What has happened to Alexis Sánchez at Manchester United?
This surely isn’t the Sánchez that United’s executives had so relentlessly tried to sign. Facing stiff completion from Manchester City, they dished out a mammoth contract to lure him - £400,000-per-week - a salary higher than any other player in the Premier League.
At the time, even if one considered Sánchez’s form at Arsenal, the wages he demanded to shun City seemed high. Now, it almost feels like United have been mugged.
Was a ‘class, class’ player at Arsenal
In spite of all the public mood swings & attention-seeking undertakings which left him with little goodwill among his Arsenal teammates, Sánchez’s quality as a player during his time there was never in doubt.
The stats speak for themselves. In the 166 matches he played for the Gunners, he scored 80 goals and assisted a further 45. In other words, he was directly involved in a goal in 3 out of 4 matches he played. In his last full season at Arsenal, he ended up scoring 30 goals across competitions – a career best for him.
While these statistics by themselves were enough to make top clubs eagerly covet him, there was still more to rave about regarding his game. He could play in multiple positions and his work rate was phenomenal.
Pep Guardiola who coached Sánchez at Barcelona had this to say about him in December 2016: “He can play [up front] and in several positions - left, right. He is a fighter in spirit, he is a character... a winner... a class, class player." This is probably why Guardiola wanted to bring him to City, though now in hindsight he would be grateful for losing this battle to United.
When compared to his stats at Arsenal, the 30-year-old’s record at United looks horrendous. In 41 matches played he has scored just 5 goals and contributed 9 assists, which means his involvement in goals is one third of what it was at Arsenal.
Given the drop in form, his playing time also has been curtailed. He averaged 82 minutes per match with the Gunners, but at United that has dropped to 65 minutes. This shows that he is now not deemed effective enough to impact matches and is substituted much more frequently.
What went wrong?
The prevailing debate about what's gone wrong for Sánchez at United can be divided into two parts – pre and post Jose Mourinho’s departure from Manchester United.
Before Mourinho's sacking, most people were happy to place the blame for Sánchez’s struggles squarely on the Portuguese’s shoulders. The overriding feeling was that he couldn’t have become a bad player overnight and Mourinho’s defensive tactics were to blame. After all, other attacking talents like Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were also struggling.
It is true that Mourinho’s system afforded Sánchez much less freedom than he was used to at Arsenal and the former’s insistence on defensive work put an additional burden on the Chilean.
While this argument isn’t without merit, it however lost ground once the change of managerial guard happened at Old Trafford. The current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær, has depicted an unwavering commitment to an attacking style of play and this has liberated all of the attacking minded players at United, apart from one.
Pogba, Martial, Rashford have all turned their performances & careers around during Solskjær's reign, but the former Arsenal midfielder continues to struggle. This makes the Sánchez question all the more baffling – if Mourinho wasn’t the reason then what is?
There is no single answer to this question. Firstly, being injured so often hasn’t helped. He has suffered a series of injuries this season. Hamstring injury, issues with his thigh and the recent knee injury have all kept him out of the squad for weeks on end. There can be no return to form without a consistent run of games.
Other than that, he played virtually non-stop for a stretch of 8 years. His obligations between 2010 and 2018 included international tournaments like the Copa America, Confederations Cup and World Cup, denying him a chance to get any break between seasons. Given his style of play, this surely would have taken a massive toll on his body and it's no wonder that his work rate on the pitch, a key strength of his, has dropped over the last 12-18 months.
Then there are reports of upheavals in his personal life which have been a distraction and maybe caused a change of attitude. In September last year, he broke up with his actress-girlfriend Mayte Rodriguez, announcing the split on Instagram.
Post that, his teammates have reported that he seems unhappy and has started staying aloof. Sánchez himself has offered little insight into reasons for his struggles at United, though he recently did voice his frustrations about the lack of playing time he is getting.
End of the road at United?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hasn’t held back on his disappointment with Sánchez’s form. He recently stated that he could do nothing to help the Chilean and the onus of finding form lay with the player himself.
Speaking at a press conference last night, Solskjaer reiterated his stand and further added that he wasn’t “100 per cent sure” if Sánchez would ever regain his lost form.
Unfortunately, with every passing game, irrespective of whether he plays or not, it seems that Alexis Sánchez’s time at Manchester United is coming to an end. Though some would argue that it never started.