This piece was initially posted last week. The Sanchez deal is now done, with Inter paying as little as £4 million a year of the Chilean’s exorbitant salary. The club also has an option to buy, but no obligation.
Alexis Sanchez will be an Inter Milan player at some point this week. That is both disappointing and fascinating.
It’s disappointing because of what might have. This could have been Edin Dzeko or Paulo Dybala or Arkadiusz Milik or Timo Werner. Not all of those fits are seamless; a couple would be downright funky. But all would be undeniable improvements to Inter’s attacking rotation.
A Sanchez deal isn’t so clean-cut. It could be a dud. And yet, if nothing else, it’s fascinating: A major European club, trying to get back to elite status, just dumped a player less than 24-months after making him the highest-paid player in the league. Think about that.
Recently considered one of the best players in the most competitive league on earth, Sanchez’s fall has been swift and brutal. From match-winning False 9 to a benched, overweight sink hole slap-bang in the middle of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United revolution.
Sanchez was supposed to be the face of a new-look United. The stodgy days of Louis Van Gaal were gone. Like Robin Van Persie before him and Cantona back in the day, Sanchez would be a catalyst to instant success. He would be the attacking fulcrum a side could be built around.
United would be different. They would be dynamic. More explosive. More modern. Rigidity at the back would lay a platform for the artists upfront to do their thing. Players who could play a swath of positions and were happy to motor here there and everywhere, with or without the ball. That was the long-term vision.
Instead, Sanchez became the symbol for the drudgery that has infiltrated the club since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped away: a bloated, sluggish, selfish player, who showcased the clubs slap-dash transfer policy. Beating Manchester City to his signature seemed to be as important, if not more so, than where he would actually fit in the squad.
Accusations of laziness – if not on the pitch, behind the scenes -- have stuck since day one. He came for the money, not the glory, detractors say – Sanchez reportedly earns £14 million a year. The spark that made Sanchez an unmissable, magnetic presence during his Arsenal years vanished.
Is it gone for good? It can’t be, right? We’ve seen moves like this before: aging superstar moves to a Big Club X in Fresh League Y and revitalizes his career. We’ve also seen plenty of examples of the reverse. Once some players decline, the drop is precipitous. Fernando Torres never rediscovered his spark. Ronaldinho was a shadow of himself at every post-Barcelona spot.
There’s more than a whiff of Torres to the Sanchez situation. He left a big English club at the peak of his athletic powers to join a title contender. He moved for big, big money. Injuries, pressure, and stylistic changes stilted his career. There were brief glimpses of the old magic, but they were interrupted by prolonged interludes of languid play.
It’s important to remember just what kind of player Sanchez was at his best, even if it feels like forever ago. He could get to wherever he wanted to on the pitch with explosive shiftiness. He could accelerate powerfully while operating at different speeds. Opponents minds couldn’t keep up with his feet. There are fast players and there are intelligent ones. Sanchez blended both into a can’t-stop-it-even-if-you-know-what’s-coming package.
Sanchez displayed none of that oomph at United. He notably lost a lost a step, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. And, honestly, there’s little to explain it beyond the hyperbolic, character judgments. Did he just give up and cash that check? Was he nursing a long-term injury? Is this what it’s like to be 30 and not part of the Messi-Ronaldo alien class?
Any other questions start to nudge up against liable territory. What’s not in dispute: his time at Old Trafford was a disaster. Sanchez’s reputation has reached such a low point, United are paying him to go away.
It’s hard to move high-profile, expensive flops out of the Premier League these days. The discrepancy between the budgets of the English top-flight and the rest of Europe makes it damn near impossible to get rid of dead weight. Reports suggest United are paying over 50% of Sanchez’s salary, so eager was Solskjaer to move him on. Don’t forget: the player is moving from a Europa League side to a Champions League one.
Antonio Conte will look to carve out a role for him alongside former United teammate Romelu Lukaku and hot-shot prospect Lautaro Martinez. All three will rotate, perhaps even they’ll play together. Most likely, we’ll see Sanchez used interchangeably with Lautaro in the second-striker (deeper) role in Conte’s 3-5-2 look.
