Alexis Sanchez is less than a month and only six games into his Manchester United career, but enthusiasm surrounding his arrival from Arsenal diminished almost as quickly as the commercially driven tweets that announced it. Sanchez has become a talking point for negative reasons but, as with the decision for him to be pictured playing a piano when he signed, it’s not entirely his fault.
The Chilean forward is world-class; he doesn’t need to prove that to anyone. He’s not Lionel Messi, with whom he played for three years at Barcelona, but Sanchez is the real deal. Just as Juan Sebastian Veron was when he arrived at Old Trafford in 2001 and, more recently, Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria.
What would you do as United manager if you were asked whether you want a player with the class of Falcao, Di Maria or Sanchez? You would say yes, especially if — in the case of Sanchez — you could also stop a main rival like Manchester City from getting a player they want.
But the work doesn’t stop once he puts pen to paper. Then you have to work out how you’re going to fit the new man into your team, which might approach things differently to his old one, at short notice. You also have to hope that he settles in his new home and that his families settle.
Sanchez walked out of Sevilla’s Sanchez Pizjuan home late on Wednesday night with a hood over his head and flanked by security. He would have been at home with the South American-style atmosphere of the stadium, in which he played several times with Barca and yet, like many of his United teammates, he didn’t look comfortable playing against the sixth-best team in Spain.
Locals relished one of the three biggest clubs in the world arriving in Seville but, within 15 minutes of kickoff in the Champions League round-of-16 tie, they realised the home team looked far superior. But that’s United these days: A lot of noise around a team that’s decent enough, but far from the vintage edition which people expect and certainly no Real Madrid or Barcelona.
Drawing 0-0 in Seville was not a bad result. It’s what Jose Mourinho set out to achieve and got, thanks to David De Gea in goal. United may have beaten Celta Vigo on their previous trip to Spain, but the club’s record in the country has been poor, and that continued with the performance on Tuesday.
Despite their many stars, United’s sum is less than their parts. Many fans remain convinced that greatness is only two or three new players away, but that has been the case since the team were last great enough to win the Premier League, almost five years ago.
Sanchez is one such player and he arrived on huge wages. United are often used as leverage by players to get better contracts elsewhere but, in Sanchez’s case, he did join and said he’d always wanted to play for United … just as he said in the past that he had always wanted to play for Arsenal and always wanted to play for Barcelona.
It is an obvious line and one that fans buy because they want to. My brother bumped into Sanchez a few days after he joined; they were the only customers in a restaurant with their families.
“Are you a United fan?” Sanchez asked, before adding: “I was only ever going to join United.”
Sanchez is a fantastically versatile player, but his manager wants to play him on the left, where Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard have also operated. Sanchez looked much better than his teammates on debut at Yeovil, but cut a dejected figure in defeats at Tottenham and Newcastle.
The No. 7 has one goal and two assists in six games and is going to be judged on Champions League matches and encounters against top-six rivals, such as Chelsea on Sunday. As former United captain Roy Keane said after his latest disappointing performance: “Sanchez has got to do better”.
Mourinho doesn’t appreciate criticism from former club legends, especially those who haven’t managed successfully, though they’re only echoing what fans are saying. United’s boss also didn’t like being asked, as he was on Wednesday, if he should allow Sanchez more freedom rather than being stuck on the left of a midfield three with defensive duties.
“In England some guys say the wingers shouldn’t defend,” replied Mourinho. “The next time I see David Beckham I am going to ask him: ‘When you played right wing for Manchester United, when the left-back attacked do you stay looking in the stands or track back?’
“All of the players look like they have to be free when they don’t have the ball. When the team has the ball you attack; when you don’t you defend. The winning teams, the top teams in the world, everybody works and has tactical discipline.”
Sanchez did defend and was subject to the unwanted attention of Steven N’Zonzi’s studs, while Clement Lenglet’s elbow was another unwelcome interaction. The United man was dispossessed five times, but that happens to attack-minded players — including Paul Pogba — who take chances.
Mourinho is cautious because he feels he has to be, which means United score — and concede — few goals. When his plans work, it leads to a 0-0 draw at Anfield or in Andalusia and means results are achieved without playing the spellbinding football that is sometimes mythically associated with the club. Plus, it necessarily means that the talents of some of the best players in the world are compromised.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.