Alexis Sanchez was supposed to galvanise Manchester United and add a much-needed dose of venom to their blunt attack, but instead he has only created more problems for Jose Mourinho. The Chilean is displaying the worst of the habits which plagued the latter stage of his Arsenal career and, even after two months, still appears on a different wavelength to the teammates that have been displaced and reshuffled to accommodate his arrival.
Mourinho has used his January recruit predominantly off the left, as well as behind striker Romelu Lukaku, and, just once, in the vacant – and increasingly troublesome – right wing role. Each time Sanchez has huffed and puffed with little avail. In his 663 minutes of action in a United shirt, he has scored just once and lost the ball an astonishing 188 times.
It has not been for the want of trying, though. Sanchez’s performances have been typified by a willingness to try and break up the monotony of United’s stale and largely structure-less attacking play, even if he is rarely successful in doing so. He has earnestly sought to be the spark – which is why United pay him such a handsome salary – but too often his boom-or-bust approach sags towards the latter.
He has, if truth be told, actually added to the sense of disorder that hangs around United’s attack, rather than become the talismanic presence needed to solve the problem; were master of analogies Carlos Carvalhal here, he might suggest that Sanchez is strumming an electric guitar in the middle of an orchestra that still needs a conductor.
He also looks frustrated with the side’s innate, Mourinho-drilled caution. Prior to both full-backs being hauled off against Crystal Palace on Monday night, he could often be seen shouting at Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to get forward more often, flapping his arms in exasperation at how deep their starting positions were. It felt symptomatic of a player that was not signed because of a long-term strategy or forensic scouting, or even because he fulfilled a pressing need, but on a whim; an opportunistic swoop from Mourinho to get one over Pep Guardiola.
The Red Devils did not need another left winger, a position where they were already loaded with talent in the shape of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, and when he is deployed more centrally it creates issues for Paul Pogba behind him. They did need a match-winner, and Sanchez always feels conscious of the fact that he was bought to be exactly that.
Alexis Sanchez's Premier League stats for Manchester United
Minutes played: 441
Total shots: 10
Shot accuracy: 86%
Chances created: 7
Dribbles success: 70%
Passing accuracy: 72%
Possession lost: 144
It gives Mourinho a real headache ahead of the visit of Liverpool on Saturday. While Sanchez obviously has an enormous upside, his lack of end product and match-winning performances is an increasing worry, especially when it comes at the expense of the rest of the team. Sanchez’s lack of synergy with his new teammates, and his wastefulness, will be even more obvious than normal in comparison to a ferocious Liverpool attack led by Mohamed Salah.
Firstly, the Egyptian’s arrival is a victory for good planning and meticulous scouting. Others might have baulked at Salah’s £38m price tag due to his previous struggles in the Premier League, ironically under Mourinho. But he had what Liverpool needed: blistering pace, speed in transition, athleticism, trickery and an eye for goal. He was the perfect complement to Liverpool’s style, the final missing ingredient.
Possession lost per 90 mins in Premier League 2017/18
1. Alexis Sanchez26.062. Jose Holebas25.793. Michail Antonio23.164. Kevin De Bruyne22.9279. Mohamed Salah16.59
Still, nobody at Liverpool would have expected him to be quite so prolific. Salah is currently the joint top scorer in the Premier League, alongside out-and-out striker Harry Kane, and has netted 32 times in all competitions – a tally which exceeds Luis Suarez’s most prolific season at Liverpool and it’s still only March. He has also chipped in with eight assists – only four players in the Premier League have registered more.
The key to his success has been how quickly he has integrated into the team. Not merely in terms of fitting in, but actually adapting his own natural style to suit the needs of the team. ‘He’s been very open to things, which for him are new,’ explained Klopp. In training, the German coach has repeatedly drilled into Salah to play closer to goal, even though it is not something he has done under previous coaches, to exploit his finishing to the max.
Mohamed Salah on how he has evolved at Liverpool
‘With the boss here, I play a little bit closer to the goal, more so than at any other club or more than any of my other coaches have asked me to. So I am always in front of the goal to give me the opportunity to score. The manager is always telling me to stay close to the goal in training. I don’t want to say too much because we still have a long way to go in the season and I don’t want to give too much away. But yes, it’s something we have worked on in the training sessions. You cannot score 10 goals from 10 balls – that’s impossible and I know that I have missed many chances too this season. But I am trying to improve. I am always trying to see my weaknesses and then work on them and I am always trying to score in different ways. The coaches help me so much to do that and I also work hard alone after the training sessions.’
Admittedly Salah is a more natural and organic fit for Liverpool than Sanchez is for United – Salah has played through the middle as much as on the wing, running in behind as Roberto Firmino intelligently drops deeper – but he has sacrificed aspects of his old style in order to take his game to a new level. He is also prepared to be patient and wait for chances. He never forces things, he just lets them happen.
Sanchez, meanwhile, increasingly tries the impossible when his side need inspiration, and you get a sense that he feels the weight of responsibility to find a breakthrough more than most. When Liverpool need a goal, Salah plays higher; when United are behind, Sanchez drops deeper. ‘He was trying to play one-twos 40 yards from goal,’ moaned Gary Neville. ‘He is no good from there.’
It is something that he has always carried with him when playing for Chile, and which festered at club level during Arsenal’s desperately poor last 18 months or so. But at Old Trafford he does not need to be that guy – the guy – any more. Behind him, Sanchez has the one-time world’s most expensive player pulling strings in midfield and ahead of him he has a £75m striker who is one strike away from a century of goals in the Premier League.
United have a host of talented players that Sanchez needs to trust more, but the more he tries to go it alone, as he did at Arsenal, the longer he risks prolonging his miserable start at United. Salah, who has turned into one of Europe’s best finishers, is proof that making subtle tweaks can have huge benefits, and that sometimes less is more.
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