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Alexis Sanchez Left for Dead in the Premier League's Race for Certainty

Just three games in, we already know exactly what will happen this season.

by Hydall Codeen
31 August 2019, 9:00am

Illustration: Dan Evans

The seers have been speaking, the runes consulted, the forecasts made. The Premier League has only just sprung into life and already the noise of people grasping for certainties is deafening. It is strange and a little dispiriting that, a mere three games in, there are people out there who already know how the whole thing's going to pan out.

They already know, for instance, that come January, Crystal Palace are doomed, as Wilfred Zaha departs for Chelsea or Borussia Dortmund, having finally tired of carrying a squad akin to that drawer in your house full of old diaries and a sprawling rat king of ancient, miscellaneous charger cables. We also know that Tottenham Hotspur are already too far behind Liverpool to even dream of catching them, because Paul Merson said so – and why wouldn't you listen to a man whose front tooth once fell out on live television?

Another dismal certainty is the quiet Christmas set to be endured by Steve Bruce. The Newcastle United manager has spent most of the summer being painted as a figure who is tragically out of his depth in the cosmopolitan glitz and glut of today's Premier League, a grimacing hangdog remnant of some lost era of Englishness, kitchen sink reflux, a bloke with the kind of face people expect to find in late-night repeats of Minder rather than on BT Sport primetime.

In the minds of the Premier League commentariat, Bruce has already been cast as a jammy, workaday and slightly pathetic interloper, like a butch dinner lady in a Mike Leigh film who's just assumed control of the school team because her husband ran off with the PE teacher, daydreaming her way through shifts in the canteen, stockpiling the juiciest oranges and scratching her head while a sympathetic janitor tries to explain the offside rule using bottles of red sauce and Cresta.

Bruce has known quiet Christmases before; he was sacked on the cusp of the festive season with Sunderland in 2011 and again last year by Aston Villa. You'd think the oracles of the Barclays would have more respect for a decent man who's just trying to live the dream at his hometown club, but sadly they've already decided which way things are going for him. Hopefully this year, at least, he will not be sent packing in a hail of angry cabbages.

This clamouring desperation for certainty – to know what is going to happen in the English top flight before it is given a chance to come to pass – has an ally this year in the staggered closure of transfer windows across Europe. It is a quirk of this scheduling that means we are already writing eulogies to Premier League players just 270 minutes into the new campaign, taxonomically filing away the careers of fading stalwarts such as Nacho Monreal and Chris Smalling, but most luridly Alexis Sánchez, a player whose dizzying peak lives on only in the tainted memories of Arsenal fans and the spectre of his outrageous pay-packet.

With the exception of maybe seven clubs on the planet, any exit from the Premier League these days is interpreted on this island as a kind of social death, a one-way ticket to the leper colony, an embarrassing diminution of status that is necessary to thwart the threat of contamination to the Premier League glitterati.

It is hard to recall a loan deal that ever felt so final. Sánchez heads off to Inter Milan for the season with no talk of rehabilitation, of a once-great player rediscovering his mojo. Instead, the Premier League is relieved to write him off and hurtle on, dropping him at the airport without a backward glance into a familiar maelstrom of flashbulbs, ultras' chants, anonymous minders and awful denim.

Back in Manchester, they will still be tossing the odds in their minds at night. Is it actually quite good for United that they’ll be paying Sánchez £200,000 a week to play for someone else? In the madcap world of Ed Woodward, it probably represents decent business, and the chief exec will be happy to be rid of a nagging daily reminder of his own ineptitude.

As ever, it's worth contemplating how Sánchez the human feels about all this. He would’ve joined United with an eye on it being the fabled Last Big Move, the legend-burnisher, the medal-hoover, the one that would allow him to look back at his life in his dotage with a sense of total fulfilment. Instead, he’s been cast aside after 18 profoundly disastrous months like a fly-tipped mattress, a thing upon which dreams were once conceived and love affairs consummated, a site of fervent passions abandoned to be pissed through with rain in a lay-by somewhere along the M1.

The post-mortems tend to agree that things could've been different. If he'd gone to rejoin Pep Guardiola at United's cross-city rivals back in January of 2018; if he'd not spent his entire career running himself into the ground for club and country; if he'd spent more time with humans than dogs while at Old Trafford; if he'd not dropped that packet of Doritos in Altrincham that time.

And maybe things could still turn out well for Sánchez at United. Maybe he'll return next summer a rejuvenated title winner, breaker of Juventus' eight-year stranglehold on Serie A, a physically dilapidated dog-fucker hermit rehabilitated into something a little more like his old self. Why not? After all, some of the Premier League's other certainties are already starting to wane a little.

Palace just beat United 2-1. Mauricio Pochettino has reaffirmed his commitment to Spurs, and all he needs is to mastermind victory over a flimsy Arsenal this Sunday to change the mood music completely. Even Brucey, doomed anachronism from the swamps of that lost England of milkmen, wallpaper, Page 3 and high streets, managed to lead his boys to three points last weekend.

It's not hard to see why people are looking to the game they love for certainties at the moment. Everyday life is not the reliably tedious and banal thing it once was. Moreover, all the certainties it seems to be providing right now are depressing ones. But perhaps it would pay to turn down the volume at times, to watch, and to wait, and to allow the future to reveal itself at its own pace, rather than trying to scream it in and out of existence before it's even had a chance to blink.

@hydallcodeen / @Dan_Draws