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Alexis Sanchez: How can Manchester United get the best out of the misfiring Chilean?

Alexis has only scored once for the Red Devils since his well-publicised move in the winter transfer window

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Feature 09 Mar 2018, 20:58 IST
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Alexis Sanchez Manchester United
Alexis Sanchez has struggled for form since his move to Manchester United

One hand on his hip, the other wiping his face that bears the expression of a man muttering to himself, seemingly asking the gods, "What more do I have to do?"

In truth, Alexis Sanchez may be trying too hard. But that has always been the case, ever since his arrival on England's shores.

At Arsenal, he was their workhorse. Even if he ultimately split opinions on whether his style of play was beneficial or detrimental to the Gunners' own brand of football (this season notwithstanding), they did agree on one thing - his commitment to the cause.

That is not to say that he isn't doing the same at Old Trafford; far from it. It is just that the circumstances and systems demand something different from the Chilean now - not more of the same.

While Arsene Wenger allowed his players to play with a certain freedom on the pitch, forcing them to think on their feet to find the right solutions, Jose Mourinho is much more demanding of his players to provide rigidity to their roles.

However, he too has been forced to loosen his grip on the 29-year-old's reins.

What's different from his days at Arsenal?

For starters, Alexis has no defined position at United. That isn't to give credit to his versatility (at least not yet), but because Mourinho is still trying to figure out his best position - in a squad that gives the Portuguese a plethora of attacking options.

Jose Mourinho Alexis Sanchez
Jose Mourinho is yet to find the right role for Alexis Sanchez

At Arsenal, Alexis played one of two roles - either as a wide-forward or as a centre-forward. The Chilean could thrive in either role and contribute to goals and assists regardless. The best season of his career came when he scored 30 goals playing the majority of the games up top.

However, having splashed £75m on Romelu Lukaku, there is no chance Mourinho will bench his summer signing unless he is to be rested. That leaves Alexis only one other spot to operate from - the wide forward.

But even if he does start out on the left, he often drifts in to receive the ball or cuts in with the ball at his feet. This has suddenly made him predictable.

How is that different from what he did at Arsenal, though? He is yet to really mesh with his new teammates. Alexis is not a player who will beat an opponent with fancy dribbles to then go one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He relies on his teammates to get himself into that position.

That is where he has become predictable. Where he could once rely on, say, a Mesut Ozil or an Aaron Ramsey for a clever give-and-go, the same cannot be said at United - yet.

He is yet to form that telepathic connection with most of the United squad to become that unpredictable player that scored 80 goals in 3.5 seasons. Instead, his passes have been wayward.

Alexis Sanchez Manchester United crowded out
Opponents know they can dispossess Alexis by crowding him out

So when that doesn't work for him, Alexis tries to do everything on his own. He looks to beat two or three players on the dribble, eventually conceding possession - much to the frustration of the fans.

If he does get through, it is because defenders show him onto his left foot because they know it is not as strong as his right, before stripping the ball off him or dealing with the cross with ease.

This stat is from the game against Huddersfield.

Alexis the provider?

Another noticeable change in his role has been that of a "playmaker". Mourinho even explicitly said that they tried to play him through the middle as a no.10 in one game but he stunk the place up and hasn't been deployed there since.

Instead, he has been given a free role, in-and-around the final third, to make a difference. Alexis has been involved with the buildup on either side of Lukaku on a number of occasions, as he switches wings to give the defence something to think about.

But here too, he has been at fault; or rather the system does not allow him to succeed. In the 4-3-3, even with three midfielders to bring the ball up, Alexis still drops very deep to collect the ball.

Alexis Sanchez Paul Pogba
Can Mourinho get Pogba to combine with Alexis just li Ozil did?

As a result, instead of taking on one line of defence to get more involved, Alexis now has to contend with two lines of players. The further away he is from goal, the less lethal he becomes. It is why he has been dispossessed more in a United shirt (4.4 times per game - the worst in Europe) than in an Arsenal shirt (2.5) this season.

“If he wasn’t Alexis Sanchez, what he’s done in the past, would he leave him out? He lost the ball 34, 35 times – it’s astonishing for a player of that quality." - Jamie Carragher

While he might pad his dribbling stats by beating a midfielder or two, opponents know they can deal with him when he is crowded out. Alexis looks up only when he has time and space on the ball, else his first priority is not to lose the ball - rather than finding a passing option.

Even when Alexis does attempt to cross the ball into the box, it is again predictable and often, not the best option. His crosses have not always been timed correctly and they are not always in an area for the centre-forward to attack.

Alexis Sanchez Romelu Lukaku
Romelu Lukaku has not yet meshed seamlessly with Alexis Sanchez

Time and again he expects Lukaku to do the impossible with a cross - especially when his back is to goal. The Belgian striker has already had his share of criticism from all quarters and the last thing he needs is poor service from his strike partner.

How can United get the best out of him?

Shoehorning Alexis into the side has come at a cost. Not only is Anthony Martial not playing in his desired position (which has reportedly seen contract extension talks stall) but Marcus Rashford will also soon struggle for form if he is not given enough game time.

In truth, United did not really need Alexis. They now have three bonafide starters fighting for one spot. If the entire deal really hinged on getting one over Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, then it is poor planning.

But all is not lost yet, for Alexis and the Red Devils. If he cannot thrive in the current system, Mourinho needs to build the attack around him and Paul Pogba. The French midfielder has also been criticised for poor performances but could playing directly behind Alexis also reduce the burden on his shoulders?

Make no mistake, Pogba can play the killer pass Ozil so often did for Alexis. But to do so in an effective manner will require Alexis to lead the line - not support it from out wide.

Playing him as a centre-forward could truly get the best out of both players. Alexis' movement in that role is superior to Lukaku's and another player who could really benefit (from the Chielan's intelligence in that role) is Jesse Lingard.

Alexis Sanchez Jesse Lingard
Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard could combine well if given the right roles

The two players rely on quick transitions and, with Pogba in play, they could do some serious damage. Add Martial to the mix and they can be lethal. Playing Alexis as a centre-forward would also give United that first line of defence, something Mourinho craves deeply, thanks to his hard work off the ball.

Every manager has managed to instill a certain philosophy and style of play but nobody is quite sure what Mourinho has brought to the table yet. United are still second in the league (for now) but it feels more like watching a disjointed group of very talented individuals carrying the club rather than a team of in-synch footballers.

Deep into his second season at the club, Mourinho may not have time to turn it around in the Premier League with derby rivals Manchester City running riot. But an FA Cup, and going far in the Champions League, is not out of the equation yet.

But will he be willing to rotate Alexis and Lukaku for the betterment of the side or will he continue experimenting with the same personnel until he can get Alexis firing again?

It could come at a cost - that of personal pride.

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