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Alexis Sanchez: the trials and torment of Chile’s talismanic striker

It’s a well-known fact that Alexis Sánchez has been having a poor run of form since his long-awaited move away from Arsenal to Manchester United in January 2018.

The last 12 months haven’t been particularly kind to him in many ways, on and off the field. The 30-year-old Chilean international has found himself at the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons, and I’m going to attempt to explain why.

Firstly by removing the hate and vitriol, and all the other negative emotions or feelings that stand in the way of logic.

Despite the arrival of the legendary Ole Gunnar Solskjær and his magnificent man-management abilities, along with the revitalisation of many star players at Manchester United Alexis still finds his feet planted firmly on the ground. The wide midfielder is yet to spread his wings and soar across the beautiful grassy plains of Old Trafford.

The level of pressure to succeed at a club like United is well documented. The club has shown time after time since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson that they aren’t willing to settle for anything less than a league title. Jose Mourinho and Louis Van Gaal were both sacked despite securing a trophy or two for the illustrious cabinet that houses a league-leading 13 Premier League’s and two Champions League honours. However, this massive expectation isn’t reserved exclusively for the guy who picks the starting eleven.

Along with “flop” managers, we’ve seen many players underperform while wearing the notorious seven on the back of their shirt since the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo. Usually, this comes with a circus of hype, expectation, and most importantly – a hefty price tag. They’ve all failed to meet expectations, often staying for a season or two before being moved on. Despite their perceived failures, it hasn’t stopped Ángel Di María or Memphis Depay from taking their talents elsewhere, and I don’t see why the same couldn’t be said for Sánchez if he so chooses.

Sanchez, however, isn’t one to give up. Usually the hardest working player on the pitch, reputable for putting in a shift no matter the opposition, Alexis knows in his mind that he has what it takes to be the player everyone was expecting. He knows better than anyone that his talents can mesh with the rest of the squad and finally enable him to flourish in a Red Devils side that currently looks much better off without him.

Alexis has known since he was little that he was going to be a professional footballer. Growing up on the dusty streets of Tocopilla, Chile, in a place aptly known as “The Devil’s Corner”, Sanchez’s environment was dominated by mining and fishing, as well as being rife with poverty. His brother Humberto described their early life in an interview from The Sun, saying they were “The poorest of the poor”.

The horrifying political events and atrocities that had led to the authoritarian rule of Augusto Pinochet and the radical economic changes that were implemented in the 1970s and ’80s had significantly widened the gap between the rich and the poor. Unemployment was as high as 30% before Alexis’ birth in December 1988 – a mere two months after Pinochet was finally removed from power and electoral democracy reestablished. Even after his removal, there was still an eye-watering 48% of the population living below the poverty line, and the Sánchez family fell firmly within that statistic.

Alexis’ father abandoned him and his three siblings only a few months after his birth, supposedly fed up with unemployment and unwilling to accept his fatherhood responsibilities. Leaving his mother, Martina Sánchez, alone to fend for four young children. She often scraped together just enough funds from working multiple jobs – usually cleaning fish or selling flowers – to barely put food on the table.

Alexis’ relationship with his mother was incredibly strong, similar to that of Raheem Sterling or Gabriel Jesus who are also known for having motherly bonds. Their love wasn’t based on fear or authority, but rather on principles of a strong family, fostering loyalty and togetherness along with unwavering self-belief.

It’s challenging for any child to understand the complexity of such a socially and economically distraught situation that they find themselves uncontrollably part of. One thing, however, was abundantly clear to Alexis, Martina was doing absolutely everything within her power to provide the life she felt him, and his siblings deserved.

Unfortunately, due to the economic landscape of the time, inflation had been rising to unfathomable levels, and the Chilean Peso had lost significant value. Families were spending as much as 70% of their income on bread alone and the money coming in just wasn’t enough to feed five people.

Alexis’ Uncle, Jose Delaigue came forward and adopted him to help ease the pressure on Martina. Even with his uncle’s assistance, it still wouldn’t be enough to pay for Alexis’ education. At a young age, he had to begin working for himself. Sanchez did everything from public acrobatics, street boxing, washing cars, cleaning cemeteries, and even begging friends and neighbours for spare food.

It was these experiences that created the player we see today. Determination, an exceptional work ethic and an insatiable appetite to succeed are qualities are ingrained in Alexis Sánchez – part of his DNA. They’re also characteristics of someone who has experienced extreme poverty and recognised at an early point in life that only hard work and self-belief would get them out of a situation they initially had no control over.

