out on the left wing, and played in that position for the majority of his first two seasons at Arsenal.
The few times he did play forward it did not work out. This season it’s a different story. Sanchez has been deployed in that central role once again, and he’s scoring freely so far. All summer fans were crying out for a world-class centre-forward when he was hiding in plain sight all along.
Now, it is a long season and there are no guarantees he will continue to excel but something seems to have changed in his and Arsenal’s attacking play. Sanchez provides a completely new dimension to the central striker role, something the Gunners did not have with Giroud and something they have been lacking since Henry.
In a one-on-one situation, you would always back Henry to beat his man. The ability to beat a man and run at them was what set him apart from most strikers during that time. Sanchez is in a similar mold to the Frenchman.
Wenger has compared the 27-year-old to Barcelona’s Luis Suarez. Both South Americans are hard-workers. They will chase the ball like there is no tomorrow and have the uncanny ability to bamboozle defenders with their skill.
The ‘World class’ phenomenon
But there’s one more reason why Sanchez as a centre-forward has been a successful experiment this season and that reason is Mesut Ozil. He and Sanchez are the two players who could be considered in the elite bracket of players in the world right now.
The thing about this group is they generally tend to gel almost instantaneously. It happened with Bergkamp and Henry, and now that phenomenon can be seen with Ozil and Sanchez.
The two just seem to have a knack of finding each other sometimes even without looking. Sanchez has already set up Ozil twice this season. Last year it was the German who was doing the assisting.
When there are players that play at the same level it almost works like telepathy. Bergkamp and Henry had that understanding, and it’s the very same understanding that has formed such an effective partnership between Sanchez and Ozil.
In Sanchez's first season at Arsenal, he did not have Ozil to provide him with the support because the German spent a lot of time on the sidelines. But now their chemistry has blossomed and it was on display in that devastating performance against Chelsea.
Last season several stated that it was Arsenal’s best chance to win the league, but they eventually blew it towards the end because of a lack of goals. Ozil almost matched Henry’s record of 20 assists and broke the record for chances created in the Premier League. The problem was the end product.
Now that Sanchez is the focal point of Arsenal there seems to be more ruthlessness and bite to the attack. If there was one game that highlights the influence Sanchez has on this team it's their very fortunate win against Burnley.
The Gunners were slow and uncharacteristic in their passing, struggling to break down a well drilled Burnley team. But it was Sanchez who was trying to create something out of nothing, dragging his team in attack for most of that game.
When the whole team is underperforming, you always look towards the one player who leads by example. Sanchez is currently that leader and he lifts the spirits of his teammates with his attitude in every game.
If Arsenal are to even come close to winning the league, there isn’t a shadow of a doubt Sanchez is the player they will need to fire on all cylinders until the very end of the season.
In the years when the Gunners needed to scrape wins it was Thierry Henry who more often than not came up with the goods. Now it finally feels like Sanchez has taken up that baton after it has been lying still without an occupant for years.
Have Arsenal found their new king? One thing’s for sure, it’s the closest they have come and by the looks of it the closest they will ever come for a while.