How much do you trust Alexis Sanchez?
It might sound like a peculiar question, but for the next few weeks at least, Arsene Wenger’s trust in the mercurial Chilean is going to be tested to the limit, and the resulting aftermath may prove to be crucial in determining if Sanchez stays at the club past next summer.
Wenger is in a very tricky predicament at the moment. Arsenal are in good form, but have two crucial games coming up in the next seven days; Manchester United away and PSG at home. Losing to United would concede precious ground in the title race, whilst not getting a win in the Champions League on Wednesday would make the task of finishing first in their group a hell of a lot harder.
Therefore, Wenger needs his best team available in both games. After PSG, the schedule eases up a bit, with Bournemouth and Stoke City at home and West Ham away coming up next. So can he take a chance with a player that isn’t 100% fit? Perhaps. But if that player aggravates an injury and misses two months instead of two games, it might cost him the league title. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
This is why Wenger has to be extremely careful with the way he handles the next few days with Alexis. The Chilean just played 85 minutes of a crucial World Cup Qualifier with his right leg held together with the world’s largest bandage and half a mile of tape, and played well too. He’s going to be under the impression that he’s able to play, even with 30% of the world’s supply of gauze wrapped around him.
If Wenger lets Alexis play, and he tears his hamstring and is out until after Christmas, then it’s a disaster. But if Wenger doesn’t let him play, and Alexis feels like the club doesn’t trust him to make decisions about his own pain threshold, and that maybe the club thinks they don’t need him, then why would he sign a contract extension to stay at a club that he thinks feels that way about him?
With the advent of the Bosman ruling, and the explosion in player wages over the last fifteen to twenty years, the days of players being nothing more than cheap, disposable employment are long gone. Players know their value to a club more than ever, and are using that leverage to their advantage wherever possible, which is fine. We’ve all used whatever leverage we have at work to try and get a raise or even a promotion.
But sometimes it’s not a matter of how much money a player wants, or if they want more playing time. Sometimes a player wants to feel like they’re appreciated, that their efforts will be noticed and reciprocated. It is the basis behind Wenger’s reasoning to treat players like adults and let them make their own decisions, both on and off the pitch. He feels like this trust will be repaid when it comes to players negotiating to stay at a club where they feel valued.
Not all clubs operate like this, obviously. Just look at what’s happened to Wayne Rooney over the last few days as an example. The lad goes for a few pints, after work, in a hotel, on a Saturday evening, and got lynched because of it by both his club and national team manager. Is it optimal use of a professional athlete’s time? Of course not, but the idea that a 31-year-old adult needs to be under a curfew because a wedding party asked him if he fancied joining them, is asinine. Do we really expect a multi-millionaire to be tucked up in bed at 10:30pm every night?
Some managers feel the need to have complete control over as much as possible, and they feel like their players’ free time falls under that remit. They want players to focus solely on being a footballer, and that everything else in their lives should take a back seat. But in an era where players can force their way out a club with ever-increasing ease, how wise is it to make them feel like they can’t act like an adult whenever they’re not at work?
It’s why Wenger goes out of his way to not interfere with what Arsenal players do off the field, it’s with the intent of building trust and letting the player know that it is their responsibility to act in a professional manner. Just look at how many ex-players rave about how they were treated, not just as players, but as people too. The same keywords keep being said: respect, trust, responsibility.
But therein lies the problem with Alexis at the moment. It’s one thing when a player thinks he should be starting because he’s better than another player, and the manager disagrees. All professional footballers think they should start every game, it’s just the way it is. But if Alexis thinks he’s fit enough to play, after already showing, at least in his mind anyway, that he can play, it’s going to be nigh-on impossible to convince him that he’s wrong.
If Wenger benches Alexis for Saturday’s game, the question ‘Why don’t you trust me?’ is going to be asked. How Wenger answers this may well decide the Chilean’s future at the club.
So, I’ll ask again. How much do you trust Alexis Sanchez?