What if the Premier League lost its pre-eminent attacking player on one day this summer but then replaced him exactly a day later with another, even better player? As the new season looms into view, that is the tantalising possibility Arsenal fans are currently entertaining.
When the Gunners get underway against Crystal Palace on Saturday evening, fans of the north London club might begin to get their answer. What is certain is that the rest of the league will also be taking note.
When Luis Suarez agreed to leave Liverpool for Barcelona in the summer, it was taken as another example—coming as it did less than a year after Gareth Bale left Tottenham Hotspur for Real Madrid—of English football losing its brightest star to the Spanish game.
Suarez was the league’s most dangerous forward, and as a result, the individual talent must be capable of elevating his side.
Few expected the Reds to finish second in the league last season; that they did was in considerable part down to the consistent brilliance the Uruguayan produced. In what would prove to be his farewell season, he reminded everyone of the impact one talismanic player can have on his team.
A day after the Suarez deal was agreed to (official confirmation, weighed down by red tape, would come much later), Arsenal duly announced that a player of many similar traits would be making the move the other way. Like Suarez, Alexis Sanchez is a dynamic, driven attacker, seemingly as comfortable creating for others as scoring himself.
Like Suarez, he proved his quality at the World Cup with some decisive performances, inspiring Chile to a narrow last-16 exit against hosts Brazil (a game in which he scored a fine goal).
Yes, Sanchez was effectively sold by Barcelona to finance the Suarez purchase (implicitly suggesting they rate the former player more highly), but such transfer dealings have not always worked out too badly for the departing side in the past.
Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, both won the domestic title with their new clubs in the first season after they were edged out at the Camp Nou to make way for expensive new signings (Eto’o, in fact, also won the Champions League), suggesting perhaps that their ability was never the real issue.
Sanchez, Arsenal fans will be hoping, will inspire his new side to similar success.
That is the dream for many fans, a dream that the 25-year-old will prove to be the missing piece of the puzzle, contributing 20 goals and 10 assists (or more!) as the Gunners drive to a first league title in over a decade.
Of course, similar hopes were held for Mesut Ozil when he joined the club last August. The German started brightly, looking like the elite provider most expected him to be, but faded toward the end of the season as the notoriously robust nature of English football took its toil.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger does not expect that to be a problem for Sanchez, however, a player whose natural style—always full of energy and effort, and unafraid to get physical—would appear a better fit to his new league than Ozil's languid, perhaps more cerebral approach.
“I think that he’ll be very quick to adapt,” Wenger told reporters on Friday, per Chisanga Malata of the Daily Star. “He’s very keen, he a player who is proactive who wants to make things happen, runs at people.
“He’s committed and I believe he has all the ingredients to be a very good Premier League player.”
How good he is in his first season may prove decisive in how well Arsenal fare. If he is the star everyone hopes him to be from the off, then the Gunners surely have an attacking line-up capable of going toe-to-toe with Chelsea and Manchester City over the course of the season.
If Sanchez helps Wenger’s side lose its unfortunate habit of capitulating in games against close rivals, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
If Sanchez needs more time to adapt, however, as Ozil did, perhaps another top-four finish may prove the limit of the club’s ambitions this season (considering both are only 25, their time will surely come one way or another).
Even if Liverpool find out it was impossible to adequately replace Suarez and drop out of the top four, the likely re-emergence of Manchester United and the continued progress of Everton means the battle for Champions League spots will be as hard-fought as ever.
Arch-rival Tottenham, too, will be hoping to be involved in that battle, although they too might see their ambitions defined somewhat by how one of their most expensive purchases fares this season.
If the hope in the red part of north London is that Sanchez leads Arsenal to the title this term, the worst-case scenario is that he endures a debut campaign similar to Erik Lamela's last season.
Bought by Spurs from AS Roma for £30 million, ostensibly to replace the departed Bale, Lamela endured a difficult start to the season. He struggled with both the language barrier and the demands made of him by Andre Villas-Boas, before a deep-rooted back problem (coupled with what seemed to be Tim Sherwood's inherent distrust of him) ruled the Argentinian out for almost the entire second half of the campaign.
In the end, he played just 331 minutes in the Premier League, failing to score a single goal. By comparison, Ozil's debut campaign was one for the ages.
However, the 22-year-old returns this season with a clean slate, a new manager in Mauricio Pochettino to impress and a clean bill of health. Perhaps Spurs fans will finally see the deft, multi-dimensional attacking talent they were promised, albeit 12 months later than expected.
Pochettino, for his part, seems to be keen to make Lamela an integral part of his plans, speaking not of whether he might play for Spurs this season, but in which position he will be deployed.
“It depends on the situation whether Erik will play as the No. 10 or wide,” Pochettino said recently, per David Hytner of The Guardian. “My philosophy is to give a freer style with a good organisation and not only with Erik, with other players.
“The most important thing is to create a good shape for our players to be comfortable and to show their real qualities.”
Those words will offer encouragement to both Lamela and Spurs fans, especially when it is considered how Pochettino helped Jay Rodriguez—a similar player to Lamela in many respects—develop over the course of their working relationship.
Pochettino seemed to find a way to play to the strengths of the attacking players at his disposal, with Lamela (who scored 15 goals and added a further five assists in his final season at Roma) and Roberto Soldado at the head of the list of Spurs players hoping to benefit from that knack.
If both players do find their form, challenging for the top four is not an outlandish ambition. If there are difficulties, however, then another year mired in the comparative no-man's land of sixth or seventh may be the best that can be achieved.
“It is important to know that Erik is still young and it is difficult to adapt to the Premier League,” Pochettino continued. “It is the most difficult league to play—the style, the language, but now, after one year at Tottenham, we believe that Erik is ready to show his quality.”
The theory is one thing, of course; the reality is invariably never quite what you anticipate.
The individual fortunes of Lamela and Sanchez will not define their respective clubs’ seasons, but they will surely play a considerable role in deciding exactly where the limits of their ambition will be.
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