Alexis Sanchez looks to buck the trend of big-money failures at Man United
Despite their status as the world's richest club, confirmed in the most recent Deloitte figures, successful Manchester United sides throughout the Premier League era have rarely been based around multimillion-pound signings and genuine superstars.
In fact, when United have attempted to introduce recognised world-class players, they've often struggled to incorporate them into their tactical system. In 2001, for example, Juan Sebastian Veron was a British record signing, but Sir Alex Ferguson didn't seem sure whether he was a deep-lying playmaker or an attacking midfielder, and he was flogged to Chelsea after just two seasons for a knockdown price. In 2014, Angel Di Maria arrived for another record sum and was deployed in a variety of positions, including in a bizarre makeshift centre-forward role by Louis van Gaal. He lasted just a season. In 2016, Paul Pogba was another record signing, and he has largely played well, but there remains a debate about whether Pogba should play deep or high in the 4-2-3-1 and whether he actually needs a 4-3-3 instead.
Three record signings, only one league title among them, and as yet, no lasting legacy.
Alexis Sanchez is not a record signing; by virtue of his swap deal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, he technically hasn't cost anything. But the Chilean must be considered in that category both in sporting and financial terms: he's an extraordinarily complete attacker capable of dribbling, assisting and scoring at will, and his astonishing wage figures will have a significant impact upon his teammates' earnings, causing United to completely restructure their wage policy. Slightly worryingly, considering the track record of the aforementioned players, Sanchez doesn't have a defined position.
That in itself is not a problem. Versatility is an important attribute for a top-class footballer, and Sanchez has shown ability across the pitch. Yet there's still a question mark, at 29, about precisely what his position is. The Chilean broke through at Udinese as a right-winger, generally being deployed there for his national side too. He then became a rampant counter-attacking No. 10 and showed his best Serie A form before switching to Barcelona and being used on the right again, sometimes fielded up front too.
At Arsenal, he was used wide-right on his debut, up front in his second game, then enjoyed a run in the No. 10 position behind fellow newcomer Danny Welbeck before eventually settling on a wide-left position for the majority of his Arsenal career. But then his best spell, at the start of last season, came when deployed as a centre-forward -- roughly the role he's played for Chile. Olivier Giroud's good form last Christmas then meant he reverted back to a wide-left position, moving into a slightly more central role when Arsenal switched to 3-4-2-1. All of which means there's a question mark about precisely where he'll be deployed at Old Trafford.
The obvious attacker to drop out would be Juan Mata, whom Jose Mourinho has never entirely appreciated at two clubs. The Spaniard has generally drifted inside from the right into central positions to provide creativity between the lines, which is something Sanchez can theoretically provide, but it's hardly been his specialty in recent years. Sanchez is much more of a goal scorer than a provider, and it's increasingly difficult to find examples of prolific wide men playing as conventional, rather than inverted, wingers.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, Gareth Bale -- even Sanchez himself -- have all become at home on the "opposite" wing. The exceptions, like Raheem Sterling this season, have become prolific in a different sense, popping up unannounced in central positions. But Sterling has been granted license to play that role because others, like Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, are providing the creativity. United's equivalents would be Mata and, until yesterday, Mkhitaryan, but Mourinho's system doesn't play to their strengths. So what role would the right-footed Sanchez be playing from the right? He doesn't want to be an outright winger, he's not truly a creator, so his goal-scoring potential would be less obvious there. It's tough to find an obvious template, another player in Sanchez's mould playing wide-right to the level he must aspire to.
A left-sided role would suit Sanchez more, but this would mean Anthony Martial, in excellent form recently, receiving fewer opportunities in the position he seems most comfortable in. Seven years younger than Sanchez with the potential to become equally as good, it would be a tremendous shame if his development were stunted, and this would invite the same old criticisms of Mourinho.
It seems very unlikely Sanchez will be deployed as a No.10, especially in big matches, and he's simply not the typical profile of a Mourinho centre-forward: he's short, stocky and explosive whereas Mourinho prefers more of a big, traditional No. 9. This is the greatest shame.
Sanchez has always appeared the perfect modern No. 9 for an attack-minded, progressive manager. Pep Guardiola pursued him because, in addition to being able to play as a wide-forward, he would offer more in terms of link play than Sergio Aguero up front.
The common protest from a player in Sanchez's mould is that he's not simply a goal scorer, he offers all-round qualities. But that's just what Robin van Persie thought, and he became a prolific forward. It's what Aguero said during his first three years in Manchester, preferring to play off a "big man". Harry Kane chose No. 10 rather than No. 9 because that's what he considered himself growing up. Centre-forwards these days have to be more than goal scorers -- that's exactly the point, and Sanchez could rival Kane for the Golden Boot if played up front in a genuinely creative side.
A move to play under the likes of Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp or even Antonio Conte would surely have seen Sanchez deployed in that No. 9 position, which seems considerably less likely under Mourinho -- unless he performs a dramatic about-turn regarding his favoured type of striker.
Sanchez will clearly improve Manchester United, regardless of what role he's deployed in. But a move to playing under Mourinho, with his precise purpose not yet clear, means he might never fulfil his true potential. As with previous landmark United purchases, it will be fascinating to see exactly where he fits in.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.