Per Mertesacker admits Alexis Sanchez’s two-month injury absence at the turn of the year virtually derailed Arsenal’s title challenge.
Sanchez has been in fine form in recent weeks and took his goal tally to five in four games as he hit a match-winning brace in Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over West Brom on Thursday night.
The win moved Arsene Wenger’s side up to third in the table as they look to secure a 20th consecutive season of Champions League football.
But it could have been so much more for a team now set to end the season empty-handed.
At the turn of the year Arsenal sat top of the standings, with the two teams now realistically fighting for the crown, Leicester and Tottenham, in their wake.
Wenger insisted the experience in his squad would see them over the line, but a poor run followed and fans turned on the Frenchman, especially after successive defeats to Manchester United and Swansea.
Sanchez missed two months of the season, over the crucial Christmas and new year period, after suffering a hamstring injury in November’s draw at Norwich.
He returned in late January, but it has taken him until the last month to get his sharpness and explosiveness back. His quality was in evidence as he struck early on against the Baggies before curling in a free-kick later in the half.
And Mertesacker accepts the Chilean was sorely missed.
“There are a couple of things we missed, but he is obviously one,” the defender said. “When he was out, I think the statistics were not that bad for us, I think we played 10 games without him and won seven.
“But obviously if he is on the pitch, he creates space always for other players because he draws so much attention and that is the key to any team.
“He is a key member of our team and, if he is fully fit, he makes the difference and that is always the case. During the time he was out, I think we had quite a good record, but over the whole season normally we need him healthy.”
The German added: “He is the type of player who makes the difference and, even when he is in Chile playing two qualifiers, he will be back on track in the right time when having just two days’ rest in between. He is that type of player who gives everything to the team. Those team members are well appreciated.”