Manchester United look ready to perform an incredible U-turn by handing Alexis Sanchez another chance at Old Trafford.
The Chilean joined the Red Devils from Arsenal in January 2018 but his time with United has been nothing short of a disaster so far, with Sanchez scoring just five goals in 45 appearances, culminating in his loan to Inter Milan last summer.
Injury has restricted Sanchez to just a handful of appearances for the Nerazzurri but he has played in their last three games and Antonio Conte will hope to have the forward in top form as the Serie A title race approaches the final sprint.
But any hopes of keeping Sanchez at the San Siro beyond his season-long loan now seem to have been dashed, with reports suggesting the former Barcelona man is a part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plans in the summer.
When asked about Sanchez’s United future in a recent press conference, a bold Solskjaer responded: “Alexis will come back in the summer and prove youse all wrong.”
Whether strictly serious or merely tongue in cheek, the Norwegian’s words have, quite rightly, been met with a tirade of furious responses from disgruntled Manchester United fans who were already questioning his validity as manager of their club.
2019 – Alexis Sanchez left United.Ole couldn't wait to get him out the door, even still paying a percentage of his wages.
2020 – Alexis Sanchez (31) has played 214 minutes on loan at Inter and Ole tells us he'll be back next season and he'll prove us all wrong.
Only my manager pic.twitter.com/dlv3yRMOl9
— Matt ⚽?⚪⚫? (@MLMattnicks) January 28, 2020
Sanchez turned 31 in December and to say he’s past his prime would be stating the painfully obvious. However, what’s more worrying is that even a peak Sanchez would struggle to fit into Solskjaer’s current system.
The Norwegian’s handling of tactics is rudimentary at best, relying heavily on the pace of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James in the open field with little to no attention paid to United’s build-up. The Red Devils often look dull and laborious in possession and struggle to break down compact defences – United rank third in the Premier League for fast breaks (21) this season but only Bournemouth (36) and Norwich (26) have made fewer successful crosses (39).
In theory, Sanchez could offer Solskjaer a little more guile in the final third. Despite his struggles, he is absolutely capable of slipping through a defence-splitting pass or delivering a precision cut-back onto the boot of Martial. That said, the likes of Juan Mata and an in-form, fit Paul Pogba also offer those very same capabilities.
Yet, Solskjaer fails to take full advantage of them – with an assessment of United’s average passing network highlighting that the side’s attacking midfielder scarcely receives the ball.
A peak, pre-injury Sanchez never was a counter-attacking speed merchant and unless Solskjaer radically changes his ideals, you’d struggle to form a strong argument for him fitting into United’s set-up.
But the problems here go much higher than the man in the Old Trafford dugout. For some time now, United fans have vented their frustration toward executive vice-chairman Ed Woodard, as well as other members of the club’s hierarchy – most recently during their 6-0 FA Cup win over Tranmere Rovers. The toxic atmosphere has also extended beyond matchdays, with Woodward’s home coming under attack from a group of supporters.
“It is difficult this window – it has always been [difficult]. I can’t remember how many good deals that we’ve brought in in January,” Solskjaer said about the transfer window recently.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer discusses Alexis Sanchez
This is the same January transfer window which, in recent years alone, has seen the likes of Virgil van Dijk join Liverpool, Aymeric Laporte seal his Manchester City switch and, yes, Sanchez complete his move to Old Trafford.
Sanchez’s return would be the latest instalment in a line of moves which stink of a club lacking direction. In recent years, United have attempted the ‘Hollywood’ approach, splashing the cash on the likes of Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Sanchez himself, but that didn’t work. Last summer, they launched an overhaul and went for youth and pace with the likes of James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
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Compare this stance to the example set by ‘those down the road’ and the need for a director of football becomes painfully clear – the fact that United, arguably England’s biggest club, don’t have one already is as laughable as it is puzzling.
Under sporting director Michael Edwards, Liverpool have consistently taken a clinical approach to transfers, targeting and signing players that perfectly fit Jurgen Klopp’s style after extensive research and scouting – the budget signing of Andy Robertson stands as a wonderful example of just how effective the Reds have been in the market, while the likes of Alisson and Van Dijk have long since silenced the doubts regarding their vast fees.
And what of Manchester City? Sure, they spend big, but director of football Aitor “Txiki” Begiristain has consistently signed the ‘right’ player for Pep Guardiola. The Catalan manager needed a ball-playing centre-back, so they brought in Laporte. Before that, he needed to provide competition for Sergio Aguero, so they signed Gabriel Jesus. And they needed a more reliable goalkeeper who was equally confident playing the ball as well as getting his hands on it – cue the arrival of Ederson.
These two clubs are the leading forces in the game right now – defending Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup and world champions; all-conquering and dominant.
That used to be United, but never will be again until the club finds its sense of direction right at the top. The potential return of Sanchez absolutely feels like another step away from that.