How to solve a problem like Sanchez?

January 20th 2018 about 5pm and Anthony Martial’s brilliantly taken goal earned United a hard fought win away at Burnley. It wasn’t a vintage display by any means, but not many go to Turf Moor and get it all their own way. It continued a superb start to the year where United had failed to concede a goal and saw one of the best performances of the season away at Everton. Martial’s strike against Sean Dyche’s men brought up his third in as many league games and 2 of them absolute world class finishes. Luke Shaw had been given a run of games to prove his worth and finally received some very high praise from his manager. More importantly, Paul Pogba was starting to show signs of form and consistency with 2 Man of the Match displays away at Everton and at home vs Stoke where he ran the game for 90 minutes in a more advanced role. The side was looking more settled and balanced, an understanding was building between Lingard, Martial, Pogba and Lukaku and it looked as though United could put in a good run of results to end the season in second and build up some much-needed momentum heading into an important summer transfer.

How things can change so quickly. I was a little worried about United not making any signings in January, not because they necessarily needed them, but because their rivals were all looking to strengthen, whilst rumours of any United business was simply, just that. Until news broke that United were in the running to sign Alexis Sanchez. For 2 weeks social media went into a frenzy, another lengthy United transfer saga was being played out on a daily basis, step by step and ridiculous detail by ridiculous detail. The Chilean seemed an absolute dead cert to be playing at the Etihad by February but as City’s interest waned, the door to Old Trafford swung open and Sanchez was a United player with his piano playing arrival video being broadcasted all over the world. Henrikh Mkhitaryan moved in the opposite direction as a straight swap with a huge majority believing it was the deal of the century. A player that seemed surplus to requirements at United, being sold and a Premier League superstar being brought in from their rivals and with these facts it is hard to argue anything differently. Roll this story on 2 weeks and 4 games later and you would never imagine that United would have struggled to squeeze past a struggling Huddersfield at Old Trafford whilst sandwiched between 2 horrendous displays in losing to Spurs at Wembley and even more embarrassingly away at relegation battlers, Newcastle.

With any transfer, it is easy to judge them purely on the player in question and their performances for previous clubs. Using the same logic with Sanchez it is easy to understand why such a huge number believed it was a great signing. He had carried a struggling Arsenal side for the past 2 seasons, scoring a large number of goals and was a stand out performer every week. His work rate, quality on the ball, football brain and ability to make and score goals made him a huge coup for his next club. His desire to leave the Emirates was football’s worst kept secret and it was no surprise that Arsene Wenger opted for money or in this case a player in return, rather than losing his main man for free in the summer. But these deals do not always work as expected, just ask Chelsea about how confident they were that Fernando Torres would be a Chelsea superstar based on his performances for Liverpool.

Without using naive thinking and with a closer look at the United squad, it is obvious that however good Sanchez may be, he is not what United needed. Sanchez has played the majority of his football down the left for the last few seasons and to great effect but the United left was probably the strongest part of their squad. Marcus Rashford and more so in recent weeks, Martial, have played the majority of games down that side with the latter probably United’s best player this season. He has been very consistent, scoring and assisting goals regularly and finally getting a run of games that he deserves. Once the Sanchez transfer was confirmed, the speculation was which position he would fill. It’s true he could play anywhere across the front, but he was never going to. If the numbers being chucked around of his weekly wages are true, it is likely he also had an agreement as to how he would be used in the United setup. On the right was never going to be one of them and he is not a Mourinho style centre forward, so that only leaves down the left or as a number 10. The Spurs game was the first chance to see who would make way for the Chilean but as Juan Mata started the FA Cup tie away at Yeovil, it was inevitable that it would be him. The only decision left to make was whether Sanchez would play instead of Jesse Lingard, centrally, or on the left and Martial moved out to the right. Mourinho opted for the latter and although it was not the reason for defeat, it certainly gave a look into the future and the problems this transfer may have caused the side.