2016/17 was Sanchez’s career year and the last time he played as a true striker for a real length of time. He played a bunch of games as Arsenal’s main striker, in a side built around him, and finished the season with 24 goals and 10 assists. xG shows those were somewhat inflated numbers, though. He finished the year with 17.72 xG, a pretty steep drop. At times he got downright lucky:
Strikers should get goals like that. If you work hard and press you can force the opposition into mistakes. That was a total fluke, though. Sanchez wasn’t pressuring, the defender simply made a mistake.
That’s not to knock his forward play, just to contextualize his goal ratio and to illustrate the value of xG. Sanchez started to find the strikers touch playing through the middle. He became the point-man while other creative players – Mesut Ozil, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey – orbited around him. He started to play on the last shoulder of defenders and excelled at sprinting into open ground.
He showed uncommon composure in front of goal. As the pass-and-move world looked for their own knock-off version of Messi as a false 9, none looked more natural than Sanchez. He started to score easy tap-ins, proof of his vision, movement, and fresh nose for scoring:
Sanchez seemed to go up a whole level. He would son fools on counter-attacks; playing through the middle he would act as a one-man fast break:
Still: no one was expecting consistent 20-10 seasons. Prior to 16/17 he was reliable for 13 xG and 8 expected assists (xA), good but not spectacular figures. Push those closer to 15-10 and everyone at Old Trafford would have been proclaiming his brilliance.
Instead, his output collapsed. He finished with 1.71 xG and 3.55 xA last year, a career-worst in both categories. Injuries marred everything he did. Does he even want to play? Fans started asking.
Sanchez lost his mojo. That same desire to burst behind the defence vanished. He averaged just 1.68 shots per 90 at United, down from the 3.79 per 90 he averaged with Arsenal.
Ugh. The run is poor. His legs are moving fast, but he doesn’t appear to be covering ground quickly. He moves towards a defender, not into the gap between the two final defenders. Once the ball was played away from him, he decelerated to a jaunt. That’s a footballing crime.
Marcus Rashford couldn’t finish. The ball ricocheted around. It could have landed at Sanchez’s feet. But he wasn’t in a position to capitalize. He didn’t make the effort to drive towards the box; he dawdled forward as though his job was done.
Time and time again, United’s players, as instructed, would drive balls across the box. The theory: turn defenders into a threat to their own goal. Defenders can head away lofted balls more easily than they can deal with a whipped ball across the face of goal.
At his apex, there was an intensity to everything Sanchez did. Keep up with me, I dare you. He would dart to the near post. He would move in one direction at top-speed, shoulder feint and burst in sudden zig-zag jolts towards the back post, cranking through gears you thought he’d already hit:
Everything at United was stop-start. He couldn’t pick up on the pattern of plays. The rhythm was off. The same runs that led to tap-ins and easy finishes at Arsenal had escaped his game. He would just, umm, stop moving:
Some great athletes experience a spell in slow motion, as if their superior speed and the gift of coordination provides them with a more usable perception of time. At his confident best, Sanchez played with a bottled frenzied. He would always move fast but always with control. He could play with pace and power and guile in equal measure. The difficult looked almost easy:
We saw the inverse at United. Confidence was lost. Everything looked sped up. A defender closing down would have been easy 18-months ago. He would have known exactly what to do, when to do it, and would have executed with ruthless efficiency.
Now, he stumbles and bumbles his way through passages of play. It’s as though his feet can’t keep up with his mind, or his mind with his feet. The two no longer work in-sync. They work against one another:
Woof! He lost the ball twice in a four-second sequence. No player frustrates a fanbase as much as the one who is so transparently gifted but fails to do the easiest of things.
Remember how the opposition used to fear Sanchez? Alexis in full flight was one of the most feared things in the Premier League for a 24-36 month stretch. He was a brilliant give-and-go player, thinking one, two, five steps ahead of the defence; his off-ball movement endlessly effective:
His low center of gravity allowed him to sink his hips into defenders, close space, then spin and attack. Once in motion, it felt like there was nothing a defender could do to stop it:
Holy bleep. That is spicy!
That electricity vanished with United. The ball that once stuck to his boot like Velcro became as tough to control as a Presidential primary debate. His touches per 90 collapsed:
Yes, that’s really the same player. Look: he’s wearing the same number and everything.
Arsene Wenger built his system around Ozil and Sanchez, for right or wrong (Arsenal fans will be quick to tell you the answer). The system changed, sometimes 4-2-3-1, sometimes 4-3-3, others 5-3-2, a spell in a 3-4-3. Yet the same overriding philosophy filtered through whatever formation: pass then move then pass then move. Find space. Be a nuisance.
