Wednesday 18 September 2019

Sanchez a major burden for United as super-chicken no longer rules roost

'It is hard to think of a steeper decline in the status and performance of a leading footballer'. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
'It is hard to think of a steeper decline in the status and performance of a leading footballer'. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Sam Wallace

At Arsenal, the moods of Alexis Sanchez were legendary in a squad who were routinely diagnosed as having lost their nerve at the critical moments. In the late Arsene Wenger years, as the old boy had new staff and new ideas virtually forced upon him, there were attempts to arrest the decline, although no one could get through to Sanchez.

When they lost 3-0 to Crystal Palace in April 2017, at the end of his last full season with the club, Sanchez's attitude in the latter stages of the match seemed designed to demonstrate how little of it was his fault.

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Arsenal had 70 per cent possession against a Sam Allardyce team who nonetheless managed more attempts on goal. It was a low point, the fourth consecutive away defeat for Arsenal in the league, and yet Sanchez's performances after that improved. His goals were key to winning the FA Cup and they very nearly got the club fourth place. When the mood took him, he could still do it.

Sanchez had come to be known among some players and staff at Arsenal as 'super-chicken'. It had come from a lecture the squad were given about teamwork by a sports psychologist who, unintentionally, had planted an idea in the minds of some of his audience.

His chief point applied itself perfectly to their leading player. The 'super-chicken' study by an American academic on comparable rates of egg-production between two groups of chickens is often cited anecdotally by those seeking to emphasise the power of the collective.

A group of so-called super-chickens were bred selectively over generations from the most productive individuals and their output compared to another group allowed to develop naturally.

The natural group far outperformed the super-chickens. The study's conclusion was the super-chickens had simply been suppressing the productivity of the others. One can only imagine the quiet moment of revelation in the room as the analogy hit home.

For Arsenal in the 18 months since their super-chicken left, performance has not deviated dramatically. They are not back in the top four and they have not won another FA Cup but, overall, Sanchez's departure has not been among the top 10 of Arsenal's problems since he left in January last year. They certainly would not take him back, even if it was feasible politically or financially. He scored more goals in his last 12 games for Arsenal - six - than he has in the subsequent 18 months at Manchester United.

It is hard to think of a steeper decline in the status and performance of a leading footballer in the English game than the one that has befallen Sanchez, from a player who could dominate the mood at his club to one whose current manager routinely forgets to mention him. When he has listed his striking options this summer, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has often omitted Sanchez, although he insisted on Friday he intended to pick him. Even so, it would be a surprise to see him in tomorrow's line-up against Wolves.

The question for United is what they do with this player whose effect on their wage structure has been as huge as his effect on the pitch has been negligible. Releasing him now is not as simple a decision as it might seem.

Wherever he goes on loan, United will be obliged to supplement wages that cost more than £500,000 (€550,000) per week, and the squad is already one senior striker down after the sale of Romelu Lukaku to Inter Milan. Eighteen months since United signed him, the question remains: is this a player whom they would simply be better off without?

A difficult calculation given that once again Sanchez has not had a conventional pre-season after the Copa America, where he was part of a good Chile team and so his fitness is a long way off the rest of the squad.

No one at United is quite sure whether Sanchez himself wants to be at the club come September 2 when the European transfer window closes. There have been talks with Roma but any deal back to Italy, his most likely destination, is complicated by his huge wages, and in the end United will be paying someone to take him off their hands.

How bad can it be to have Sanchez around? At Arsenal, his moods were tolerated for years because he was the match-winner that the club needed. At United, he starts the season fourth choice behind Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood and the question is whether a player of Sanchez's profile can ever be fourth choice.

He has never played in a United team who press high up the pitch as he often encouraged his Arsenal team-mates to do. What if that suits him? What if he goes elsewhere and thrives while United hit a difficult patch?

At United, he has nothing like that kind of seniority and there was an intriguing story recently which chronicled an argument at the training ground over a bad tackle on him by Mason Greenwood.

The teenager was said to have stood his ground, and that suggested a very different power dynamic to the one that existed for Sanchez at Arsenal.

Sanchez's chief effect so far at United appears to have been his blowing apart of the club's wage structure that has enabled others to pitch their contract demands much higher than they would have in the past.

Both Rashford and David De Gea have agreed deals at a much higher level than the pre-Sanchez days and their hand has been strengthened by the reality that the pair have made a much greater contribution to the team in the 18 months since he signed.

In football, there is a tendency to trust that an individual will come good - there are second chances and then there are third, fourth and fifth chances. When he happens to be your biggest earner, then the incentive to persevere is that much stronger. Keep Sanchez or loan him? It has become as major a decision as the one to sign him.

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