For the uninitiated, Arsenal striker Alexis Sánchez is a demon. He's an agent of chaos, and identifiable by a single, recognizable trait: when he approaches opposing players on the soccer field, they start fucking up.
The 25-year-old is a human bowling ball, or Based God curse. When he runs at opponents with the ball at his feet, they seemingly invariably wind up crossing their legs, biting on a shoulder fake, leaning out of a passing lane. When he runs at opponents and tries to take the ball from them, they seemingly invariably wind up coughing it up.
Arsenal coaxed the the minute forward from La Liga this summer for about £35 million. Fans were pumped. He was the second-most expensive signing in the club's history. He wasn't an unheralded, unknown prospect, but a Barcelona player (highly-rated in both FIFA and Football Manager, no less!) just entering his prime and coming off a terrific World Cup. A legitimate star.
From the very start, it was obvious he was different. Alexis elected to print his first name on the back of his shirt in the mold of South Americans and Spaniards before him, a rarity in England's top flight. He hiked one leg of his shorts up, showing off a glistening, chiseled quad, and despite ourselves, we got kinda hot. And so far this season, Alexis has been the sole bright spot on a team where just about everything has gone wrong.
Arsenal have suffered more injuries than any other Premier League team over the last 12 years, and already this season, starters Mesut Özil, Mathieu Debuchy, Laurent Koscielny, and Olivier Giroud have already missed significant time, while Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Mikel Arteta, and others have spent games in the training room. Theo Walcott, Arsenal's scariest attacking threat over the last couple of years, is just working his way back into the lineup after blowing out his knee last year. As a result, Arsenal have been more or less shit all season long. Left back Nacho Monreal, who is the worst, has had to hold down the center of defense. Creative midfielder Santi Cazorla, who has been sucking, has had to play defensive midfield. Winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has shown growing pains this year, has logged major minutes. New striker Danny Welbeck, who can't finish with any regularity yet, is being relied on to do just that. Still, Arsenal currently sit fourth in the Premier League through 10 matches, and, barring catastrophe, could clinch a place in the Champions League knockout rounds with a win today. They have no right to be in their current position, and the only reason they are is because of Alexis.
In his first nine Premier League games, Alexis already has tallied seven goals and two assists, and one of each through three Champions League games. And it's not just that Alexis has produced, but how and when. In England, he has directly won Arsenal points by scoring or setting up others against lowly Leicester City, defending champions Manchester City, and Hull, and against Champions League opponents Beşiktaş and Anderlecht. He's turning potential losses to draws, and draws to wins.
When watching the forward, it's hard not to summon words like grit and desire and thirst and toughness, generally empty terms that onlookers usually reach for because better, more descriptive ones elude them. But they fit here, because if nothing else, Alexis is an undeniably ferocious motherfucker.
At Barcelona, Alexis developed a small cult following, in part because he was very good and many very good players develop cult followings, and in part because Alexis showed flashes of what he could be. But there, he was resigned to the wing, where he existed as somewhat of a rich man's Pedro, a complementary, interchangeable sidekick to Lionel Messi, David Villa, and eventually Brazilian boy king Neymar. A rich man's Pedro is still Pedro, and so Alexis was also hated by many because much of his time on the field was spent skipping down the right flank stepping over the ball a few times, then passing backward to Andrès Iniesta or Xavi. He had no freedom.
Then this summer, Barcelona bought superstar, all-action forward Luis Suárez from Liverpool, and Alexis was handed his marching orders. At Arsenal, he was thrust into a starting lineup that couldn't afford their superstar to be a winger. With so many players bowing out or cocking up, he had to be everywhere, plugging the many holes throughout the Arsenal squad. It's in this role that Alexis has become an utterly destructive two-way player. Here's Alexis last weekend against lowly Burnley, where he scored two and was awarded his league-leading third man of the match:
And maybe more tellingly, here he is in a hotly-contested 2-2 draw September draw against Manchester City, where he scored the go-ahead goal:
What's immediately noticeable is that homeboy is everywhere, and doesn't appear to have a discernible position. He's spending time throughout the attacking third, dropping deep into the midfield, and even in front of the back four. It doesn't make much sense until you watch game footage like this:
Alexis is both Arsenal's best attacking player and their most effective defender. When the Gunners don't have the ball, he harries and hurries opponents along with Welbeck, Barcelona-style, his footsteps alone forcing bad touches and errant passes so that Arsenal win the ball in the attacking half, smothering their opponents. He leads all but one Premier League forward in tackles won, but if he doesn't win it immediately, he tracks back, clogging the midfield, supporting his makeshift back line, and just being an dick to anyone wearing a different color.
If watching a gritty lunch pail guy work back on defense isn't your particular kink, he is also Arsenal's offensive engine. Much has been said of how poorly Özil and Cazorla have played this year in the no. 10 position, but Alexis has put the team on his back, and all of the offense now goes through him. He makes darting runs behind opposing back fours, and also picks up the ball in deep position and slaloms through the midfield, or lofts balls over the top to runners. Per WhoScored, Sanchez is third in the league, completing over three take-ons a game, while making over two key passes a game, 11th in England. Only the Chelsea trio of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, and Cesc Fábregas have a higher rating than him. Only Costa and City's Sergio Agüero have scored more. Alexis has scored five goals in his last three PL appearances alone, four in his last two, and is more generally playing out of his fucking mind.
He's fast, yes, and quick, and strong, and indestructible, but Alexis's greatest value to Arsenal is his directness. Arsenal have done plenty to deserve the reputation that they're toothless going forward. While they comfortably lead the their league and all but four European teams in possession, they don't do all that much with it. They keep the ball nicely, tidily, but too often fail to unlock the defense, to complete or even attempt the penetrating pass that finds the striker who finds the back of the net. They're content to pass sideways. Not so with Alexis.
The Chilean is so direct that he's actually appears combative on the ball, seeking out confrontation. In soccer, confrontation exists in the form of a defender heading off a defender, stepping out of position and to the ball, leaving wide gashes in the defense for speedsters like Welbeck and Ox to burst through. Alexis's eagerness to make it nasty saves Arsenal from themselves.
He's so far developed a healthy understanding with Welbeck, who is already drawing Thierry Henry comparisons in spite of the fact that at times, the striker looks mildly incapable of hitting a blue whale from a dozen paces.
But it's the addition of Walcott that has North London's faithful shmoney dancing, because Walcott is the fastest attacking player in England or anywhere else. There is very little pretty or mysterious to Walcott's game; he runs like he's on roller blades while most humans can't, so he runs past them on his way to goal. He is obviously, painfully direct, and should feast on balls threaded through or over the top from Alexis. In theory, as Alexis goes, so should Theo.
For real, relevant physics and biology reasons, Arsenal's best player shouldn't exist, just as Suárez, Alexis's Barcelona replacement and closest analog shouldn't exist. The pitch is big as hell; there's only one ball between 22 players; the body can only carry so much oxygen at once. There are vast physical and more minor stylistic differences between the two, but these men and the very few like them are irrepressible savages who expand the possibilities of what one man sharing a big-ass soccer field with 21 other men can really be expected to do.
Last year, Suárez ripped the Premier League apart while vaulting meh Liverpool to second place in the Premier League cementing himself as, conservatively, one of the top five players in the sport. And if Alexis was a rich man's Pedro just a few months ago, and a poor man's Suárez today, there's no telling what he and Arsenal can be by season's end.
Photo Credit: Getty