With United, he was more isolated – farmed out to the left, sometimes the right. He started pressing. He would drop deeper and deeper to fetch the ball:
His usual zest was missing. You can almost see the indecision seep through the screen.
United started pressing, too. Mourinho moved Sanchez all over the shop, hoping to squeeze something— anything— out of his big-time signing. No mas. Solskjaer tried as well. Then he quickly bailed on the idea. Prior to Solskjaer’s appointment as interim coach, Sanchez averaged 53 minutes a game. After Solskjaer’s appointment, that number dropped to 38 minutes a game. In the final month, he played over 25 minutes only once.
Sanchez’s defensive work became meme-able towards the end. He was never an industrious presser, even at Arsenal. He was opportunistic. When he needed to burst into life, he could:
That’s an issue that would annoy any manager. It will infuriate Conte.
There is good news! Sanchez showed signs of life at this summer’s Copa America. He just seemed more up for it. It doesn’t go much deeper than that. Perhaps playing for Chile kick-started something in him that managers at United failed to tap into. He vacillated between playing a wide spot in a 3-4-3 and centrally in a 5-3-2.
The old spring was back:
He was out here leading the front line with vigor.
He slotted into his old roles. Against Argentina, he lined up up-front alongside Eduardo Vargas. It was a small, mobile duo. The two started nominally as forwards but each split to the wings, freeing up midfield runners to charge into the half-spaces:
Against Colombia, he held the team’s width down the left. He really, really stretched the play. He hung out on the touchline and revelled in the space. He ran at speed, sucking in defenders time and time again and releasing the ball on-time:
We got glimpses of what could be in a system similar to Conte’s. He can run the channels, come deep to open up space in behind or stretch the play as a horizontal and vertical threat -- when he’s fully engaged. That last point is kind of a big deal.
There will be talk about Sanchez and Lukaku understanding each other’s game. That perhaps it won’t take the pair as long to gel new side. But Sanchez and Lukaku rarely ever clicked at United.
The two should work in theory. Lukaku is happy to pull out to the right, pin on the back man, and make diagonal runs across the goal. That’s where Sanchez has thrived. He likes to pick the ball up on the left, drift towards the middle, and pick out early runners:
Sanchez has this weird way of getting rid of the ball a beat before you expect. He has such a short backlif that what looks like his next burst forward becomes a pinged ball over the top before you’ve fully realized it.
Lukuku and Sanchez two never developed the expected connection under Mourinho or Solskjaer. Perhaps the two clicked better on the training ground. It’s hard to imagine no one at Inter spoke with Lukaku prior to sanctioning this move if only to get a character check.
There is a world in which Sanchez returns to his old form: A Tasmanian devil who draws defenders out of position, freeing his partners to attack the vacated space. We just don’t happen to live in it. Perhaps he can craft a new-look, old man game. Perhaps not. The reported finances of the deal make it a gamble worth taking regardless. Every now and then there were signs of the old player these past 18-months. Not quite the menace moving at a break-neck pace, but the intelligent player with excellent passing vision:
Advocating for buy-low players is easy. Inter will pay less than half of his salary this season. If he pops, they will have the first option to buy him permanently. The concern would be that his issues are irrecoverable.
Conte has been at pains this preseason to clear out the Inter dressing room. Mauro Icardi and Radja Nainggolan, among others, have been shipped out not because of their skill-sets or tactical fit, but because they don’t jive with the culture Conte and Beppe Marotta are trying to build.
Are the injury troubles and reported attitude concerns a United issue or a Sanchez one? A strong dressing room can handle one wayward child. Not multiple.
The on-field questions feel much easier to figure out. Antonio Conte is one of the most brilliant football minds alive. If he thinks he can get a pairing of Lukaku or Lautaro to work with Sanchez, or that the three of them could form a trio, I’m inclined to believe him. He’s had few high-profile misses when it comes to talent identification. Sanchez gives him more formational flexibility. The vision probably looks a little like this:
Inter think they can compete with Juventus right now, but a lot of things need to go right for them to get there. Maybe too many things. Sanchez developing into a useful complement to Lukaku and Lautaro would be a big stinking thing.
Both Lukaku and Sanchez left United to join the Conte revolution and revitalize their careers. I’d bet on the former, not the latter.