‘Alexis Sanchez showed game intelligence and harried Europe’s toughest defence in Turin…his display could be the turning point in kickstarting his career at Old Trafford’ was the headline on one piece about Alexis Sanchez that ended ‘Mourinho will surely be faithful to Sanchez this weekend’. How naive of an experienced journalist to assume that an outstanding performance against Juventus in possibly United’s finest hour since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement would then lead to a place in United’s team to face City four days later. How naive indeed.
Sanchez was said to be incensed to find himself back on the bench. Put aside one-eyed club loyalties and green-eyed anger about him being the Premier League’s best-paid player and you should be able to summon some degree of sympathy. Having joined Manchester United over City, not purely for money but also because he believed that he would be first choice, Sanchez has found himself playing less top-flight football than even Fred. His wages make him an incredibly easy scapegoat but his form – though by no means extraordinary – absolutely has not.
Two compelling statistics tell a story of Sanchez’s season. The first is that he creates more chances than any other Manchester United player. And when we say ‘more chances’, what we should say is ‘a f***-load more chances’. He creates 2.8 chances per 90 minutes in the Premier League without being on set-piece duty; for comparison, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba’s figure is 1.7. Sanchez has created five Big Chances this season; that he only has two assists cannot sensibly be considered his fault. He throws his hands up in exasperation – and in turn exasperates everybody watching – because it transpires that leaving Arsenal did not automatically mean he was playing with better players. You can see why he might end up alone and unloved in the dressing room (as he allegedly did at Arsenal) but that should not preclude his inclusion in a struggling side. His performance in Turin demanded another start.
How good was Alexis Sanchez last night? He gives us the direct approach, adds extra dimension in attack, great awareness of his teammates, remarkable movement & unbelievable control on the ball.
— Josh. (@ManUnitedMedia) November 8, 2018
Which brings us to the second compelling statistic – that Manchester United’s six defeats this season have all come when Sanchez has not been in the starting XI. The Chilean has a P7 W5 D2 L0 record in matches he has begun this season, which is astonishing in such a poor season for his club. That fact alone should surely have kept him in the team for the visit to the Etihad, even if you blindly ignore his performance in Italy. Injury? Jose Mourinho did mention “his little problem in Turin” but then said in the next breath that he was “fully available”; his non-selection was not about a niggle but solely about the manager opting for a pacey front three in a game he expected City to dominate. Considering Sanchez had more than played his part against an equally dominant Juventus, that must have stung.
Sanchez is clearly not an easy man to like – it has been reported that he ‘cuts a deeply unhappy figure’ at United, where his style is predictably at odds with his manager’s. Mourinho is said to consider it a ‘mystery‘ that Sanchez has not been a success. Which is itself a mystery to every single one of us who thought this was a disaster waiting to happen. Sanchez is apparently a shouter and a sulker, and there is room for only one of those at Old Trafford. The two have clashed.
Arsene Wenger has watched from afar and diagnosed a lack of confidence – he knows that the Chilean is not a player motivated by competition but propelled by momentum. He may have been over-indulged at Arsenal, but the contrast between Wenger and Mourinho is clearly too great. It is a yawning chasm. He has swapped inclusion regardless of performance for exclusion regardless of performance. How much of Sanchez’s current demeanour is born from the regretful knowledge that the sensible half-way house would have been Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City? There he would have been coached and nurtured – without being mollycoddled – and he may have progressed rather than regressed. He would certainly have been judged fairly in comparison to City’s other attackers. It has to hurt that Riyad Mahrez is playing more football for a brilliant City than Sanchez for a flawed United.
In less than two weeks, Sanchez has seen his United career seemingly kickstarted and then stalled again. Pity is in short supply for a man who earns a reported £500,000 a week, and plenty will enjoy watching him suffer, forgetting that money does not revoke human being status, but Manchester United’s most creative footballer deserves more faith than most. You don’t have to like his face to conclude that it’s far from simply his fault that he is not thriving at United. After all, he is creating chances and winning football matches. That surely has to be worth something.