After 843 minutes of action for Manchester United, January signing Alexis Sanchez still has just one single goal to his name. The Chilean was supposed to provide a spark that could catapult the Red Devils closer to rivals, and runaway Premier League leaders, Manchester City, and perhaps even inspire a Champions League run, but instead he has been a frustrating, wasteful and ultimately ineffective presence on the pitch.
The worry is that the 29-year-old Sanchezs best days are behind him, and that the toll of being his nations talisman since he was a teenager – he has an astonishing 119 caps – has caught up with him at last. He was benched for Uniteds last outing before the international break, a disjointed win over Brighton in the FA Cup, and nearly declined to link up with the national team so he could focus on adapting to life in Manchester.
Seeing as I demand a lot of myself, I expected more, Sanchez revealed prior to friendlies against Sweden and Denmark. Also, I doubted going away with the national team, the switch of clubs has been rough. I told the manager that I wanted permission to stay in England, but having thought about it, I thought it would be good to be here to start things off on the right foot. Having changed clubs has been tough, a lot of things have happened in my life that are difficult.
Those comments came at the same time as reports emerged of Sanchez beginning to isolate himself from the rest of the United squad and eating alone at the clubs Carrington training ground. Sanchezs struggles to adapt were even likened to those of Angel Di Maria, who left Old Trafford after just one uninspiring season.
But Sanchezs situation feels markedly different. Firstly, Di Maria was the victim of a club in crisis and a manager who had zero support or faith in him. The Argentines South American style, full of flair, pace and – as typified by his lob against Leicester – invention, was at odds with Louis van Gaals slower, more methodical, more structured build-up play. Jose Mourinho has said before that he would not have sold Di Maria had he been in charge.
Speaking about his struggles in an interview with the BBC in 2016, Di Maria explained: Its more that they didnt let me settle properly than I couldnt settle. I left and that team are still playing the same way. Out of the European competitions, far from being champions of the Premier League. I dont think it was my fault or the fault of my team mates. Every time I was given the opportunity, I did all I could but it didnt work out as I hoped.
How the two players compare
Angel Di Maria – VERSUS – Alexis Sanchez
548 – MINUTES PER GOAL – 530
164 – MINS PER ASSIST – 0
78% – PASS ACCURACY – 72%
3.3 – SHOTS PER 90 MINS – 2.2
2.8 – CHANCES CREATED PER 90 MINS – 1.5
27 – LOST POSSESSION PER 90 MINS – 27
6.5 – DRIBBLES PER 90 MINS – 6.3
*Stats via Opta and apply to Premier League only
I started a game in one position then the next game in another. I scored goals playing in one position, then suddenly the next game I was picked to play in a different position. I think this also didnt help me settle. Its up to the manager to decide where and how every player should play, but I think that the player should be comfortable in that position and adapt to it.
Mourinho will not make the same mistake with Sanchez. There had been suggestions that he was flirting with using the Chilean on the right wing, which has become something of a problem position, but all his performances for United have either come off the left or behind striker Romelu Lukaku. Moreover, and despite the doom and gloom that have often engulfed United and their manager this season, the side have actually had a strong campaign.
It has not been flawless, and the sparking football produced by Pep Guardiola a few miles down the road has cast an enormous shadow, but United are still second in the Premier League. Barring an unlikely implosion, this will be their best finish since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped aside. They have the second-best defence in the league, despite missing Eric Bailly for much of the season, and have been excellent in matches against rivals; they have collected 13 points against the rest of the top six, second only to City.
This is a team which is still progressing and getting better, not one in laboured transition as was the case under Van Gaal. There is still a big gap to City, but one that can be etched away at with both smart signings in the summer and a return to form for Sanchez. At his best, the Chilean is an unplayable match-winner, and Mourinho will do everything possible to provide a platform for him to thrive again.
The resolution of Paul Pogbas situation will help, as would the addition of a natural, left-footed full-back behind him to overlap – too often the left flank has become predictable with both Ashley Young and Sanchez inverted. At the moment, Sanchez is guilty of trying too hard to be the creative spark United need, and Pogba – who appeared to kickstart his revival with a goal and an assist for Les Bleus – can help ease the burden on the Chilean.
As bad as Sanchezs lost possession stats look on paper – he has lost the ball 226 times already since moving to Old Trafford, just under every four minutes – it is also indicative of how much he is willing to try and make something happen, even if it doesnt always work. Look around the league, and many of the players who lose the ball most are their sides main creator: Kevin De Bruyne at City, for example, and Christian Eriksen at Tottenham.
Chiles absence from the World Cup, while devastating for Sanchez personally, could also prove decisive. He has not had a summer off in almost five years due to the Copa America, Confederations Cup and World Cup, while former boss Arsene Wenger often rushed him back to action, both out of necessity due to Arsenals struggles without him and an inability to tame his star mans insatiable desire to play every single minute of every single game.
It is that same love of football and appetite to train that accounts for his supposed isolation, with Sanchez actually staying behind to do extra training while many of his other teammates have already eaten and gone home – not that there is anything weird about eating lunch on your own anyway. It is precisely that reason, that burning desire to improve, which will prevent Sanchez from flopping like Di Maria did. Sanchez will simply not allow himself to fail, and nor will Mourinho.
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