Another Sanchez 'sliding doors' choice over Man City, almost seven years on
Alexis Sanchez missed Arsenal's trip to Bournemouth on Sunday, leaving plenty of time to contemplate his future. Everybody knows his options: a move to Manchester United or Manchester City this month, joining City (or another club) in June or -- and admittedly this is rather remote -- extending his contract with the Gunners and staying in North London.
The Chilean international striker has been here before, almost seven years ago. In some ways, it was his "sliding doors" moment: A career-changing decision that ended up having considerable repercussions. Stefano Antonelli -- now a football intermediary for a company called Football Service but, back then, Udinese's transfer consultant -- was very much a part of it.
"It was the end of the 2010-11 season and Alexis was wanted by a number of clubs," Antonelli told ESPNFC. "Chief among them at the time were Barcelona and Manchester City."
Sanchez had scored 12 goals that season, helping Udinese finish fourth in Serie A and living up to the "wonder kid" tag that had long accompanied him. Udinese were -- they still are -- a club whose business model is based on player trading: Identify talent first, buy low, sell high. They had acquired Sanchez for $2.5 million from Cobreloa when he was still 17, beating wealthier and more illustrious clubs to the punch. It had been a huge sum for a player of such a young age in 2006 and now it was time to cash in.
It quickly became evident that City and Barcelona were the only serious contenders for his signature and the two clubs came at it from different perspectives. City had finished third in the Premier League under Roberto Mancini the season before, their highest position in 35 years. Further, they had won the FA Cup and there was a sense that they were on the verge of becoming a super club.
Sheikh Mansour's billions meant anything was possible -- there were no Financial Fair Play regulations back then -- and, the year before, City had acquired Yaya Toure, David Silva, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli, among others. Sanchez was going to be next in the progression.
Barcelona, meanwhile, were already where City wanted to be. They had won three straight Liga titles, they boasted Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi and had claimed their second Champions' League in three years. Pep Guardiola's tiki-taka was the toast of football.
It was a huge decision for Sanchez and Antonelli did what he could to steer him toward England.
"He's a fantastic kid; a little bit introverted, not really into dialogue but when he's happy and confident and his self-esteem is up, he's phenomenal," says Antonelli. "I thought City would be a better fit at the time because of the football he plays, which is all about instinct, athleticism, one-on-one situations, directness. He had the technical ability to fit into that Barca side of course, but maybe not the natural aptitude, the patience to fit into the tiki-taka of the time. Mancini wanted somebody more direct."
Antonelli advised Sanchez to take City's offer. The clubs had agreed and all that was missing the stamp of approval. But then something happened beyond anyone's control.
"Alexis got a phone call from Guardiola," says Antonelli. "And then he got one from Messi too. They persuaded him to come on board; they sold him on Barcelona. They were brilliant in convincing him. Ultimately, it's the player's choice."
Sanchez would go on to win a Copa del Rey and Liga title at the Camp Nou but, in some ways, Antonelli was vindicated. In his first two seasons, he started just half of Barcelona's games, often sharing time with the likes of Pedro, Cristian Tello and David Villa.
When Neymar joined in the summer of 2013 and, with Luis Suarez to follow a year later, it was obvious his time was up. Thus, in July of 2014, Sanchez moved on to Arsenal.
You can't help but wonder if there was an alternate history to be written: One where Guardiola and Messi don't call -- or simply don't get through -- and he ends up at the Etihad Stadium in 2011. Would City have still signed Sergio Aguero, considering they would have had Sanchez, Balotelli, Dzeko and Carlos Tevez? And, if not, would this have happened?
Six-and-a-half years are a long time in football. You can draw up all sorts of scenarios, imagining where City, Arsenal and Sanchez might be today, if not for those phone calls and that change of heart.
But back to the present, which sees the 29-year-old faced with another decision, particularly with increasing speculation that Man United are ready to make Arsenal a substantially better offer than the £20m Man City have on the table.
"I don't have any specific knowledge -- it's just my interpretation -- but I think this is Jose Mourinho, quite intelligently, trying to throw a spanner in the works and testing City and Alexis' resolve," says Antonelli. "My sense is that his future is at City and it has been from the moment he chose not to extend his contract with Arsenal."
And while he believes Guardiola wasn't the right fit for Sanchez in 2011, Antonelli is convinced that things are different now, in part because it's a different Guardiola.
"Managers evolve and change based on the situation," says Antonelli. "I was talking about this very subject with [Man City sporting director Txitxi] Begiristain not long ago. Pep has always been about technical players and he still is, but there's a different directness and physicality to his style of play today. He attacks the space behind the defenders; he looks for the one-on-one he plays at a higher pace. All of which, I think, suits Alexis."
And, for Antonelli, still there is some regret for what happened -- or didn't happen -- back in 2011.
"I'll never forget that, not least because it caused some tension between myself and Mancini, who told his owners that the deal was done," he says. "At the time, City were used to having their way in the transfer market, all the time. I still think it would have been the right choice for [Sanchez]."
Antonelli thinks it will be a case of "better late than never" and that the player will be reunited with Guardiola. Then again, that's the story of the transfer window: Deals that appear done sometimes crumble, leaving nothing but a bunch of "what ifs" and "what might've beens."
Just like six-and-a-half years ago.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.