Tales from the Touchline: Where will Alexis Sanchez fit into United’s XI?

Manchester United completed the signing of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal earlier this week, in a swap deal that saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan go the other way. This is a rare transfer for United; despite their history and global appeal, the club have rarely signed ready-made superstars, preferring to buy younger players who are then moulded into supreme talents, or promoting from within through the academy. Big signings have not always worked out well for United: Veron and Di Maria are two examples that spring to mind. Sanchez has also been given the #7 jersey; one that has been connected to some of the biggest and most charismatic names in United’s history: Best, Robson, Cantona, Beckham and Ronaldo. It was also worn in less distinguished fashion by the likes of Owen, Valencia, Di Maria and Memphis. It is up to Sanchez to buck two recent trends; that of underwhelming big signings as well as underwhelming #7s, at least since Ronaldo’s departure. However, the biggest question that remains to be answered is with regard to Sanchez’s position on the pitch. Sanchez is a versatile player, capable of playing anywhere across the attack, but he does have a favoured role, while the way Mourinho’s United play may mean a different position would be the best for him. I take a look at all of these combinations, and their potential tactical ramifications –

Off the right wing

Sanchez started his career in Europe playing on the right at Udinese, and played there quite often for Barcelona as well as Chile. This seems the least likely role for him, though, because it would seriously limit his goal threat. Sanchez is not an old-fashioned winger who will stay wide and put crosses into the box; that sort of player is dying out anyway. The Chilean’s biggest strengths are his dribbling, shooting and ability to make clever runs off the ball, none of which would be served well playing off the right. The only way in which I see this happening is if United play a 4-3-2-1, with two inside forwards playing behind Lukaku. However, this looks unlikely as a regular option, apart from a clash against a top-six side where Mourinho wants to pack midfield yet retain a goal threat. While United’s right-sided attacker is a problem position at the moment, Sanchez is not the solution.

Up front as the striker

Again, this is a role Sanchez has fulfilled at Barcelona as well as Arsenal. In fact, some of his best performances for the Catalan club were when he played as the striker, with Lionel Messi as the #10 behind him. He scored goals for Arsenal as a #9 as well, and he could provide a world-class alternative for Romelu Lukaku. Sanchez’s style of play seems perfectly suited to the modern striker’s role, who has to do so much more than just score. The Chilean will press energetically from the front, while he consistently makes intelligent runs; in this case, runs out wide from a central position, which would drag opposition centre-backs out of position. His speed would also allow push the opposition defensive line deeper, thereby increasing space for the likes of Pogba and Mata. For all that his attributes seem perfectly suited to this role, he is unlikely to play here consistently, as Mourinho prefers a big, burly striker, as evidenced by his use of Ibrahimovic, Drogba, Costa, and now Lukaku.

Off the left wing

This would seem to be Sanchez’s favoured role; it is the one he has largely played in over the course of his Arsenal career. He would be suited to playing as an inverted winger, which would allow him to come inside to combine with the centre-forward and midfield, before shooting at goal. It would also open up the flank for a marauding left-back, either Luke Shaw or Ashley Young. His off-the-ball movement would be an asset too, with late runs into the box, as well as occasional darts into central positions, both likely to yield goals for the Chilean. This does seem to be the likeliest position for him; however, this would severely curtail Anthony Martial’s playing time. The Frenchman has been in scintillating form of late, and at 22 years of age, needs to be playing regularly, especially when playing well, It would be a massive blow to his confidence if he were to be dropped to accommodate Sanchez, and it is for this reason that I would prefer to have Unied’s new #7 playing in the position below…

As the #10

Jesse Lingard has been in superb form over the last couple of months while playing behind the striker, and does not deserve to be dropped. However, the role is perfectly suited for the Chilean, who would provide an instant upgrade to Lingard. Jose Mourinho does not look to play classic playmakers in the #10 role; he prefers hard-working, willing runners who can press the opposition or fall back into midfield to form a compact block, as needed, as well as storm forward when counter-attacking. Sanchez fits the bill for each one of these traits. He would be especially lethal on the counter, as his ability to play quick passes as well as his pace would provide United with the perfect outlet. This would also put him closer to Pogba, which would aid in their interchanges, along with giving him a central role, both literally and figuratively. Finally, his goal tally should only improve playing centrally; this would also allow him to drift wide to combine with the wide players and full-backs, and stretch opposition defences with his movement as mentioned earlier. Lingard would provide able backup and a competent rotation option, and in my opinion, this is the position that Alexis Sanchez should play in for Manchester United.