Man United edge Arsenal in Alexis Sanchez, Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap

The last time Arsenal agreed to a high-profile player swap, it would be hard to argue that they saw the best side of it.

Ashley Cole went to Chelsea in 2006 and won four FA Cups, the League Cup, a Premier League, the Champions League and the Europa League. William Gallas came to Arsenal and won absolutely nothing, becoming infamous for a petulant sit-down protest against Birmingham and then losing the captaincy after publicly slagging off his teammates.

In truth, it's hard to see how Arsenal will enjoy the best side of the straight swap between Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan either. Not because Mkhitaryan is not a good player: he is. If you can see past his muddled time at Manchester United, his form with Borussia Dortmund was transcendent and you firmly get the sense he is the kind of player, and personality, who would thrive under a manager like Arsene Wenger, who trusts in talent and asks players to combine creatively high up the pitch, rather than Jose Mourinho, who takes a more sceptical approach to such affairs.

No, the real problem is that in losing Sanchez, Arsenal are losing an irreplaceable player. Their best since Robin van Persie, certainly, and possibly beyond. A scorer of 60 goals and maker of 25 assists in the Premier League alone — a combined total which only Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero can better since the summer of 2014. A hero of cup final wins, who scored on two such occasions against Aston Villa and Chelsea as Arsenal collected two FA Cups in his three full seasons.

Last weekend's emphatic and ruthless 4-1 dispatching of Crystal Palace was inevitably spun as evidence that Arsenal do not need Sanchez, but it was nothing of the sort. Sanchez will not be missed when Arsenal are racking up the goals against a poor team at home. He will be missed in the moments when a breakthrough is desperately needed in the last 15 minutes; when a local derby is sliding away from Arsenal; when a final needs to be settled.

If he replicates his Dortmund form then Mkhitaryan can become a regular source of goals and assists. He will have many willing partners around him, who play a quick, sharp game — on a good day, and more often than not exclusively at home, but still. When Arsenal are cutting teams to ribbons, as they were against Palace, he will be enthusiastically wielding a pair of scissors.

But it was not just his goals and assists which defined Sanchez: for good and, depending on your viewpoint, bad. There are many who grew fed up with his angry gesticulations on the pitch and questionable body language; some of them were even in his own dressing room, if reports are to be believed. Clearly, there were moments when an insatiable desire to win spilled over into something more abrasive.

But what, really, is wrong with that? Often when you saw Sanchez throwing his arms up in disgust it was because none of his teammates were bothering to join in his enthusiastic pressing. It was frustration borne of a failure by others to maintain the requisite standards and do the basics: hardly an incongruous response when watching Arsenal.

No doubt Sanchez could be a prickly character but the whispers of complaint emerging from the training ground always seemed to be more reflective of what the group culture under Wenger has become than any particular character fault on the part of the perfectionist Sanchez.

It is not as though these kinds of figures necessarily make for bad teammates. Cristiano Ronaldo has forged a quite successful career. Even in Arsenal's recent history, Jens Lehmann was a man renowned for bawling out teammates, but this trait has also been held up as a contributing factor to the club's greatest ever season in 2003-04. When excellence is achievable, the pursuit of it is a virtue. When the players around you are not on your level, it can seemingly become an irritant.

Sanchez's standards certainly couldn't be matched by the club or his colleagues and, ultimately, that is why he is leaving. Away from Arsenal's cloistered, comfortable club, his single-minded focus on winning matches might be construed as a positive. Certainly his ability to beat three men and stick it in the top corner will be.

Receiving Mkhitaryan will soften the blow, particularly as Sanchez could have walked away for free in the summer, but Arsenal may grow to reflect that there is no way to really replace a one-of-a-kind player.


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