Football Features

Alexis Sánchez, Henrikh Mkhitaryan & the ‘win-win deal’ doomed from day one

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 13:52, 17 April 2019

Back at the start of 2018, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was unhappy at Manchester United and Alexis Sánchez was unhappy at Arsenal.

The problems were obvious. Neither player really suited the mentality and style of the club they were at. Mkhitaryan was a technically excellent player who didn’t seem too fond of pressure situations, and Sánchez was an obsessive winner who hated the idea of losing games.

In many ways, Mkhitaryan resembled Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Sánchez was like José Mourinho’s Manchester United.

Manchester City were in heavy pursuit of Sánchez in the January window, with Pep Guardiola keen to add a fifth forward of similar quality to his starting three and Gabriel Jesus. Sánchez was earmarked to be that guy, but City were taking their time.

That’s when United pounced with what seemed like the smartest most win-win deal in the world. Send Mkhitaryan to the Emirates and bring Sánchez up to Old Trafford.

On paper the move managed to benefit everyone concerned, as the players would move to clubs that suited their styles a lot more and the clubs would get players happy to be there.

The move was made official, Sánchez played the piano and donned United’s famous No. 7 shirt. Mkhitaryan also got the No. 7 at Arsenal and both sets of fans were crowing about how they got the better end of the deal but honestly, most football fans were just anxious to watch these new players in these new environments, playing their best stuff.

So… what the hell happened?

Just over a year after the move, Sánchez is persona non grata at United. With even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s incredible pep talks having no effect on his performances as younger, less well-paid players have usurped him.

Meanwhile, Mkhitaryan does play for Arsenal but he seems to do so in order to generate memes rather than actually win football matches.

It’s easy to look at the situation and be befuddled, but in many ways these moves were doomed from the outset. Much as it seemed like the players were ideally suited to the clubs they were heading to, when you look at the surrounding context it becomes clear that was actually never the case. These were never going to work.

For Mkhitaryan, sure he is a fast, technical attacking midfielder who plays on the wings. But he’s far from the only Arsenal player like this. Aaron Ramsey, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alex Iwobi… all similar.

Hell, even Mesut Ozil plays in the same position (albeit with a totally unique energy). Mkhitaryan was nothing new, and nor was he that much better than any of his Arsenal teammates, quality-wise.

Then there’s the fact that just six months into his time at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger left the club. In came Unai Emery and the Spaniard brought with him a whole new dynamic approach to football. Mkhitaryan has been kind of adrift, still performing reasonably well but also playing like an absolute dullard most of the time.

The Armenian is nowhere near Arsenal’s first-choice XI and that’s sad, but at least he has eight Premier League goals for the Gunners, although his shot conversion of 17.77% isn’t great. His eight assists is an alright total and his 33 take-ons isn’t bad either. However, he’s not come close to replicating the brilliance of his Bundesliga days with Borussia Dortmund.

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Meanwhile, at Old Trafford, things have been going decidedly worse. Sánchez was one of the two most talented players in the division when he signed for Manchester United, a genuine world-class talent.

Moving to Old Trafford should have seen him soar to new heights, combining the individual excellence of his Arsenal days with the team-focused brilliance of Barcelona and Udinese.

Instead, he’s looked terrible. He looks overweight, but at the same time as if he is training too hard and overthinking things. He looks anxious and nervous, and tired as well.

If rumours surfaced that he’d been forced to run a marathon before every Manchester United game, you’d believe them. Because he has genuinely looked devoid of the kind of energy that once became his trademark.

The Chilean has scored just three Premier League goals in his time as a United player with a shot conversion of 12.5% – that’s less than Chris Smalling over the same period.

He’s been a bit better with the ball at his feet, creating 46 chances and registering six assists, but even these numbers are nothing special and also can’t convey the context that a lot of those chances have come from him standing still in the final third before picking a cross or pass out to generate a shot.

That sounds impressive on paper and a couple of times it has been genuinely amazing, but mostly it’s just frustrating as he literally grinds United attacks to a halt in order to survey the scene and pick a pass, which usually just results in whacking the ball at a defender’s shins.

That slowness is a huge reason why United fans are fed up with him. Slowing the attack down is a cardinal sin at Old Trafford, where playing fast and direct is the law of the land.

At first, he could blame all this nonsense on his half-season struggle with Arsenal, but he came into 2018/19 off a summer of rest and a great pre-season where he looked sharp. Yet still, he has been a disaster ever since when there have been points on the line.

And it’d be easy to blame it all on Mourinho being terrible, but the fact is that Sánchez hasn’t perked up under Solskjaer either. In fact, one could argue that he’s been worse, which is some achievement.

This swap deal has been such a disaster that even Ian Wright, a beacon of hope and positivity, has come out and said: “Between these two, they’ve both had an absolute nightmare. Honestly, they’ve had an absolute nightmare,” before adding, quite accurately: “The people who got the best deal out of this was the agents, really, to be totally honest. Them two, they’re nowhere near what they should be.”

“Honestly, they’ve both had an absolute nightmare”

Perhaps this is why swap deals with unhappy players are such a rare occurrence? There’s no guarantee that a simple change of scenery is what is needed to perk a player’s form up.

A transfer move needs to be carefully scouted and thought out, the players’ skill-set and mentality need to be taken into account.

Manchester United signed Sánchez simply because they had the financial capacity to do so, and they felt it would one-up Manchester City. And in an effort to save on a transfer fee they simply shipped one of their unhappy players off as part of the deal.

Arsenal weren’t scouting Mkhitaryan, but they figured an unhappy talent could be directed into good form.

Well they figured wrong. United figured wrong. And what we ended up with was one of the worst transfer deals in Premier League history.

A high-profile player swap between two rivals, one that saw two obscenely talented footballers playing at the peak of their powers switch clubs with an eye on scaling new heights, has instead left everyone involved plumbing new depths of despair.