Alexis Sanchez has finally left the Emirates to pick up a reported €570,000-a-week contract at Manchester United but the Chilean couldn’t resist one last dig at Arsenal legends who have labelled him “the biggest mercenary in football”.
Sanchez, who for so long looked destined for Manchester City and a reunion with Pep Guardiola, the coach who managed him at Barcelona, agreed a move to the red half of Manchester instead yesterday in a what turned out to be a straight swap for United winger Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The move came five months after the 29-year-old narrowly missed out on a €65m move to City on transfer deadline day when Arsenal failed to find a replacement in time to agree the deal.
The saga since then has been a long and intricate one. But safe to say Sanchez’s reputation has hardly been heightened by it, despite scoring nine goals to take his final Arsenal tally to 80 since signing from Barcelona in July 2014.
The striker had to suffer accusations that his heart was no longer in Arsenal, that he was simply seeing out time waiting for City to make another move — and then, finally, that he chose the big buck over footballing reasons when opting for United instead.
“Sanchez has got to be the biggest mercenary in football,” Arsenal legend Martin Keown wrote in his newspaper column as the reality of the transfer became apparent.
“City would be the natural place for Sanchez to go to develop his football. He has worked with Pep Guardiola before. But for Sanchez, this is clearly not about going to the best team, working with Guardiola and taking his game to another level.
"He has probably thought that he will not get a better offer if he waits until the summer, so he might as well take the best deal on offer now. It has been all about the money.”
Those words clearly stung because when Sanchez eventually bade farewell to Arsenal fans in an emotional message on his Instagram account, he felt it necessary to answer some of the accusations which have come his way — and particularly Keown’s bitter barb. So, after paying the usual thanks to Arsenal players, staff, fans and those behind the scenes at the Emirates, he added an extra paragraph for good measure.
“There are people (former club players) who have spoken with no knowledge of what happens inside the club and cause damage,” he said. “I must say I always gave 100%, until the last day, when I asked to the Mister (Arsene Wenger) to be in the team, because I wanted to be a contribution.
"I remember today, a conversation I had with (Thierry) Henry, a historic Arsenal player, who changed club for the same reason and today is my turn.”
The question being asked now across football, then, is have United got themselves and excellent deal — or have they bought themselves a whole lot of trouble?
There is no doubting Sanchez’s ability, quality, technique or workrate, even if his all-action style sometimes failed to take into account team tactics at the Emirates, but rumours of his unpopularity in the dressing room create just that element of doubt.
Last year there was a well-documented confrontation with team-mate Laurent Koscielny at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground (Sanchez was dropped for the next match at Liverpool), then in December he was reported to be at the the centre of a dressing room bust-up after an away game at Burnley.
When Arsenal beat Crystal Palace 3-2, too, with Sanchez scoring twice, Henry noted that half the Gunners team refused to celebrate with him — and Liverpool legend Graeme Souness was particularly brutal in his assessment, saying: “It’s a divided dressing room. Some of them are not having Sanchez and his situation. I think it’s clear. I think it tells you there’s a dynamic going on in that dressing room that would suggest it’s not well.”
How will that translate in Manchester where Sanchez’s wages could see him earn more than Paul Pogba and David De Gea combined? Already there have been reports that Pogba’s agent is demanding a pay rise for his client. But Jose Mourinho was quick to point out the qualities which Sanchez will bring to the table.
“Alexis is one of the best attacking players in the world and he will complete our very young and talented group of attacking players,” he said.
“He will bring his ambition, drive, and personality, qualities that make a Manchester United player and a player that makes the team stronger and the supporters proud of their club dimension and prestige.”
Mourinho has a point because Arsenal fans weren’t complaining about Sanchez’s commitment or quality in the opening years of his stay at the Emirates — and the fact that the Special One been able to put one over old foe Guardiola by signing the Chilean from under his nose makes it all the sweeter.
Maybe in the United dressing room, where players are still searching for success and cohesion, there will be fewer problems with Sanchez’s wage packet than at City where the team is already successful and where even star player Kevin De Bruyne, who signed a new contract yesterday, would have been on lower terms than the new arrival.
Either way, Sanchez, told Manchester United’s official website about his pride of moving to Old Trafford, brushing aside suggestions the club (until he saw the size of the cheque) had been his second choice.
“I am thrilled to be joining the biggest club in the world. I have spent three-and-a-half wonderful years at Arsenal and I bring with me very positive memories of that great club and its fans,” he said.
“The chance to play in this historic stadium and to work with Jose Mourinho was something I could not turn down. I hope I can show our fans all around the world why the club wanted to bring me here.”
Sanchez could make his debut in the FA Cup tie at Yeovil on Friday and it will be interesting to see where Mourinho plays him. Keown has already suggested it should be in a central role close to Romelu Lukaku, but the reality is Mourinho prefers width so it may be Anthony Martial who loses out. But wherever he plays, the Chilean is certain to bring an extra element of glamour and excitement to the tie, underlining that United — after the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Pogba and Lukaku in recent times — are back where they should be in the transfer market.
For Arsenal, too, there is a sense of relief that the deal has been completed, that the saga is over and that the Sanchez factor will no longer be a factor. In Mkhitaryan they have brought in a younger, talented player who wants to play for the club — and who ought to be hungry to prove himself.
Only time will tell who got the better deal...
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved