Alexis Sánchez has now gone 831 minutes without a Premier League goal for Manchester United. The player who almost single-handedly destroyed Manchester United at the Emirates in October 2015 has thus far failed to fit into José Mourinho’s Manchester United side. With the exception of an outstanding goal against Tottenham in the FA Cup Semi Final in April, Sánchez has not reached the standards expected of him since his January move from Arsenal.
The Chilean was substituted this weekend against Wolves after only sixty minutes. In a game that United were chasing, to take off one of the world’s preeminent attacking players is peculiar. Some might accuse Mourinho of playing defensively at times, but even Marouane Fellaini had been shifted forward as United chased a winning goal.
Why was Sánchez not trusted to get that goal?
The answer is simple. Sánchez was having a poor game. He had failed to significantly get involved, having misplaced 10 of his 33 passes and ballooned his free-kick effort before half time. Sánchez’s below average performances since January were at the time attributed to lack of rest, lack of proper preseason training and a host of other reasons. But Alexis had a full preseason this year. Sánchez did not play on Wednesday night in Bern, and Anthony Martial did very well in his place.
Martial did so well in fact that many were calling for his inclusion against Wolves on Saturday. To Martial’s credit, despite his agent agitating for a move and the Frenchman being fined for going AWOL following the birth of his child in July, he has shown grit and determination this week. On Wednesday, Martial looked like he enjoyed himself in a United shirt for the first time in months, and his performance reflected that.
Playing from a wide berth against Young Boys, Martial looked comfortable cutting inside and terrorising the defence. It was a mature performance, and in many ways, it seemed like the Martial who first appeared at United. He showed tremendous skill to take a ball down and create a chance for Lukaku and was the last man off the pitch applauding the away United support after the game.
Many would point to the arrival of Sánchez in January as having stunted the development of both Martial and Marcus Rashford. It is true that the pair had rotated on the left previously, and this role was given permanently to the Chilean upon his arrival.
Part of the problem in Martial’s demotion is that Sánchez’s performances have not been worthy of automatic inclusion. Sánchez’s performances have not even been good. Following an impressive run out in Switzerland on Wednesday night, Martial would be rightly expecting to play in the next game. Yet he didn’t. There is in an implication in this that Jose does not pick form players, or even reward good performances.
On Saturday against Wolves, Martial lost the ball in midfield and chased back to the edge of David De Gea’s box in an effort to win it back. This is what José Mourinho has looked for from the Frenchman. Martial is giving his manager what has been demanded for the past two seasons, yet an underperforming marquee signing still stands in his way.
The main issue at hand is that Manchester United have a player earning £450,000 per week who is not producing on the pitch. The money is unimportant to the fans, but it highlights Sánchez’s place in United’s hierarchy. Those wages are given to a senior player who can be relied on to win games. This has not been the case.
It leaves a question: who is to blame for Sánchez’s poor performances? Is it José Mourinho and his tactics, or Sánchez himself?
Mourinho is an easy target for the blame. You could argue that a player of Sánchez’s ability should not be shunted into a wide berth to accommodate Romelu Lukaku, and a phenomenal talent like Sánchez should be given the free reign he deserves. That argument has some merit, but if Sánchez were given a free role, it would suddenly impact on the spaces in which Paul Pogba best performs and adversely affect the Frenchman’s ability to impact games.
In defence of Mourinho, he has stood by Sánchez with gusto, never disparaging his performances and never taking him out of the team despite having the likes of Martial and Rashford in reserve. The Portuguese has shown incredible loyalty to Sánchez and given him opportunities that his track record warrants, yet this surely must be reaching its natural limit. Both Martial and Rashford were hammered by Mourinho in May for a poor performance against Brighton, yet Sánchez has had many games like this that went by without comment.
Perhaps the only way in which Mourinho is unwilling to compromise with Sánchez is with playing the Chilean as a central striker. That role, for better or for worse, has been decreed to Romelu Lukaku. Large target men have long been a central component of Mourinho teams. Sánchez does not come close to fitting the bill for that role at United, despite some of Lukaku’s shortcomings this season.
Sánchez did appear to play better for United when playing in a 5-3-2 formation against Burnley, but this cannot be the way Manchester United look to set up in every game.
For José Mourinho to move the chains on Manchester United’s forthcoming Premier League season, he needs to take control of their misfiring attack. To do that, he needs to stop indulging Alexis Sánchez. Sánchez has failed in his eight-month quest to play himself into form while the likes of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have watched from the side-lines. For the first time since Sánchez’s arrival, both Martial and Rashford appear to be in good form and have given Mourinho food for thought with his line-up.
Manchester United are a team historically built upon young players. That fountain of youth has flowed readily with that record of now 3,929 games with youth players in every squad. That flow is built on the promise that the Manchester United starting eleven is only a few good performances away from any young United player. Marcus Rashford is testament to this. Mourinho needs to keep that motivation alive. It has fuelled the team for generations and the worst thing imaginable now would for United to become a team where upward mobility was stalled and big reputations built on former glories were spoiled to the detriment of the side.