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The Alexis Sanchez conundrum at Manchester United

Tuesday 25th September 2018

Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were both expected to kick on after their swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United last January. Problem: Nine months later, that remains the expectation. Mkhitaryan's struggling to find minutes under Unai Emery. Sanchez is just plain struggling. 

Alexis' rough start was acceptable. Jose Mourinho acknowledged he needed a full training camp to acclimate. But even after a full preseason with the squad, the Chilean is not firing. Supporters' patience is draining after a poor performance against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon.

Sanchez appeared to be coming around once he sorted his visa issue and joined the squad in the US. He chipped in with a few pre-season goals, created multiple chances against Leicester before picking up a knock in the Premier League opener. He returned to visit Burnley and Watford. Sanchez wasn't bad in either. Along with Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba, he formed the perfect supporting cast to Romelu Lukaku. He looked bedded in.

Alexis didn't recoil from the dirty work, turning in professional performances. Sharp was the word. The assists kept rising; the goal tally did not. When a player's contributing to the overall play, helping the team win, there should be no complaints. Football's about more than scoring. Some of Alexis' crosses into Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini were spectacular while others just didn't connect.

He tried little flicks or one-twos which didn't come off. He'd lay a pass to Lukaku, expecting a return ball, only for the Belgian to play it in-behind. Those things happen. Both need time to develop their understanding. Unfortunately, his signals cross with everyone. Pogba. Fred. Lingard. Marcus Rashford. Fellaini. Juan Mata. Luke Shaw. They expect him to do one thing; Alexis always seems to do another. 

Mourinho brought him in because Sanchez was his sort of player. There are two possibilities. Either he isn't and Mourinho was wrong about him, or he is and the rest of the squad isn't. Neither is good.

The important thing to understand is it's not all black and white. There are times when he's in synch with everyone. You see the happy places such a connection can go; then it goes off the rails. Inconsistency's the word. While logging good performances as a team player, he lacks the direct involvement, looking misplaced at times. Especially against Wolves.

Alexis tries too hard. The same problem existed with Pogba. Since the World Cup, the Frenchman keeps it simple. Every once in a while [again, the Wolves match] he tries to do too much with the ball before looking for a teammate. Joao Moutinho's goal resulted directly from Pogba losing possession in the centre-circle. He's 25, though. Lessons need to be driven home. At 29, Sanchez should've outgrown that phase.

In a team playing with three midfielders, the feisty Chilean expects to be the chief creator. United's attack is designed to flow through Pogba and Fred, or Mata when he's on the pitch. Mourinho put a quick end to Wayne Rooney's midfield ambitions. He must do the same with Alexis.

It's alright for Sanchez and Lingard to cut inside on occasion. It opens space for Shaw and Antonio Valencia. When it's constant, Sanchez pushes the midfielders beyond their effective range. Mourinho's already moved Pogba to his less preferred right side to accommodate the tendency, Lukaku's drifting out to the right, as well. How many times did the big Belgian attempt to tip-toe past defenders on the edge of the box versus Wolves? Lukaku does not belong on Strictly Come Dancing. His place is in a mosh pit at Glastonbury or in front of goal.

Because Sanchez has one goal in mind, he's predictable, easy to defend. That's why the goals aren't coming. Lukaku's size and strength make him unstoppable even though you know what's coming. Alexis must use guile. All he did against Wolves was cut inside, looking for a dink over the top or through to Lukaku. He must read the situation, find new options.

Mourinho bears some blame. He must challenge Sanchez to adjust his game. Narrow attacks cause United's struggle to break down opponents. Jose can inform Sanchez that if he does not stay wide in his next start, it'll be his last for some time. Anthony Martial would consider it karma.

The alternative, if Alexis likes to stay central, is to play him as a second striker and switch formations. A 3-5-2 suits.  I think United might thrive. The problem's making the switch mid-season because Sanchez won't play as instructed effectively cedes authority to the player. That's not Mourinho's way. 

Contrary to popular belief, Alexis Sanchez is not finished. He can become Manchester United's match-winner. The question is whether he can harness his ego to work within the current team structure? Who knows? The reward for doing so might be to play the starring role he covets.

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Vedansh Nathani

Manchester United fan from India. Follows almost all sports - football and pro-wrestling in particular. Wayne Rooney, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are some of his favourites.


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