By Oliver Platt
About this time last year, Arsenal fans were hoping to watch a world-class South American forward, newly signed from a top Spanish club, make his debut for his new team in an Emirates Cup game. They did, but Gonzalo Higuain was playing for Napoli.
This summer, there will be no such distress in north London. The Gunners learned their lesson and Alexis Sanchez’s signature was secured soon after Chile had been eliminated from the World Cup; if they needed any more convincing as to the class of their top transfer target, two goals in four games, including one against Brazil, and the vibrancy of the side he led will have done the trick.
Alexis is likely to play some part, though not the full 90 minutes, when Arsenal take on Benfica on Saturday. Tickets, unsurprisingly, are sold out for both days of this year’s edition of the four-team tournament, with Monaco their opponents on Sunday afternoon and Valencia making up the quartet.
Arsenal have spent big for two summers in a row now, with Alexis coming in for around £32 million, and Wenger seems to have accepted that high-profile purchases are a necessary component of any strategy to take the club back to the summit of English football. But it’s worth remembering that before Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, at £15m, was the biggest splash the Gunners had made in the market since they signed Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin in 2008-09 for similar fees.
The excitement around Wenger’s latest investment, then, is understandable, and Alexis’ track record suggests it is justified. Barcelona had Financial Fair Play and Luis Suarez (not to mention Ivan Rakitic and Jeremy Mathieu) to think about, but Alexis joins Arsenal off the back of what was probably the best season of his career. He broke the 20-goal barrier for the first time in all competitions, netting 19 in La Liga and laying on a further 10 assists.
He would seem to be a perfect fit for Arsenal, too, giving them the pace they have lacked in attack with Olivier Giroud as the lone striker and Theo Walcott absent through injury. Ozil, too often surrounded by a collection of playmakers rather than forwards capable of making the most of his service, must be just as pleased as the supporters.
The job Wenger now faces is gelling his new and existing players into a team as they trickle back from extended post-World Cup holidays. Alexis did not join his new team-mates for their training camp in Austria as he was required to travel to Paris to acquire a visa, according to Wenger, and will make his Gunners bow just 48 hours after the rest of the team returned to meet him at London Colney.
“These training camps in the modern game are decided for commercial reasons and because of the extent of popularity of the club,” Wenger said in New York last week, where Arsenal played New York Red Bulls. “We’ve never been to the States before and I was very happy to come to New York – a city I love. But for purely football reasons, the best thing to do is stay and not travel too much because the time you waste and the jet-lag you suffer is not ideal.”
“The real work starts now and then at the Emirates Cup this weekend,” he later added. “The problem is our pre-season will be very short. These post-World Cup years are a nightmare for us because we have no preparation.”
That applies especially to German internationals Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski, who will not return from a four-week break until August 11 and will miss the Premier League opener against Crystal Palace five days later. With Walcott not due back in training until the end of August, Alexis will not, therefore, train or play with three of his most prominent attacking partners for some time yet.
Out of the frying pan of Camp Nou and the World Cup and into the fire, then, with Manchester City in the Community Shield, both legs of a Champions League qualifying round tie and a return to Everton - the scene of an abject Arsenal performance last season - facing the 25-year-old and the Gunners before this month is out.
A baptism of fire for your new star, though, sure is better than no new star at all.