Whatever happens in the remainder of November and December, Manchester United’s 2018 could well be categorised as the Year of Alexis Sanchez. And not in a good way.
Having arrived in a blaze of apparent glory in January, the 29-year-old has yet to back up the pomp, circumstance and piano solos with anything approaching consistent quality on the field of play. For an English record outlay of a reported £390,000 per week complete with £75,000 appearance bonus – plus a £6.7m signing-on bonus – United have received next to nothing for their investment which already tallies around £24.7 million.
Instead of kicking on to push Manchester City close, United fell further away in 2017-18. And this season has started disastrously, with Sanchez regularly demoted to the bench and the Reds struggling for wins.
It says much about Sanchez’s level of form since his winter transfer from Arsenal that his moderately impressive performance against Bournemouth on Saturday was widely accepted to be an improvement, but it will take far more against Juventus in the Champions League this week and at Manchester City on Sunday for him to convince the majority that his form is truly on the incline.
Since the former Barcelona and Udinese star first donned a United shirt they have tallied fewer league goals (38 in 25 matches) than six other Premier League clubs, including Bournemouth (40 in 25). Over the same period neighbours City, whom United pipped to the Chilean’s signature, have netted 69 times and even Sanchez’s former Arsenal team-mates have scored 54 goals.
United’s 38-goal tally is also down on their return of 51 in their previous 25 league games, suggesting they are far less of a goal threat with Sanchez in their ranks than without. Aside from his starring performance in the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham, the No.7 has barely flickered let alone shone as a United player with a personal return of just four goals in 27 appearances and a too-often-negligible presence in the final third. There should now be serious concerns about where the relationship between club and player is headed.
There have been various reports about his relationship with Jose Mourinho, with the United manager said to have given Sanchez a dressing-down over his form in front of his team-mates earlier this season. He then put his decision to drop the Chilean for successive games down to having “options”, but that perhaps underlines the short-sightedness of blowing so much cash on a single player… let alone one fast approaching his thirties and having previously demonstrated inconsistency.
It is now getting to the point where the enormous outlay is becoming an increasing issue for the club, and they need him to start finding his best form on a more consistent basis sooner rather than later.
Club legend Paul Scholes argued recently that Sanchez was a luxury signing, coming at a time when United already had all the resources they needed on the left side of attack. “It was a signing at the time that I never thought we really needed; I thought the position was covered in Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford,” the former midfielder told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“Obviously, I thought he would bring quality to the squad. He hasn’t performed yet. Whether he’s fallen out with the manager, I don’t know. He looks like he’s trying.”
But trying is the very least United should expect for their money, and having committed to paying Alexis until the summer of 2022 already they need a return on their investment. So far he has offered nothing that Jesse Lingard, or Martial, or Rashford, or Juan Mata couldn’t offer from a wide attacking position. And the sheer size of his pay packet also means that the club are unlikely to find any suitors willing to take on the financial burden should United decide that a sale is the best way out.
There has been talk that Paris Saint-Germain would be willing to consider an approach for Sanchez in the January window, but why would they bother based on the player’s current form? And if PSG were not ready to match his United salary, the Old Trafford board would be left having to consider subsidising his wage at a new club in order to cut their losses. Given the financial targets needing to be reached at boardroom level, the latter is an extremely unappealing scenario.
So how on earth do United, a club whose decision-makers pride themselves on their financial savvy if not on their football intellect, make a success of this deal?
Right now it feels like their only way out is linked to a massive turnaround in form from Sanchez himself, but they have been waiting for that to materialise for more than nine months and it feels no closer to reality than does the prospect of a rival club offering to match his extortionate salary.
It should not be considered as an impossibility that Sanchez could finally find his feet, with Martial’s recent rise having come amidst his own issues with Mourinho and off the back of a difficult summer during which he looked more likely to leave Old Trafford than win the manager’s confidence.
But the near-£25m a-year millstone that Sanchez has quickly become makes his poor form a matter of great urgency. They need a return on their investment and they need it now. And if they don’t get what they need from Sanchez on the field, they could be staring at one of the most embarrassing financial flops in football history.