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Alexis Sánchez for Henrikh Mkhitaryan? Everybody wins!

Why Manchester United and Arsenal’s swap deal is the best outcome for all parties.

Manchester United Unveil New Signing Alexis Sanchez Photo by Manchester United/Man Utd via Getty Images

One of the interesting aspects of sporting culture is the way in which the logics and language of competition, of winners and losers, are applied to all the other stuff that happens around it. The transfer market is particularly prone to this: clubs race for players, they move ahead of one another, and then, inevitably, when the deal is done, somebody wins.

Except this time. Alexis Sánchez has gone to Manchester United, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has gone to Arsenal, and by our reckoning everybody involved is a winner, in one way or another. Isn’t that nice? Gather round, team. Group hug. There we go.

Alexis Sánchez

The first and foremost winner in all of this. We may never know if this was just about the money, or if the money, while considerable, was just one factor among many. Those childhood dreams, perhaps, or the chance to work with José Mourinho. The fact that City, 12 points clear, don’t need actually him as much as they thought they might, while United definitely do need him and will play him every week. And let’s not forget the once in a lifetime chance to get involved with Jesse Lingard’s Instagram feed.

But! We do know that Sánchez has achieved his main target for the month. Once he played for Arsenal, now he plays for Not-Arsenal. Job done.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan

It can’t be a particularly nice feeling, being the counterweight to the grander move, but one suspects that, deep down, Mkhitaryan is pleased to be getting away from United. Throughout his brief, confusing Old Trafford career, the Armenian and his manager seemed to regard one another with a kind of mutual bafflement. The former only occasionally managed to play the football that the latter demanded, the latter only occasionally managed to get the former going, and when one or other side of that equation broke down, nobody really seemed to know the way out of it.

Assigning blame isn’t really the point: sometimes, working relationships just don’t. But on the principle that different people work differently, perhaps Arsene Wenger — in so many ways the opposite of Mourinho — will be better placed to get the most out of Mkhitaryan. An arm round the shoulder, instead of a poke in the chest. It’s nice to be nice. Sometimes it’s productive, too.

Manchester United

What Sánchez brings to United as a footballer isn’t, perhaps, quite what they really need. The most obvious absences in United’s first team are an established, experienced central defender that doesn’t get injured regularly, along with a controlling central midfielder. And we know that Mourinho wants a wide player that can cross from the right. Sánchez, though versatile, isn’t really any of those, and it would be a waste to ask him to try.

What he is, though, is a game-breaker. For a team so obviously talented, United can look strangely diffident in attack. At times they are ponderous, over-careful, and even a little shot-shy, habits that generally get attributed to the crushing psychological weight of Mourinho’s fear-driven totalitarian regime. True or not, we can be fairly sure that Sánchez isn’t going to be quite so easily cowed. It’s not just the things he can do that make this move so exciting — it’s the sense that he doesn’t waste any time thinking about whether or not he should.

In any case, football is just one aspect of United’s multifaceted brand presence, and Sánchez is everything such a brand could hope to leverage. He’s a superstar, he’s a national hero, and he’s a natural fit for the iconic no. 7 shirt, if you’re into that sort of thing. He even plays the piano. If he didn’t exist, Ed Woodward would have created him. In his secret laboratory. In a vat.

Manchester City

Money can buy you most things in life: full backs, an international network of feeder clubs, and a 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League, to pick just a few examples at random. But only not spending money can give you the opportunity to shake your head sadly, raise your eyebrows, and mutter piously: “Oh, who’re the noisy neighbours now, then? Tch. The game’s gone.”

Arsenal (the club)

Out: one player who really didn’t want to be there any more. In: one player who might not have been intending to make the move a month ago, but certainly doesn’t appear to actively loathe the club and everybody associated with it. So, that’s an upgrade. And if Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang comes in too, then Arsenal will have had an extremely exciting month. A front four of Mkhitaryan, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette; a midfield of Wilshere and Xhaka. Fun for everybody.

Arsenal (the strange, seething online mass)

For the mass requires constant feeding. The mass demands fresh meat. The mass wants to sink its loving teeth into another player, and conclude that said player is, in the light of carefully chosen statistics and with the consideration of certain highly specific examples, almost certainly one of the best players in the world. They’ve just been waiting to get to Arsenal to prove it. Now, have you seen this video of Mkhitaryan’s last season with Dortmund?

José Mourinho

Asked about the deal a couple of days before it happened, Mourinho, who last smiled in 2013, had a bit of a moment. He almost sounded excited: “It’s so close, so close, so close.” And while he quickly went back to his professional self once the deal was done — “Alexis is one of the best attacking players in the world, emotion is for the weak, your heart will betray you” — the impression is a clear one. Mourinho is enjoying this in a nice way. How weird. How unexpected. How refreshing.

People who don’t like listening to José Mourinho talking about how he needs more money spending on his squad

He has to give this a rest for at least a couple of weeks, right?

Atom and Humber

According to the Amazon summary of Cheshire: A Dog Walker’s Guide, by Judy Smith — other book-buying websites and dog-walking books are available — Atom and Humber can look forward to walks in “beautiful woodland”, by a “tranquil waterside”, along “spectacular coast” and “through beautiful parkland”. Good stuff for the good boys.

Mino Raiola and Fernando Felicevich


The rumour mill (I)

Amazing, the speed at which things move these days. A few weeks ago, the notion of Sánchez choosing United over City was a virtually non-existent one. Even United’s officials thought it was a long shot. Yet by the time it actually happened, the takes were lukewarm, verging on cold, and the saga had coalesced from epic into stodgy. Perhaps that’s what happens when competitors drop out early but the negotiations drag on. Or perhaps we just ate too much saga too quickly, and needed a bit of a sit down. It’ll pass.

The rumour mill (II)

A swap deal happened. A swap deal happened. Swap deals are the demented fever dreams of the transfer window: they seem to make so much sense in the hysterical moment, and yet, thanks to the monstrous complexity of moving players around, they never happen. Ever. Except this one. Which just happened. And by happening, rebooted the whole business, condemning us to another five, ten, fifteen years of mooted swaps that won’t happen, but could happen, because remember Sánchez and Mkhitaryan? That happened.

We’re doomed.