Alexis Sanchez is slightly out of form.
He’s just come back from his first difficult injury since arriving in England and so far he’s looked like his calibration is a little off: shots are being skewed, dribbles are being mistimed and passes are consistently landing just behind their mark.
Be in no doubt that he’s still been a useful player for Arsenal this month, but he’s also been more like a wonky approximation of Alexis Sanchez than an actual, fully operational version of him.
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Now, for most people, this would represent an unfortunate moment to come up against their old club in a Champions League knockout tie, whatever the circumstances. Add in that Barcelona has become the best team in the world since Sanchez left, while also constructing the world’s best front three without him, and for the aforementioned “most people” this scenario might be more than merely unfortunate: a spiral into insecurity and pessimism wouldn’t so much represent an error in judgment for them as it would be an entirely logical response to the terrible situation they’d found themselves in.
Not so for Sanchez, though. That just wouldn’t feel right for this guy. Instead this is a man who operates with a logic one-removed from the rest of us—specifically, a logic which has seemingly no room for negativity of any kind. When he misses, he tries again. When he falls over, he gets back up. When he finishes one sprint, he starts another. You get the idea: he’s a bit of an optimist, and that could be highly relevant this Tuesday.
All the evidence we have suggests that a chance to play against his old club will be greeted as exactly that by Sanchez: a chance, regardless of the partially imperfect circumstances surrounding it. With his positivity filter fully engaged, a knockout tie against Barca will form a chance to prove himself. A chance to enjoy himself. A chance, ultimately, to win, however unlikely that might feel to the rest of us.
And however often this attitude is framed as “a bonus” feature of such a talented player’s game, at times of poor form like this one, it’s actually far more important than that.
The relish with which Sanchez goes into every task, even after a knockback or ten, means that he can still be a potent force in a big game like this even without having an especially positive influence on the overall flow of it. He’s got it in him to operate as a player of moments, rather than minutes, and produce telling and even decisive contributions even among a larger tide of fumbling and frustration—because he just keeps getting back up. Negativity doesn’t seem to accumulate in his mind, so he’s almost as likely to score a brilliant goal after 20 horrendous misses as he was before them.
Barcelona, for one, will certainly not underrate that idea, because everyone at that club already has direct experience of the “Alexis as a man of moments” paradigm. Back in 2013, during another spell of frustrating form, he played for Barca in a Clasico and it wasn’t going especially well. The familiar signs were in place, with shots being skewed, dribbles being mistimed and passes consistently landing just behind their mark. But Sanchez kept going. And he kept going. And then he got his chance.
Seventy minutes into the game, at 1-0 up, Neymar controlled the ball on the halfway line and pushed it through to Sanchez. He ran onto it with two Real Madrid defenders covering him, assuredly switched back towards his right foot, then lobbed the ball casually over Diego Lopez from the edge of the area to finish both the game and Madrid’s title chances.
That goal was a memorable contribution even at a club that regularly produces contributions of extreme importance and quality, and it definitely didn’t feel like the inevitable conclusion of some great run of form.
Now, of course this time around, with Sanchez working for the opposition, it could well be that Barca’s overall excellence will negate even his capacity to pull out that kind of moment. In fact, most of what we know about the difference between Arsenal and Barca tells us that that almost certainly should be the case. Luis Enrique’s side should be more than a mere moment better than Arsene Wenger’s.
But you never really know with these things, do you? For all the destructive displays of power from big favourites in knockout ties there’s also a regular stream of shock results. And what we do know is that Alexis Sanchez won’t have ruled him and his Arsenal team out, and that’s exactly why he and Arsenal have a chance.
He’ll go into Tuesday against the best team in the world having struggled to score against Hull City on Saturday, and yet you wouldn’t rule even this wonky approximation of Alexis Sanchez out of pulling something special out against the best team in the world.
Remember, he scored one goal in his first nine games for Arsenal this season; he then followed that up with ten in his next six. You don’t write him off. And he certainly doesn’t.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter