Man United need a big game from Alexis Sanchez vs. Man City
Alexis Sanchez's January transfer to Manchester United was, on paper, among the most dramatic moves in Premier League history.
There were three major factors to it. The first was the novelty of a genuine, real-life swap deal between Arsenal and United, two of the Premier League's biggest clubs. It was exciting simply because for all the tabloid rumours, such exchange deals barely ever actually come to fruition. But this time everything went through, and two high-profile footballers suddenly swapped lives.
Second, Sanchez became the biggest earner in the history of the Premier League and when combined with his four-and-a-half-year contract at Old Trafford, United were effectively committing to over £100 million despite the fact there was no formal transfer fee involved. Some have suggested this will become increasingly common for top-level players, who may choose to run down their contracts in the hope that potential clubs will bump up their wage offer. If so, Sanchez might be considered something of a trendsetter.
Third -- and most importantly in this context -- the race for Sanchez's signature was contested between Manchester United and Manchester City, the Premier League's top two teams in the table. City initially appeared strong favourites before going cold on the deal. United stole in.
Yet Sanchez's Manchester United career thus far has been entirely mediocre. He hasn't been disastrous: there have been no unnecessary mistakes, no red cards and no glaring misses in front of goal. It's just that he's simply not been particularly noteworthy in any respect, and even the statistics surrounding his concessions of possession are not, in and of themselves, particularly significant.
Sanchez has scored just two goals: the second in a 2-0 win over Huddersfield and the second in a 2-0 win over Swansea. Both were Saturday 3 p.m. kick-offs, the most low-key time slot for matches in England and a surefire sign that particular match is not particularly important. For such a high-profile signing, Sanchez's contribution has been distinctly underwhelming.
At Manchester United, Sanchez's role has been somewhat undefined. In theory, playing from the left flank allows him the license to drift inside where he can both create and shoot, but there have been two major problems. First, the lack of a naturally overlapping left-back means Sanchez's drifts in-field have robbed United of width; while Ashley Young has manfully adjusted to the full-back position, he also enjoys cutting inside onto his right foot, making United's attacks somewhat predictable.
Second, there remains a question mark about precisely where United's creativity comes from. Who is their playmaker?
Paul Pogba's best position, for example, is a riddle still not entirely solved. Juan Mata, formerly one of the Premier League's most creative talents, is uncertain of his place. Jesse Lingard provides sporadic brilliance in the final third but isn't overwhelmingly incisive between the lines, while the likes of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are converted forwards rather than wide players who provide for others.
Is Sanchez supposed to be a source of constant creativity? If so, it's probably a waste of his talents: Sanchez has generally performed better when given more of a scoring brief.
Despite all of the above, Sanchez remains a tremendous all-rounder attacker and gradually appears to be finding his feet. The aforementioned "possession loss" statistics, when considered alongside his previous statistics in terms of goals and assists, hint that an upturn in fortunes could be around the corner.
Last weekend's performance against Swansea was his best yet in a Manchester United shirt: he assisted the first goal for Romelu Lukaku and then scored the second himself, ahead of this weekend's fixture between his current club and the club he had expected to join in January. This weekend's Manchester derby isn't short of storylines but Sanchez might be the major protagonist, especially if there's still some resentment towards Pep Guardiola after City's failed move.
This would work particularly nicely for Jose Mourinho, who isn't playing for anything in Premier League terms -- United are almost assured of Champions League football -- but would love to spoil Guardiola's party. This is what Mourinho lives for, most famously when he celebrated at the Camp Nou after his Inter side eliminated Guardiola's Barcelona from the Champions League in 2010.
And while United's failure to keep pace with City is undeniable, Mourinho might just play a part in a hugely frustrating week for Guardiola.
Man City are enjoying a record-breaking campaign though if their thrashing against Liverpool on Wednesday and probable elimination from Europe this coming Tuesday sandwiches an inability to claim the title against their biggest rivals, they won't exactly be ending the season in style. If United win, they'll only be delaying the inevitable. But City would then probably confirm their title on Sunday, April 22 at home to Swansea: a less convincing success, a less grand occasion. Spite plays a major role in Mourinho's mindset; the same might be true of Sanchez, too.
Tactically, Sanchez depends upon space more than most players of his calibre. He's a direct player, a counter-attacker who is most dangerous when driving towards goal and therefore, this weekend's derby might be well-suited to his talents.
Guardiola's City will look to dominate possession and push men forward, while Mourinho's United will play deeper on the break. It's a battle we've witnessed many times before and Sanchez isn't entirely dissimilar from the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or, in particular, Eden Hazard, players who have thrived on the break under Mourinho's tutelage. Attacking players don't always appreciate Mourinho's mentality but quick wide attackers often perform well in his systems.
So far, though, Sanchez has rarely been playing in counter-attacking situations, with United often facing masses of deep defenders. If he suddenly steps up and performs effectively this week, it will be about tactical factors rather than simply Sanchez's determination to prove himself against City.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.