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An in-form Alexis Sánchez could be Manchester United’s best summer addition

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Alexis needs to rebound after a subpar season, and early signs are looking good.

AC Milan v Manchester United - International Champions Cup 2018 Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Speaking after Manchester United’s 0-0 preseason draw with the San Jose Earthquakes, manager José Mourinho sounded downbeat about the possibility of any further summer moves. The club jumped out to a quick start in the transfer window, snatching up Diogo Dalot and Fred before the World Cup. Backup goalkeeper Lee Grant followed in early July, but there haven’t been any signings since.

And, besides a few wild rumors, no other transfers appear imminent as the Premier League summer window closes in just two weeks.

But Manchester United’s biggest avenue to improvement might actually come from within. If Alexis Sánchez — the club’s key signing last January — can get back to his Barcelona and Arsenal best, that would be the equivalent of a season-changing addition.

United saw a mostly muted Alexis in the second half of last season, as the Chilean struggled after his shock move to Manchester. He might not be a new signing, but Alexis can bring a much higher level of performance and quality than he showed last season.

Alexis surely hated to miss out on the World Cup, but Chile’s failure to qualify gifted him a free summer for the first time in nine years. After nearly a decade of shortened summers due to international duty, he finally got the chance to unplug from football and let his body and mind recover from a difficult season.

Transfer drama plagued the first half of 2017/18 for Alexis, as he plotted an escape from Arsenal. He finally got his move in January, but then struggled to prove himself — and his huge wages — at Old Trafford. Alexis tallied three goals and five assists for United, but too often failed to provide a creative spark in attack.

January transfers are always tricky. There’s no preseason to bed in new signings and slowly integrate them into the first team. Instead, they’re thrown right into the action during a very busy part of the season. No doubt Alexis tried way too hard to impress the supporters and his new teammates, but he rarely looked near his world-class best.

What a difference a summer can make. Even though his arrival in Los Angeles was delayed due to a visa snafu, Alexis stood out as United’s best player in both of his matches so far. He appears more energetic than ever, charging forward with the ball at every opportunity and pressing the opposition in defense.

After joining the tour squad a few days late, Alexis went straight into the starting eleven against San Jose. He showed no signs of rust, winning an early free kick that he then delivered to Eric Bailly in the six-yard box. The center back let him down with a wayward effort that crashed against the crossbar, wasting a gilt-edged scoring opportunity. In all, Alexis got 65 minutes of hard work in the California heat and looked no worse for the wear.

Afterwards, Mourinho had plenty of good things to say about his star’s tour debut. “Good for him,” the manager told MUTV. “He needed this and he made a good effort, a good physical effort, which is important for him in this moment.”

And Alexis was even better on Wednesday night against AC Milan. A brilliant Juan Mata pass sent him through on goal in the 12th minute and Alexis made no mistake with only Gianluigi Donnarumma to beat. That goal opened the scoring on what turned out to be a very long night and once again showed the danger posed by the fresh-legged Chilean. What a confidence boost for a player who really needed it.

For the rest of the match, almost everything ran through Alexis. In particular, he rolled a great pass across the box late in the first half that set up Ander Herrera, though the Spaniard shot straight at Donnarumma. With a little better placement, Herrera could have spared all of us a very late night.

Mourinho again sang Alexis’s praises post-match: “He arrived hungry. He arrived with an appetite for football and has been working really well since day one. He’s working with enthusiasm. He’s working really, really hard and he was very good.”

This coming season, Alexis Sánchez will get the chance to re-write his Manchester United story. With so many of the club’s other stars absent due to the World Cup, Alexis will surely start the season up front with Anthony Martial and Mata. Whether on the left or through the middle, he needs to hit the ground running and put last season’s disappointment in the past.

When Manchester United line up against Leicester on August 10, an in-form Alexis Sánchez could prove the difference. There’s no other signing the club could make that holds more potential for a world-class breakthrough.