© Matthew Peters

Manchester United

Adios Alexis Sanchez: Manchester United's spectacular flop finally departs

Alexis Sanchez was a multimillion pound misfit at Manchester United, a missing jigsaw piece that never fitted, and he won't be missed, says Andy Mitten

Manchester United’s pre-season tour, United States, 2018. The mood created by José Mourinho is not positive, but the club’s staff are working hard to try to be optimistic and help the media who’ve travelled to cover it. “What about an interview with Alexis Sánchez?” I ask. I can speak Spanish, it would be for the United We Stand fanzine bought by hardcore fans, a chance for the Chilean to put across his side of the story of his troubled time at Old Trafford so far. The club want him to do this. Other United players are up for doing interviews.

Having finished second the previous season, the team should be on the cusp of a brighter future, but Mourinho isn’t helping when he publicly states that if he was a fan, he wouldn’t pay money to watch this team. And he says that after 50,000 United fans have just done exactly that in Michigan as part of a vast 105,000 crowd to watch them play Liverpool.

Rested after a first summer away from football in eight years, hopes are high for Sánchez. He does well in a few games but, unlike his teammates, Sánchez doesn’t want to speak. He does do some of the commercial work demanded of him by United’s many sponsors, but in the team hotel in Miami’s South Beach one fan rates him as the least friendly of all the players. He might have been having a bad day, everyone has them, but Sánchez had too many.

He was the most coveted player in world football in 2011 when Barça were his first choice, United second and Manchester City third. Now he simply wasn’t the player United or their then delighted fans thought they’d signed in 2018.

© John Peters

Sánchez signed in January that year only because United offered him more money than Manchester City. Preventing City signing a key player could, the club hoped, aid United and hinder City. There would be no transfer fee either, though Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who’d cost £30 million, would move to Sánchez’s club, Arsenal, as part of the deal. The Armenian would continue to be as ineffective as he’d been at United.

A day after Sánchez signed, my brother met him by chance in a restaurant near Manchester Airport and he was keen to stress than he’d wanted to join United all along.

In hindsight, it was a disaster that few foresaw. He didn’t play enough, didn’t score enough and didn’t create enough. High points were few and Sánchez often appeared detached, both when part of a group with his teammates and in public with his team. He wasn’t unfriendly, he wasn’t unprofessional and in his mind he was professional. This writer arrived at a press conference at Carrington at 8am last season to see one car in the players’ car park and its Chilean owner working alone in the gym. But he was a piece of a jigsaw that didn’t fit.

When United lost the 2018 FA Cup final, he stood away from the rest of the players as they waited for their losers’ medals. In the dressing room at Carrington, he sat in the corner, complaining that a fridge door opened towards his legs. Club staff changed the door so the cold air went the other way.

United’s coaches feel that they’ve got a bad egg out of the dressing room – not because he’s a bad person, but because they knew he wanted to leave and his wages caused an issue, with other players using his stellar pay packet as their own benchmark. United already had the second-highest wage bill in world football. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was as diplomatic about him as he was patient with him. What other choice did he have?

© Simon Stacpoole/Offside

Sánchez’s wages weren’t as high as often printed, as they were so heavily incentivised – and he did nothing to trigger the incentives. Coaches are glad that Romelu Lukaku has gone too, but such decisions will be vindicated by what happens next rather than viewed in hindsight – which is what everyone is doing with Sánchez. I recall no protests against him signing from United fans, but I do recall fans saying he could have a similar impact to Eric Cantona.

There were no protests either from sponsors when images of him playing “Glory Glory Man United” on a piano went viral. But they didn’t know how ineffective he would be: Sánchez started nine Premier League games in his only full season at United. Nine, a quarter of the possible matches. That’s shambolic.

United have now moved two attacking players on who wanted to leave. Both were on huge salaries. Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera also wanted huge salaries. Chris Smalling has also been allowed to leave, again on loan, to Roma. United are sending a message out and might well be vindicated after years of profligacy, but the squad looks a couple of injuries away from being light.

United now have Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and 17-year-old Mason Greenwood to play up front, not that the team necessarily plays with conventional strikers any more. There are several players who can play behind and in one of the several positions Sánchez was capable of. It would be superb if young players such as Greenwood or Daniel James can become key attackers. That’s the gamble Solskjaer is making with players he wants his capable staff want to coach and develop. If it works he’ll be hailed as a genius, but while there will be bumps, United still need to get results. And not results like Saturday’s awful one at home to Crystal Palace.

© DANIEL DAL ZENNARO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

I was one of the few who maintained a sliver of hope for Sánchez. I watched him so much at Barça and he was an important member of the team – though his job was effectively to get the ball to Messi. He scored, he assisted, he was full of energy.

Sánchez might argue that he was playing in a poor United side, but he had chances to perform and didn’t, even if sometimes he looked like he was trying too hard. He complained about being unhappy when the ball was taken away from him, but he wasn’t worth his place in the starting XI. Managers were fair with him.

Even now with him set to play for Inter alongside Lukaku, I think he’s not finished. He’s only 30; maybe he can put his United fiasco behind him. United will pay around half his wages at Inter during his ten-month loan period. Inter wanted an option to buy him at the end, but United didn’t give one for a player who will still have two years on his contract.

It’s not ideal, but that is the way with the modern loan of a contracted player – and if he was doing well then he would have been worth his wages and not loaned out. Sánchez has been a spectacular flop, one of many in the post-Ferguson era when United’s transfer policy has been more miss than hit.

Huge amounts have been squandered on poor recruitment by a club still to appoint a sporting director. With Sánchez, the only way United can rescue anything is for him to do so well in Italy that his value climbs off the floor and he has a re-sale value again. Maybe that will happen, but it doesn’t alter the fact that he’s been another expensive mistake.

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