Understanding the Alexis Sanchez ‘problem’

In the mid-season swap of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alexis Sanchez, the public perception was that Manchester United had gotten the best of the deal, an established Premier League star who the team’s attack could be built around. Sanchez had scored seven times and laid on three assists in the first half of a 2017-18 season, despite his highly publicized discontent with Arsenal, which served only to increase the fans’ expectations of the Chilean as a player who would provide an immediate impact on the United attacking line.

But after the relatively subdued league performance of two goals (three in all competitions) and three assists (five in all competitions), it is time to review Sanchez’ time at the club from a critical perspective in order to answer a simple question – Can he find his form for the next season? The easiest and most commonly found explanation for Sanchez’ drop in performance is that a mid-season transfer prevents a player from having the required time for adapting to a new club, manager, teammates, and tactics.

While this is a valid argument that is based on United’s own history – Patrice Evra had to overcome struggles and a lack of form following his January transfer from Monaco, before he became an integral part of Premier League and UEFA Champions League winning teams – the entirety of Sanchez’s absence of form cannot be explained through this approach alone. Most mid-season transfers where a player has struggled for the initial few months before emerging as a success are cases where he has arrived from another league (Evra from France and Nemanja Vidic from Russia are but two notable examples).

When it comes to January transfers between Premier League teams, there has been an established precedent of players failing to live up to expectations – Andy Carroll (Newcastle United to Liverpool) and Fernando Torres (Liverpool to Chelsea) are testaments to how despite being familiar with a league and its style of play, some transfers can simply be bad decisions.

But Sanchez does not fall in the same bracket as Carroll or Torres yet, as there have been clear displays of his ability and match-altering prowess during his time at United. The biggest such instance this season has been the derby with Manchester City, when he provided two spectacular assists to bring United back into the game and win the tie. Sanchez is not a bad fit for this team, and neither is he a player who has lost his ability due to injury or age, so the next logical step is to examine the structure of the team and Jose Mourinho’s tactics.

The majority of Sanchez’s goals during 2016-17 for Arsenal came as he played in a number nine/false nine position where he was the lone center forward with a clear license to wander along the length andwidth of the pitch. During his earlier seasons at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger played Sanchez as part of a free-flowing attacking triumvirate, where he would operate on the left flank in role that cannot be defined as a “left-winger”, but more as a “roaming left-forward”.

Combined with Arsenal’s tendency to switch between four, five, and three-man defenses and the consequent variations in the forward line, Sanchez was the attacking force that the team revolved around, a player with the creative freedom to impose his will on matches without major restrictions or defensive duties.

However, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger are two entirely different managers, with tactical approaches that are polar opposites. Throughout his time at United, Sanchez has been asked to play as the left-winger in a 4-2-3-1 formation, a role that entails certain positional restrictions and defensive responsibilities. Sanchez no longer has the freedom to switch flanks and affect the play from where he feels is appropriate during the course of a match.

Furthermore, while he is a player with a near-ridiculous work rate on both ends of the pitch, this is a tendency that comes naturally, from a willingness to push his own body for the benefit of the team whenever he sees fit. But when shoe-horned into the left winger position, he is now required to track back and support the left flank during each play, and can no longer press attackers all over the pitch. This is a drastic change in how Sanchez contributes defensively, for it is important to recognize that while he is not unwilling to run his legs off for the team, he now has to work within a structure and as part of the team’s combined defensive efforts.

Another issue arising from Sanchez’s role in the 4-2-3-1 is the overlap between the areas of the pitch he thrives in (the space between the lines of midfield and attack), and where Paul Pogba also tends to drift towards. Pogba, himself restricted as part of a holding duo rather than a flexible three-man midfield, now has to contend with Sanchez occupying his vertical spaces, which leaves both players having to compromise their natural instincts so as to avoid creating clusters on the left that reduce the team’s ability to stretch the play along the left flank. This further restricts Sanchez’s play, which might be the best fit for the team’s current personnel, but is also a major factor towards explaining why he has struggled to excel at United.

Going to back to the aforementioned role of Sanchez as the center forward for Arsenal, this is a role that Mourinho will always be reluctant to play him in. Leaving aside the presence of Romelu Lukaku as the team’s established striker, it is also important to remember that Mourinho’s strikers have always been physical players who excel at the “target man” role, something that Sanchez and his propensity to play off the shoulder of the last defender and pursue well-placed through-balls is ill-suited for. Not being given the opportunity to play in the role that helped him rack such impressive numbers during his time at Arsenal is yet another factor contributing towards his recent performances.

So what next? Earlier this season, the widely suggested solution for Pogba’s apparentlack of effectiveness was to play him as the left midfielder of a 4-3-3, utilizing his time at Juventus as a template. This is unfeasible for two reasons – Jose Mourinho has never been a fan of having only one defensive midfielder, and secondly, while Pogba might stand to succeed, this formation will only serve to cause further overlaps between the left-wing Sanchez and the left-midfield Pogba.

And with the possibility of Sanchez playing as a striker being virtually non-existent, it appears that the only way forward is for him to speed up his adaption to Mourinho’s formation and tactical requirements. There have been encouraging signs during his time at United, as his successful passes per game has increased from the first half of the season at Arsenal, and so has his attempts at tackles and his successful tackles.

All the statistics point towards him understanding how this team play and trying to integrate himself, but the level of expectations had been so astronomically high that supporters were unwilling to allow him the time to adapt and learn in a completely new team. There are some troublesome numbers, most important of which are his decreased goal and assist numbers, but there are also other ones that aren’t as glamorous – he has lost the ball more frequently for United and has also attempted double the number of dribbles without any notable changes to his effectiveness on the course of a match.

Sanchez is still a player who is at the very peak of his physical powers and shall continue to be so for the near foreseeable future, and it is solely up to him to integrate himself into the way Manchester United are playing currently, rather than expect the team to mold itself in his image. Unlike his situation in Arsenal, there are multiple world-class players in this team, and it is important that he begins to work in conjunction with them, rather than try and win games all by himself.

Written by Shreyas Shaktikumar

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