From this type of socioeconomic background, we can see psychological patterns emerge and magnificent, humble characteristics forged. The entire sporting landscape has many stories strikingly similar to Sánchez all over the globe. The desire and longing for a better life, not just for themselves but for their family, friends and loved ones. As well as a desire to ease others of emotional and financial debts. It’s that desire, that when coupled with opportunity and unrelenting hard work, creates the proverbial jet fuel for success.

Unfortunately for Alexis Sánchez, it’s after the fuel runs out that we begin to see the detrimental wear and tear that this lifelong pursuit has left not only on the body but also the mind.

Now, you don’t need to be reminded of how successful Sanchez has been as a player. It seems likely that you know of his career trajectory from Udinese to Barcelona then Arsenal and finally Manchester United. Along the way a plethora of goals, assists, and trophies that have accompanied him.

Since his debut for Colo-Colo on 23 February, 2007, Alexis Sánchez has played 488 and 114 matches for club and country, respectively. This amount of appearances is among the highest I’ve seen from a player over that period. To put that information into a clearer perspective, let’s have a look at Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s appearances since the same date.

Messi since 23/02/2007: Club – 494 matches, Country – 116 matches = 610 total matches

Ronaldo since 23/02/2007: Club – 573 matches, Country – 110 matches = 683 total matches

It’s imperative to take into consideration each player’s style of play and the effect it can have on their longevity as a professional athlete.

Messi’s longevity is attributed to his intellect, his innate knowledge of when to give 100% and when to ease off. As well as playing a creative role that gives him limitless freedom in attack and doesn’t require him to engage in unnecessary amounts of physical contact. Ultimately, it’s the lack of defensive responsibility that plays a large part in the meticulous maintenance of his health and fitness.

Ronaldo’s longevity is due to being a work-horse, gym nut, or fitness freak, whatever label you’d like to use. Aside from also having limited defensive responsibility, he puts thousands of hours annually into maintaining his fitness levels. Pair incredible athleticism with supreme talent, and the recipe explains why he’s still playing for Juventus at the age of 34.

Now think of Sanchez, what style of play comes to mind?

Alexis has shown throughout his career that he can play anywhere across the front line, even occasionally dropping slightly deeper into midfield. He has frenetic pace, technical proficiency and instinctive positional awareness. Regardless of what team he’s been part of, Sanchez has always put in a shift defensively, consistently willing to track back and help his teammates. He exemplifies loyalty, togetherness, and dedication, all of which require immense stamina. 

With all that in mind, you can draw a direct comparison to the decline of his ability alongside the premature ageing of his body.

With the current cycle that the international football organisations are running, combined with the gruesome 40-60 match club seasons, elite players are playing an extortionate number of games every year. Good for the average football fan and corporate media giants? Absolutely. Good for the aging body of a professional footballer with a limited career? Absolutely not.

My personal opinion is that Sanchez hit the prime of his career in his last season in Barcelona. Aged 25, the Chilean made 54 club appearances, scoring 21 goals and providing 16 assists while playing for one of the biggest football clubs on the planet.

But this is the point where we begin to observe the degradation. Since the beginning of 2013/14, Alexis has participated in an extremely clustered regular club season as well as an international tournament of some kind nearly every year. Let’s have a look at exactly how many games he has played during the last five year period.

2013/14 (08/13-07/14): Barcelona (Age 25)

Club: 54 Appearances, 21 Goals, 16 Assists

Country: 14 Appearances, 9 Goals, 11 Assists

Total: 68 Appearances, 30 Goals, 27 Assists

2014/15 (08/14-07/15): Arsenal (Age 26)

Club: 52 Appearances, 25 Goals, 12 Assists

Country: 14 Appearances, 3 Goals, 2 Assists

Total: 66 Appearances, 28 Goals, 14 Assists

2015/16 (08/15-07/16): Arsenal (Age 27)

Club: 41 Appearances, 17 Goals, 11 Assists

Country: 15 Appearances, 7 Goals, 6 Assists

Total: 56 Appearances, 24 Goals, 17 Assists

2016/17 (08/16-07/17): Arsenal (Age 28)

Club: 51 Appearances, 30 Goals, 18 Assists

Country: 14 Appearances, 4 Goals, 4 Assists

Total: 65 Appearances, 34 Goals, 22 Assists

2017/18 (08/17-07/18):  Arsenal and Manchester United (Age 29)

Club: 40 Appearances, 11 Goals, 9 Assists

Country: 6 Appearances, 1 Goal, 0 Assists

Total: 46 Appearances, 12 Goals, 9 Assists

2018/19 (08/18-02/19): Manchester United (Age 30)

