Even a Peruvian curse can’t stop Alexis Sanchez, writes Tom Adams, but should Arsenal be more savvy about managing the game time of the player who never stops?
Pele was brutalised by defenders given full rein to intimidate and destroy; Diego Maradona was hounded by butchers and other enthusiastic exponents of defensive violence. But in these sanitised times more imaginative methods must be employed. And so it was that rather than trying to kick Alexis Sanchez into the stands this week, Peru instead resorted to mystical methods, with a group of their supporters attempting to cast a curse on a player who may not be on quite the same level as the South American greats of the past, but is undeniably one of the more unstoppable forwards in the game right now.
A Chile shirt bearing his name was introduced to a presumably quite bemused tortoise as a group of Peruvian witch doctors played instruments and wielded what appeared to be a rudimentary voodoo doll of the Arsenal striker. Their dastardly magical intent was surely to import the tortoise’s ponderousness to Sanchez, reducing the lightning-quick star to a sluggish imitation of himself. If so, it didn’t work. Sanchez scored twice in Chile’s 4-3 win in World Cup qualifying, just days after also netting in a 2-0 win over Brazil. Sanchez went eight games without a goal for Arsenal at the start of the season but having turned that initial trundle into a sprint he is showing no signs of slowing down. He has nine goals in his past five games for club and country. But Arsenal fans will hope that another of that unsuspecting tortoise’s other qualities might, by occult osmosis, have crossed the supernatural divide and taken hold of Sanchez. Namely extreme durability. Sanchez, it is worth recalling, was seen limping out of Arsenal’s last game before the international break – the magnificent 3-0 win over Manchester United in which Sanchez scored two goal of the month contenders. He had sustained a “little groin problem” according to Arsene Wenger. “Unfortunately he goes to Chile… hopefully he will come back in good shape.” He may well do, but Sanchez has certainly not been spared by Chile. He played 90 minutes in both World Cup qualifiers. Even after Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli said following the win over Brazil: “Alexis arrived not at his top form, with pain in the adductor. He couldn’t play at 100 per cent but we thought that for us him not playing was to give too much advantage to our rivals.” Wenger can have few complaints though; Sampaoli’s use of Sanchez only mirrors his own. At the start of this season, for instance, Sanchez, his holiday extended by his role in Chile’s Copa America victory, was back training at London Colney as late as Thursday August 6 and was asked to play against West Ham just three days later.
Last December, Wenger said Sanchez was in the “red zone” – the state of high alert which indicates injury is near – but he kept on going, relentless bar a brief four-match stint between January and February, and has now played 144 games for club and country since the start of 2013-14. Sanchez’s inexhaustible enthusiasm for playing football is at the core of his identity as a player. It helps to make him what he is. But allowed to run completely unchecked, it surely could present problems at some stage, unless his exoskeleton is made from reinforced steel and his tendons are fortified with vulcanised rubber. It is Wenger rather than Sampaoli who has the most influence over Sanchez’s schedule so the primary responsibility falls with him to manage the situation. Maybe the Chilean, like Frank Lampard, will be one of those players who almost never sustains an injury. But at times it has felt as though Wenger and Arsenal have been playing a dangerous game in their use of the integral Sanchez. Far from a cursed figure at Emirates Stadium, Sanchez is in fact Arsenal’s good-luck charm and their success depends on his fitness. Perhaps a rest will be best at some point soon.