Mourinho made a number of changes against Huddersfield but reverted back to the lineup that faced Spurs for the trip to St James’s Park and as per the game at Wembley, Martial was bright in patches, mainly when leaving his right wing and was eventually shifted back to the left later in the game to allow Sanchez to be moved centrally. Martial and Rashford have been deployed on the right before, both to nowhere near the same success as on the left yet Mourinho seems to think this is the solution. The fact he has opted for Martial on the right is probably more down to pleasing the supporters than his own preference, as simply dropping Martial would not go down well with the United faithful who adore the Frenchman, but having a reason for dropping him due to poor performances, would instead soften the blow and at least offer him some justification. Some may argue that Sanchez is simply a better option on the left than Martial, if Mourinho thinks the same then Martial should start from the bench and not make changes for the sake of it. This solution brings about even more problems. Anyone who saw Sanchez at Arsenal will know he hates being brought off in any game and this trait would not have changed at United, if he ever did get brought off or moved centrally, Martial would likely be next in line to replace him on the left. In his short time at United the young Frenchman has had to deal with many setbacks, with Rashford being preferred to him as the main striker under Louis Van Gaal, having his number 9 shirt taken from him for 35-year-old on a 1-year contract and then the regular negative comments from his manager last season. Just as he was seemingly winning Mourinho over, he now contends with being played in yet another position where he seems to be in a sink or swim scenario. Away from Martial, once Rashford makes his return, his chances of getting on as a substitute, let alone starting have been shortened even further by Sanchez’s arrival and especially with Mourinho reiterating that he does not see Rashford or Martial in the number 9 position. It is not inconceivable to think that United could be staring down the barrel of losing one if not both of their young stars purely because they favour of someone approaching the latter stages of their career at the very top.

It has been widely reported that Sanchez is on a huge contract at United and given his demands at Arsenal it is more than likely true. The huge wages would not have gone unnoticed within Old Trafford either, especially with some of the egos already at the club and Mourinho aside, there is no bigger ego than Paul Pogba. Off the pitch, the same discussions were taking place about how much Pogba was being paid to come back to the club and based on his social media shenanigans, money does seem a big driver for him. Couple this with his agent who is well known for getting huge deals for his clients, I can only imagine the sort of conversations that have or will take place to bring Pogba in line with Sanchez. The reasons given by Man City for not following through with the Sanchez deal leaned towards a similar theme, where they were not keen to bring him in on the wages he was demanding. Although I do not believe this for a second, I can understand the logic and how this could upset what seems a really settled squad. This problem could be about to enter the United dressing room.

Away from the financials, Pogba also has problems on the pitch with Mourinho commenting this week that he sees Pogba as a midfield, box to box player suggesting that he is reluctant to play a different formation and instead will work with the Frenchman to improve his all-round game. Either Mourinho is watching a different game to everyone else or he is simply using a strange tactic to get a message over to Pogba, either way, something needs to change. Against Spurs he put in one of his worst displays in a United shirt and although he was not playing in a position that brings the best out of him, that does not give him the justification to put in the limp defensive display he did at Wembley a week and a half ago. I thought against the lower sides in the league, United could get away with playing him in a 2 with Matic, but that simply was not the case against Newcastle where he was again terrible and outplayed by Jonjo Shelvey. Pogba looks hugely lacking in confidence and the shots of him sitting on the United bench for the 3rd game running backs up that claim. With Sanchez now in the side, who also prefers to play centrally, the chances of Pogba being deployed in a more attacking role is slimmer than ever and he may realise this. If Mourinho continues playing the 4-2-3-1 formation then Pogba needs to get used to playing deeper and being asked to be as defensively good as he is in attack but I simply do not see this happening and United will continue to get dominated and come up short in the big games. If Mourinho gives in and plays a 4-3-3 which gives Pogba a more attacking starting position, then Martial and Rashford’s game time will be hit massively as this leaves only the left side for Sanchez to play in.

As good a player as Sanchez is, he simply was not what United needed. Mourinho has now created a bigger problem for himself than what he had before and risks losing some of the club’s biggest assets. I understand that the top clubs need competition, it has been the case at United for years when you think to the days of Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer, and even now you look at the quality that City have on their bench most weeks. But the situation at United feels different as they are still trying to rebuild the squad and Mourinho is battling with what is his best formation and side but seems intent on bringing in ready-made replacements rather than work to build a team with his current crop. Pogba is coming to the latter stages of his second season and yet it seems there is no belief as to his best position, with the money spent on him and after 2 seasons, the return in level of performance and consistency should be far greater than what it currently is. There is a player of undoubted quality and potential but it seems a long way off being found even if it is not all his fault due to being asked to play in a position that does not seem to suit his best assets. Martial is finally coming back to top form on the left for United yet has now been asked to move position, no doubt crushing any confidence he did have and Rashford must just be wondering how or why he has fallen so far in such a short space of time. The Sanchez signing is already starting to look like Ed Woodward satisfying his own ego by signing a “marquee” player and pointing towards Mourinho’s preference of bringing in a finished article rather than work on those who can bring the club long-term success. The Spurs game was a great example of a team against individuals and showed how some long-term hard work and cohesion can produce wonders on the football pitch. There is no doubt United needed and still need rebuilding and at the moment they are adding more floors onto the strong part of the house rather than focusing on the parts that are old and in need of repair. The summer transfer window will be huge for United bridging the gap to City, which is getting bigger as weeks pass by and the correct positions and targets need to be in place. Having said all that Mourinho still has some excellent talent at his disposal and he needs to start finding his best starting 11 quickly before this season unravels into a complete disaster.