Player Zone: History repeats itself as United ignore the warning signs

Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku may still be yet to truly justify their lavish transfer fees, but no Manchester United signing epitomises the ludicrousness of the club’s scatter-gun transfer policy throughout the Ed Woodward era quite like Alexis Sanchez.

Less than a year on from being made the most handsomely-paid player in the Premier League last January, the Chilean forward finds himself an increasingly peripheral figure in Mourinho’s plans, reportedly pining for a mid-season exit strategy and most ironically, stuck behind two players in the pecking order – Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford – who the manager inherited from his predecessor.

At first glance, Sanchez’s fall from grace is as baffling as it is bizarre. After all, heading into the 2017 January transfer window the South American was revered as one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League, a reputation he earned over three-and-a-half potent seasons at Arsenal, and Manchester United were rivalled for his services by Manchester City, a club that has recruited so precisely, meticulously and effectively throughout Pep Guardiola’s time in charge.

Pep Guardiola watches Alexis Sanchez

But in many ways, that was one of the chief obstacles preventing Sanchez from reaching his usual standards at United. City had a specific plan for Sanchez; initially, he would fill the void created by injuries to Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus, while in the long-term he’d become another option for Guardiola to utilise across the final third.

United, in contrast, had no such obvious role for Sanchez to immediately undertake. Their left flank was already overloaded, Romelu Lukaku had established himself as perhaps the only player Mourinho trusted to start every game, and Jesse Lingard had begun to make the right midfield slot his own.

Tellingly, by the end of his first half-season at Old Trafford, Sanchez had already played as a left winger, right winger, centre-forward and a No.10 for United in the Premier League alone. None of the positions managed to get the best out of him.

And United have form here under Woodward, namely being attracted to the large, shiny object placed in front of them without really considering the consequences from a tactical or squad building perspective. Almost four years on from making him a £37.5million club-record signing in January 2014, seemingly only on the basis that he was available midway through the incredibly disappointing single season under David Moyes, there’s still no obvious role for Juan Mata in United’s starting XI.

Juan Mata, Angel Di Maria and David De Gea debating on the pitch

Likewise, after making Angel Di Maria the club’s new record acquisition in an incredibly last-minute swoop during the subsequent summer, Louis van Gaal deployed the Argentine in six different roles but for no more than nine games in any of them. Citing a failure to settle, Di Maria left for PSG after just a year at Old Trafford.

Clearly the Sanchez saga is a case of history once again repeating itself; an attacking signing being brought to the club on reputation rather than any specific necessity. But even if the attacker’s established status in the Premier League was enough to justify United capitalising on his availability in this instance, signs warning that the same Sanchez wouldn’t turn up at Old Trafford were already there.

For starters, Sanchez had already turned 29 and anybody familiar with the forward’s explosive, energetic and often relentless style would know his physicality is accompanied by an inevitable time limit. Sanchez unable to tear around the pitch in quite the same way, breaking tackles and making his own before bursting forward to stage one-man counter-attacks, would only be a shadow of the player whose talents had begun to edge upon world-class.

More pertinently, there was already evidence of him slowing down, especially in the wide left role. In fact, from Sanchez’s final 34 Premier League appearances as a left winger for Arsenal, starting at the beginning of the 2015/16 season, he’d only actually scored 12 goals. A solid return for a wide forward, but not a world-class return either.

Alexis Sanchez looks dejected

Instead, Sanchez had begun to thrive for the Gunners as their central striker, a position that in contrast saw him bag 16 goals and seven assists in just 20 appearances during 2016/17. That’s the strike-rate United were attracted to, but Sanchez was never going to replace Mourinho’s £75million signing Lukaku at the tip of the attack and the expectation that he’d make a similar kind of contribution from out wide was a painfully misguided one.

Even then, regardless of position, Sanchez’ performances during his final half-term at Arsenal weren’t up to his usual standards either, seven goals scored in 19 Premier League outings while switching between the wing and centre-forward. To some extent, it was masked by the most dreadful season of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, but it was also masked by Sanchez as well.

The petulant arm swings, the moody demeanour, the many moments of explosive frustration were perceived as genuine disillusionment with his surroundings, but in fact they covered up the shortcomings that had begun to develop in Sanchez’s own game. He wasn’t the unrelenting force of the campaign previous, some of that incisive sharpness had gone, and Sanchez was doing his best to make sure less gifted team-mates bore the brunt of the blame for it.

Ed Woodward shares a joke with Jose Mourinho

In fairness, that didn’t appear to deter City’s interest too much initially, although it may well have been one of the factors behind their decision not to meet Sanchez’s elevated contract demands. At the previous rate he was worth a gamble, but a division-highest salary may have presented just too much risk for an ageing player.

United though, remained adamant. The idea of acquiring a talent City had clearly desired for themselves seemed to only spur them on, rather than obliging them to investigate the full extremities of why the deal didn’t work out.

In any case, Sanchez’s plight at Old Trafford is by no means as baffling or bizarre as it may initially seem; it’s symptomatic of the club’s aimless approach in the transfer market, the only overarching theme being that if they spend enough money and bring in big enough names, a title-winning squad will eventually emerge.

As Mata, Di Maria and Sanchez have consistently proved, you need a lot more nous than that to thrive at the top of modern football.