Alexis Sanchez has chance to kick-start Man United career vs. Arsenal -- and he must take it
Alexis Sanchez marked the first anniversary this week of his move from Arsenal to Manchester United, although it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the Chile forward actually celebrated the milestone.
There are many reasons for the 30-year-old to be downcast about his year at Old Trafford, and one of them will be the prospect of returning to the Emirates for the first time since leaving as part of the United squad for Friday's FA Cup fourth-round tie against Unai Emery's men (watch live at 2:55 p.m. ET or on replay on ESPN+). He won't be expecting a positive reception.
Despite Sanchez's ability to win a game out of nothing with a moment of brilliance, Arsenal and their supporters were happy to see him go, with the Armenia midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan moving in the other direction as part of the deal.
Sanchez scored 80 goals and assisted 44 in 166 games for Arsenal, but his demeanour had become so negative during the final months of his time at the club -- particularly after a deadline-day move to Manchester City collapsed in August 2017 -- that few tears were shed when he packed his bags and headed to United last January.
United believed they had pulled off a transfer coup by beating their neighbours to Sanchez's signature, despite having to pay the former Barcelona player a £400,000-a-week basic salary to tempt him to Old Trafford. But one year on, sources at United have told ESPN FC that the club is almost at a loss as to how to get the best out of a player who has become one of the biggest transfer flops in Premier League history since moving to the club.
Having scored just short of a goal every other game for Arsenal, Sanchez has netted just four in 32 appearances for United and currently boasts a dismal strike rate of a 0.12 goals per game. He failed to rank among the world's top attacking players in the ESPN FC 100.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United's caretaker manager, has confirmed that Sanchez will face Arsenal on Friday. The big question hanging over the player is whether he can now kickstart his Old Trafford career after a 12-month delay or if, at 30, his best days are behind him and that Arsenal offloaded him at just the right time.
On and off the pitch, Sanchez has struggled to fit in at United. But there is a hope inside Old Trafford that the departure of Jose Mourinho as manager last month can be the catalyst for Sanchez to come good. Sources have told ESPN FC that the relationship between both men had soured to such an extent that Sanchez was determined to leave Old Trafford at the end of this season had Mourinho remained in charge.
Sanchez was unhappy that he had not been given the opportunity to play in his favoured role, as a central forward, with Mourinho instead favouring Romelu Lukaku in that position. But while there was support within Old Trafford for Sanchez's complaints, sources have also said that the player himself did little to help the situation by being so inflexible with Mourinho's requirements and that, having been the star player at Arsenal, he was unable, or unwilling, to accept that the team would not be built around him at United.
Sanchez was always regarded as a solitary figure within the Arsenal dressing room and that has proven to be the same at United, where he is viewed as a loner and a player with few friendships among the playing squad. His teammates admire Sanchez's desire to win, but there have been times when that determination has instead been taken as excessive complaining.
Injury has halted Sanchez's progress under Solskjaer, however, so there is some optimism at United that the Norwegian's positive approach -- in contrast to the abrasive, confrontational style of Mourinho -- can be the key that unlocks Sanchez's best form at the club. He certainly fits the Solskjaer profile in terms of his pace, ability on the ball, movement and goal threat. The caretaker manager has overlooked the likes of Lukaku, Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini in favour of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard because of his determination to make United quicker on the break and Sanchez is suited to that system. But Solskjaer and United can only do so much for the player. He has to embrace the challenge, too.
Returning to Arsenal on Friday might be a difficult experience for Sanchez, but it is an opportunity for him to start again in a United shirt. And he needs to take it because time, and patience, is beginning to run out for him.