There is a medical myth that every animal has a certain number of heartbeats, after which the heart immediately stops beating and the animal passes away. It is supposedly why animals with high pulse rates, like mice, have shorter lifespans than those with slower pulse rates. It also attempts to explain why tortoises and whales live longer. It is, needless to say, nonsense.
That’s sort of how Alexis Sanchez plays football. If a player only had a certain number of actions in him before the body gave up and they retired, Sanchez’s career would have been restricted to two or three years in length. His football pulse rate is astonishingly high.
Watching Sanchez can be an incredibly enjoyable experience but also tiring one, the equivalent of being tasked with watching two toddlers at a soft play centre. He drops deep to pick up the ball, tracks back an opponent to tackle him, surges forward with the ball and then somehow pops up 40 yards further up the pitch to take a shot before sprinting to take the corner. He is a one-man attack, a wrecking ball forward.
There are two extremes of South American football stereotype players. The first is the South American superstar. They play for fun, as they always have done and always will and with a smile on their face, defined by their skill as much as their achievements. The other is the South American streetfighter, who plays every game as if it might be their last. Grimace replaces smile, expression and endeavour constantly threatening to bubble over. At his best, Sanchez would consider himself a perfect blend of the two. At his best, few would disagree.
Sticking with stereotypes, the feverish style is often defined by background and upbringing. Sanchez has previously spoken about how his jerky running style was shaped by playing barefoot and jumping over rocks in his home city of Tocopilla, while the determination to help his family – single mother with four children – drove him on.
“I used to say ‘don’t worry, I’ll be a footballer and everything will work out – we’ll have money’, and she would laugh,” he told El Pais in 2013 when at Barcelona. “I would promise gifts, cars and houses to my friends, too.”
Pasquale Marino, Sanchez’s coach during his early days at Udinese, sums up his personality. “Alexis could easily play three matches per day,” he told IB Times in November. “As soon as the training match started, Alexis would abandon his recovery and run up to me, almost imploring: ‘Mister, let me play, just for a few minutes. Please, please, please. I promise I won’t get injured.'”
In October, Pep Guardiola unadvisedly called Tottenham the ‘Harry Kane team’, later insisting that his comments had been misinterpreted. Yet Sanchez became more dominant still at Arsenal. In 2016/17, Sanchez had 23.3% of Arsenal’s shots on target in the Premier League, compared to 22.6% for Kane at Spurs. Sanchez also ranked first for dribbles (161) and fifth for tackles (81) at his club and second for chances created. By way of comparison, Kane managed 77 and 31 respectively.
The paradox of Sanchez’s time at Arsenal is that he initially enjoyed – even demanded – having the responsibility to do everything, but then eventually got frustrated because he was doing everything. Reliance on an individual is fine to a point, but it contains inherent risks. Having decided that he wanted to leave in the summer, Sanchez no longer remained professional about the flaws in those around him. Out came the flounced arms and demonstrable frustration. Moving back to the left from his false nine position didn’t help.
Sanchez’s dominance over Arsenal’s attack was one of the reasons for Guardiola’s reticence in January. In the summer he liked the idea of the Chilean’s all-action dragging City on, but they have since found another way. The improvement in Leroy Sane as a wide forward and Raheem Sterling as a multi-purpose attacker reduced the demand. When Guardiola then felt that Sanchez was prepared to entertain other offers and thus was not wholly committed to the apparent dream of playing under him again, they pulled out.
Manchester United could not say no. They would have surely been interested in signing Sanchez anyway, but the increased flatness and predictability of their attacking play made it a no-brainer. If the retort to that accusation is that United are the third top scorers in the Premier League, anybody at Burnley on Saturday would scoff. United scored 43% of their league goals this season in their first eight matches. None of those opponents are in the top six, and the Champions League reconvenes soon.
The arguments over money are also moot, even if the initial surprise at the figures was understandable. Getting Mkhitaryan’s substantial wages off the books in the same move is helpful, but this is the club with the highest revenue in world football. If they’re not concerned about the financial implications of a move, we should not give it a thought.
Sanchez will certainly give Jose Mourinho’s attack a welcome energy. The scientific definition of a catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction, but is not consumed by the reaction. That describes Sanchez’s intended role at Old Trafford perfectly. Manchester United’s strategy of sitting back and then hitting opponents on the counter-attack fits Sanchez’s own forte.
He is also versatile. Sanchez largely played on the right at Barcelona, right or centrally at Udinese and on the left or as a false nine at Arsenal. In Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, Mourinho already has four players comfortable playing multiple roles in an attack. Sanchez is a fifth. Inter-game fluidity, demonstrated by both Manchester City and Liverpool, has become a must-have at the top of the Premier League.
Yet this is not quite the perfect fit. For while Mourinho will welcome Sanchez as catalyst, he does not need the one-man attack that so wowed at Arsenal. Not when he already has a traditional centre forward and a world-class central midfielder who also enjoys his time on the ball. Sanchez needs to play a role, not read out the whole script. That role would seem most likely to be on the left or right of a 4-1-4-1, with either Martial or Mata missing out.
Mourinho must attempt to refine or distil Sanchez, to persuade him that he need not always play at 100 miles per hour. That’s not least for his own sake. Having played 666 senior career matches having just turned 29, and with such intensity, there is a risk of burn-out. Arsene Wenger regularly admitting that Sanchez was playing through the ‘red zone’.
It would be foolish to sell Sanchez’s arrival as anything other than a victory for Manchester United; a deeper squad is a better squad. The Chilean adds an ingredient that very few others possess, and none of those currently play at Old Trafford. But refinement without dilution is a difficult balance to get right. How do you persuade the one-man band to take the bells off his shoes and the kazoo from his pocket?