The fans love flair at Old Trafford. The heritage of Manchester United demands clever, entertaining football. Alexis Sanchez, who has completed his transfer from Arsenal to United, will fit into those traditions. But they crave success even more than spectacle in this part of the northwest, and the true test for Sanchez will be whether he can help restore United to preeminence.
On the evidence of his Arsenal career, however, it is questionable whether Sanchez will join the pantheon of Old Trafford’s greats.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger thought the forward was the leader he needed to drag Arsenal into a new age of competitiveness. Sanchez sparkled and scored some key goals, but two FA Cups in the 29-year-old’s three-and-a-half seasons at the club are not the reward Wenger expected.
It isn’t all Sanchez’s fault, of course. There are many other reasons Arsenal are on the slide. Last season, they slipped out of the top four in the Premier League for the first time in more than two decades. Yet superstars drag their teammates in the right direction, and the Gunners had two: Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, who together were not enough to get Arsenal back on track.
What kind of impact can we expect Sanchez to have at United? My take is simple: United have not bought a man who will galvanise the side.
It’s true that it has become impossible to dispute Sanchez’s brilliance. He was the London club’s player of the year last season, scoring 30 goals while being named player of the month five times. He scored vital goals in the FA Cup semifinal and final as Arsenal finished fifth in the Premier League.
But while he’s invariably watchable, Sanchez’s performances at the Emirates became increasingly self-contained cameos that left his colleagues frustrated. It was almost like he was playing in a different match than most of the side. Onlookers often mistake Sanchez’s all-action, relentless running style for commitment to the cause, but too often he worked for himself rather than the collective.
His effectiveness was simply blunted by selfishness. Sanchez shoots from long distance through crowds of defenders when better positioned players are in space. He dribbles down blind alleys and squanders possession more than a player of his ability should. His highlight reel is spectacular, but his overall impact less so.
In the dressing room, there was real belief that Sanchez, who has won two Copa America titles with Chile, would transform Arsenal’s fortunes. Yet those hopes were dashed as most of the squad are reportedly relieved that Sanchez has moved north. Even within the Chile camp, he is known for being self-sufficient and somewhat distanced from his teammates. At the Emirates, he came to be regarded as selfish.
Football teams thrive on a we’re-all-in-this-together ethos. Sanchez (and Ozil) raised eyebrows when they failed to turn up to engagements for corporate and sponsorship partners in September. The club shrugged off their absence, saying they were ill, though both played four days later. The absenteeism caused irritation among their teammates, who privately cite numerous other incidents in which there was perceived favouritism and a lack of engagement from the club’s stars.
Some suspect that Sanchez mentally checked out of Arsenal last summer, while others believe he never really checked in.
United will hope that Jose Mourinho can harness the forward’s abilities. Mourinho’s teams are more structured than the Barcelona and Arsenal sides that have featured Sanchez, and the more rigorous framework could suit the Chile star. In the right setup, Sanchez is the best pressing attacker in the Premier League, which is one of the reasons Pep Guardiola was keen to sign him at Manchester City. Defenders cannot settle on the ball when the striker is in the vicinity. Mourinho might be more likely to apply situational pressing as opposed to City’s relentless chasing down of ball carriers, but he still appreciates forwards who act as the first line of defence.
Yet that appreciation has to be balanced against the United manager’s historic distrust of flair players. The man who made Arjen Robben train alone at Chelsea, making the winger run in a sandpit, and had a frosty relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo while at Real Madrid, is unlikely to indulge Sanchez as much as Wenger did at Arsenal.
At Old Trafford there are other players to share the strain of expectation. The downside of this is that Sanchez — and his new teammates — will have to adapt their styles to suit each other, though it remains to be seen whether the forward is prepared to subvert his own game to suit the team. There was little sign of him doing that in North London.
This is a crucial time in Sanchez’s career. He has the class to be one of the league’s dominant players rather than merely one of the most watchable, but for him to be loved at Old Trafford, he will have to take on more responsibility than he did at Arsenal.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.