Arsenal’s bid to become the first side since Blackburn Rovers in 1886 to win three consecutive FA Cups remains on track after Alexis Sanchez struck an outstanding 53rd minute winner to give Arsene Wenger’s side a 2-1 victory against Burnley City.
On paper, there is not much about this result that should get Arsenal fans excited.
After all, Wenger has only lost once in 41 previous Cup ties against lower league opposition and Burnley, who sit third in the Championship, will inevitably be prioritizing a return to the Premier League above a run in the FA Cup.
However, the manner in which the victory came about, with Sanchez returning to his dynamic, creative best after two months out with injury and Francis Coquelin starting his first match since November alongside new signing from Basel, Mohamed Elneny, meant that Wenger was justified in responding so positively to the victory.
“He took his goal really well,” the Arsenal boss said of Sanchez after the match. “When he got injured, you could see signs of fatigue but he has had a long rest now. Two months’ rest is a good winter break. Physically, you could see Alexis is ready.”
Arsenal needed that win.
December had been lean for the Gunners, with defeats against Southampton and Chelsea and draws against Stoke and Liverpool denting their hopes of ending a 12-year wait for a Premier League triumph. But Sanchez’s return is arguably of even greater importance for Wenger’s side owing the unique skill set that he brings to the starting line-up.
In many respects Sanchez is the most un-Arsenal of Arsenal players. He has no real interest in probing for holes in the opposition defense with neat, short passes around the 18-yard area in the manner of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, or Jack Wilshire, nor does he excel with in terms of his combination play like Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Rather, Sanchez’s real strength lies in receiving the ball deep, turning, and driving at the opposition defense. The Chilean thrives on using his pace, deceptive upper body strength, and low center-of-gravity to take-on and bypass defenders on his own, and the directness and relentlessness of his offensive running has the effect of increasing the pace of the entirety of Arsenal’s build-up play.
Sanchez is, by some distance, the most consistently effective of all Arsenal’s forward players and his return to fitness stands to greatly enhance Wenger’s side’s hopes of supplanting Leicester City at the top of the Premier League come May. For as well as players such as Joel Campbell and Giroud performed in attack through the Chilean’s absence, there is no Arsenal player capable of elevating the performances of his teammates quite so dramatically.
Sanchez scored 25 goals through the course of his first season at Arsenal last term, he created 79 chances for his teammates in the Premier League, managed 79 shots (of which 62 percent were on target) and had one of the highest dribble-completion rates in the Europe. He is, simply put, one of the most complete attacking players in the world game, and his return stands to give Arsenal a crucial edge over Manchester City as the title race accelerates towards its conclusion.
When Arsenal signed Sanchez in July, 2014, he arrived off the back of a long season at Barcelona and a tough World Cup campaign with Chile, and last summer he led his country to Copa America glory and returned to club action after less than a month’s rest. In this sense, Arsenal have never had a fully fit and rested Sanchez since he arrived at the club and Burnley will likely be one of many opposition sides to have suffered for the Chilean’s return to peak match-preparedness by the end of the season.
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