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06th Mar 2017

Alexis Sanchez has a duty to point out Arsenal’s failings – this is what player power should be about

Supporters want someone to blame - and clubs do their best to make sure a disgruntled player feels their wrath

Tony Barrett

The biggest problem with player power isn’t that it exists, it is its own image. Whether it’s members of the Leicester City squad wanting Claudio Ranieri to be sacked or Alexis Sanchez storming out of training, millionaire militancy is a tough sell.

Inevitably the mantra that “nobody is bigger than the club” is glibly trotted out by those who buy into the idea that the club is always right and even when it’s wrong no one in the dressing room should the temerity to point out that it is.

Whoever it was at Arsenal who decided that Sanchez’s recent behaviour should become public knowledge, if that is how it came to light, undoubtedly recognises this.

Insubordination rarely prompts a positive reaction so with Arsene Wenger under intense scrutiny for dropping the Chilean, who now looks set to leave Arsenal, what better way to bolster an under pressure manager and to justify the likely loss of your best player by letting it be known that Sanchez isn’t pure as the driven snow?

More often than not, such spin is lapped up willingly. Again, clubs know that. Portraying an outgoing player as an avaricious ingrate is easy in the knowledge that disappointed supporters will want someone to blame, so too is depicting an outgoing manager as a control freak even if it was an ability to exert control that was the quality that attracted the club to him in the first place.

PR matters and, more often than not, players cannot match their employers’ aptitude when it comes to sending out a message to the public at large.

At some point, though, the penny will drop that few in football are better placed to stand up for their clubs and the game in general than those who actually play it.

If Arsenal’s best interests are served by someone highlighting that it is an institution on the drift, why shouldn’t Sanchez be able to express his frustration at that as forcefully as he likes? Wouldn’t it be a dereliction of his duty to be the best that he can be, to represent the club to the best of his ability and to act in the interests of supporters if he turned a blind eye to Arsenal’s loss of status and refusal to do anything that might arrest a decline that everyone else can see?

While the Arsenal hierarchy sits back in the knowledge that Wenger has been absolutely fundamental to a business plan which will see Stan Kroenke and other shareholders make a significant return on their investment at some time in the future, doesn’t a senior player have a responsibility to let it be known that their willingness to settle for finishing in the top four is not shared by those in the dressing room who want to win?

Likewise at Leicester where the idea that Claudio Ranieri was forced out by player power was allowed to take hold even though there was ample evidence that the Italian was failing in his most basic managerial task – to get the best out of the players at his disposal.

Absolving Ranieri of responsibility because he is, quite clearly, a nice bloke might fit with the prevailing narrative but he was not the victim of a power grab or a conspiracy, he stopped being able to motivate or organise his players as he had last season and the individuals under his charge became worried to the point that they let the club’s owners know their concerns.

Again, is this not acting responsibly? Is this not the real meaning of the idea that no one, not even a title winning manager, is bigger than the club? If there is a strong argument that change will make things better, and in Leicester’s case that appears increasingly true, why should the players not be the ones who make that case? It is up to their employers to interpret that kind of information in whatever way they see fit but it is hard to see how it would be better if players stood idly by while a slide continued and kept their worries to themselves.

That both Sanchez and his counterparts at Leicester found themselves on the wrong end of public opinion except, interestingly, among the majority of supporters at the clubs they actually play for is as predictable as it is counter-productive.

In an age when an increasing number of our clubs are in the hands of foreign businessmen who have little understanding of the basic workings of the game and scant interest beyond balance sheets, players need more power, not less. With supporters kept at arms’ length and media managed, players are best placed to recognise when things are going wrong and they also have the opportunity and the influence to do something about it.

It is easy to dismiss their complaints and to demand that they know their place. It is also easy to ridicule them by giving them nicknames like “Red Nev” in the worst tradition of belittling anyone who stands up for themselves or their workmates. But football needs player power and it always has. It was needed when the late Jimmy Hill fought against the maximum wage and it is required now with former players battling for more research to be carried out into the link between dementia and heading footballs.

On a more basic level, it is needed at clubs because, more than anyone else, players have a knowledge and an understanding of what is needed to be successful. That applies as much to Alexis Sanchez, who has won several individual and team honours, as it does to the Leicester squad which won the Premier League title last season. Whether they express their frustration at a drop in standards by walking out on training and generally letting their irritation show or by going direct to their club’s owners, players are exercising what power they have because they want what’s best both for themselves and the club that they play for.

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