He did not score the most goals, he was not voted the tournament’s most valuable player, he didn’t even lead his country in scoring, and regardless, he was without a doubt, the hero of the Copa America. He is immensely talented, relentlessly committed, and remarkably humble. And he is only just beginning the best years of his career. He is Alexis Sanchez.
Born in the small mining city of Tocopilla, Chile, Alexis Alejandro Sánchez Sánchez stood out as exceptional at a very early age. One of his youth coaches, Frank Dee, told the BBC that, even as young as age 8, Alexis was clearly a step ahead of his peers.
“It was always him and 10 others,” Dee said, “he always stood out from the rest.”
From his humble beginnings in Tocopilla, where Sanchez’s mother worked selling seafood to miners on their lunch breaks, Sanchez was able to secure a place in the ranks of Cobreloa’s famous youth squad when he was 16, where he continued to develop, playing alongside his future Chile teammate Eduardo Vargas.
At the Emirates in North London, Sanchez has come a long way from the nitrate mines of his native Chile, but that doesn’t mean his thoughts have strayed from his home. In addition to donating funds for the construction of football pitches, Sanchez returns to his hometown of Tocopilla every Christmas, riding through the streets atop a float, handing out autographed footballs to local children.
Earlier this month, Sanchez was paraded not through the streets of Tocopilla, but Santiago—with the Copa America trophy in tow. The victory is Chile’s first in the tournament, and that it was Sanchez himself who scored the final penalty kick that sealed Chile’s title was a fitting conclusion. He may not have lit up the scoresheet the way he would’ve liked (having notched just one goal, and one assistant all tournament), but from start to finish, he was the engine that drove Chile to glory, starting every match, and averaging 3.7 shots per game—more than any other player in the tournament, save Lionel Messi and Enner Valencia.
But despite Sanchez’s fantastic work ethic, and all his success in 2014-15, there is legitimate concern that his seemingly indomitable engine might be reaching redline. Since the conclusion of last year’s World Cup—which itself cut into Alexis’ offseason—Sanchez has appeared in more than 60 matches for club and country.
Although he has managed to maintain a high level of performance throughout that time, scoring 27 goals and assisting an additional 14, back-to-back offseasons with competitive international tournaments does not make for a well-rested footballer.
The challenge will be as much mental as physical. At the end of this season, Sanchez’s Arsenal teammate Per Mertesacker admitted that the “hangover” after winning the 2014 World Cup was a serious problem for him and his Arsenal teammates, and may have even cost the Gunners their shot at the Premier League title.
“The first months, in particular, were quite difficult to come back and to come down and to forget that, forget that feeling of being World Cup champion” the German defender said. “That’s what you need to have [to be competitive], you need to forget about that, to come down a bit, to calm down and to restart. That took nearly half a year to realize that.”
If Arsenal are to have any chance of winning the EPL in 2016, they will need Sanchez in peak form—physically, and mentally. Arsene Wenger has already said that Sanchez will miss the beginning of the 2015-16 campaign, but that may not be enough. After all, Mesut Özil, Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker were all given the same extended vacation last season, and even that failed to see them fully sharp for their season debuts with a cannon on the shirt.
And yet, despite the threat of burnout from playing so much in 2015, despite the concern over a Copa America hangover, I’m putting my money on the man from Tocopilla to be even better for Arsenal in 2016.
Olivier Giroud, Nacho Monreal, Mesut Özil: none of these players produced their best performances in an Arsenal shirt during their first season at the Emirates. That Sanchez settled into the team as quickly and comfortably as he did last season was a remarkable achievement for him, and a fantastic boon to the squad. Without his contributions, you have to wonder whether Arsenal would’ve lifted the FA Cup, or even maintained their perennial place among the top 4 in the EPL. But he still has gears to go.
At 26 years of age, Sanchez’s best years are still in front of him. In 2016, he will have a full year of experience playing with his Arsenal teammates, and the confidence of having lifted trophies in 2015 for both club and country.
Of course, based on Arsenal’s German contingent, there is a precedent for such a thing to take a toll, rather than inspire greatness—but not for Alexis. Taking nothing away from the German trio’s dedication to the game, Sanchez’s drive to compete is truly remarkable.
After his increased hiatus ends, come September, look for Alexis to return hungry as ever, spurred on by his recent achievements, and more fully settled into the dressing room in North London. He might not score 30 goals in 2016—but then again, he just might.