Club: 20 Appearances, 2 Goals, 4 Assists

Country: 3 Appearances, 2 Goals, 1 Assist

Total: 23 Appearances, 4 Goals, 5 Assists

Aggregate (08/13-02/19):

Club: 248 Appearances, 106 Goals, 70 Assists

Country: 69 Appearances, 26 Goals, 24 Assists

Total: 317 Appearances, 132 Goals, 94 Assists

Playing an average of 58 games per season it’s abundantly clear that Sanchez has been overworked since entering the prime of his career. He’s been relied upon heavily in each club season, as well as being the main man in the Chilean national team. Sanchez is beginning to hit the bottom of his reservoir, and it’s coming at a time where the expectation to perform is at an all-time high.

On top of the statistical information, you have to consider Alexis Sánchez’ aspirations as a footballer. Many young South American’s dream of playing for Barcelona or Real Madrid. Sanchez has not only already accomplished this but was a key player for the Catalan side over a very successful three year period.

When Sanchez left Barcelona, similar to Neymar, he was determined to win the Ballon d’Or or the Champions league. He wanted to go to a side where he could be the star and accept more responsibility in exchange for higher wages and the opportunity to challenge Europe’s elite – outside the gargantuan shadow cast by Messi.

Unfortunately, despite the individual brilliance he displayed at Arsenal, his arrival in North London coincided with the decline of the iconic Arsene Wenger, hindering their ability to challenge for major trophies.

The career move, in retrospect, despite the accomplishments, certainly feels like the wrong one. Arsenal’s inability to match his aspirations created a fractious relationship between him, the manager, his teammates, and the fans. The 10-2 Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich was seemingly the straw that broke the camel’s back. He needed to move on to a bigger club, a more prestigious club, one with a genuine ambition to become champions of Europe.

Yet, here we find Alexis Sánchez, now a Red Devil from the Devil’s Corner, who merely looks lost on the pitch. Every time he touches the ball, he personifies fright – seeming utterly unsure of what to do next. His confidence appears shattered, and his abilities as a footballer have been chronically challenged by a pitchfork-wielding media who are willing to crucify him for not meeting their expectations.

I truly believe that Sanchez can re-rail this runaway train that’s symbolised his time in Manchester. However, it’s going to take the same level of self-belief that Sánchez received from his Mother, his friends and his family that inspired him to become who he is today.

It’s also going to take a slight tweak to his style of play. As previously discussed, his body isn’t the same as it was five years ago. Manchester United knew they weren’t buying a dazzling youth prospect. Though declining energy levels seem to have negatively impacted his pace, but other aspects can be corrected by hitting a good run of form and maintaining that high level of confidence. Focusing on the technical traits of his game that made him an unpredictable nightmare for defenders will see him make a more significant impact at Old Trafford in the future.

If his slump continues, we could see the end of Alexis Sánchez’ career. His contractual situation at United is going to prove a massive hurdle if and when the club decides his time there has finished. He’s currently the second highest paid player in the Premier League, just behind Kevin De Bruyne.

If Alexis is unwilling to take a pay cut and no other team is keen to match his wages, he could see out his contract running until June 2022. We’re seeing an eerily similar situation with the 29-year-old Welshman Gareth Bale at Real Madrid. Perhaps a swap could be arranged?

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a Manchester United player leave for the Spanish capital – nor would it be the first time we’ve seen someone play for both Barcelona and Real Madrid. Depending on the managerial appointments of either club this summer, Alexis could find a manager who believes in him and his final five years as an elite professional footballer could once again be as prosperous the previous five.

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Premier League Table

# Team MP W D L P
1 Manchester City 27 20 5 2 65
2 Manchester United 27 14 9 4 51
3 Leicester City 27 15 5 7 50
4 West Ham United 26 13 6 7 45
5 Chelsea 26 12 8 6 44
6 Liverpool 26 12 7 7 43
7 Everton 25 13 4 8 43
8 Tottenham Hotspur 25 11 6 8 39
9 Aston Villa 25 12 3 10 39
10 Arsenal 26 11 4 11 37
11 Leeds United 26 11 2 13 35
12 Wolverhampton Wanderers 27 9 7 11 34
13 Crystal Palace 27 9 7 11 34
14 Southampton 26 8 6 12 30
15 Burnley 27 7 8 12 29
16 Brighton & Hov… 26 5 11 10 26
17 Newcastle United 26 7 5 14 26
18 Fulham 26 4 11 11 23
19 West Bromwich Albion 26 3 8 15 17
20 Sheffield United 27 4 2 21 14

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