Alexis Sanchez made the sensational move from Arsenal to Manchester United this week, but the question on everybody’s lips has been, where will he play? Well worry not, as we take you through the options.
The question about Sanchez’s role arises mainly due to his history at Arsenal, where he has played the vast majority of his football as a left winger. Last season he also featured predominantly as a central striker, a role in which he thrived in, scoring 30 goals in 51 appearances in all competitions for the Gunners.
Both of these roles at Manchester United are of course possibilities, and Jose Mourinho will be of course weighing up the possibility of playing what he has described as ‘one of the best players in the world,’ in a position that he has thrived in during the last three or four years.
However, the dilemma for the Portuguese comes with the fact that those two positions are where United are already undoubtedly strong, with £75m man Romelu Lukaku having started every match in which he has been available up front, while Anthony Martial has seemingly finally nailed down the left wing spot as his own with a string of impressive displays.
If Mourinho does decide to replace the Frenchman with his new Chilean teammate, it will be a massive disappointment for both fans and the player alike, as I strongly believe that ‘Tony Marshall’ has all the attributes and qualities to go on to be one of the best in the world in a few years time.
However, let’s be honest, Sanchez is already one of the worlds best. If Sanchez wasn’t in the last six months of his contract at the Emirates, his transfer fee could quite easily have smashed the club record £89m they paid for Paul Pogba just 18-months-ago, so he hasn’t just come in to be a squad player, he will be starting every match he is available for.
So, lets assume that Mourinho keeps his faith with Martial at left wing, and with it being almost inconceivable that he will drop Lukaku, then where else will he play? It of course depends on the system, but Jose’s most frequently used formation this season is 4-2-3-1, with the odd game switching to a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3, but 4-2-3-1 is the one we must assume will be used.
In this system, Jesse Lingard dislodged the now outcast Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the starting lineup, while Juan Mata has often started out on the right hand side and has drifted into the centre. It is one of these two positions that Sanchez is likely to come into.
Personally, I think it would be interesting to see the Chilean playing centrally behind Lukaku, using his pace to get in beyond the number 9, drawing defenders into positions they don’t want to be. Sanchez’s presence would also free up space for the often influential Paul Pogba, who always looks better when on the front foot rather than the back.
This would then give Mourinho the license to play either Mata or Lingard out on the right, which depending on the opposition would bring different elements to the side.
Alternately, Sanchez could play out on the right. In this modern day and age, you hardly ever see a right footed right winger. The trend of the last five to ten years has been the ‘inverted winger’, the left footer from the right, cutting in and opening up spaces while the right back overlaps to create options.
This would allow Lingard, or indeed Mata, who really is a traditional number 10, to play in that central role in which they have excelled in.
Mata has been the ‘right winger’ in recent weeks thanks to Lingard’s excellent form through the middle, but as the diagram below shows, its really quite difficult to claim he has been playing on the wing at all. His average position in the last match against Burnley clearly highlights just how far the Spaniard is drifting inside to find space, leaving the whole right flank to be patrolled by Antonio Valencia.
I have been saying it for a number of years that United are in desperate need of a right winger, and it was thought that Henrikh Mkhitaryan was brought in to fill that role, however, the Armenian failed to impress and was ultimately given his marching orders.
This January, United have been linked with Gareth Bale (again), Malcom, Lucas Moura and Willian, all out and out right wingers, which to me indicates that Mourinho has also identified the right to be an area of weakness, and the arrival of Sanchez could be that plug to that particular hole.
If Sanchez does play on the right, it would stretch the often compact defences that United come up against, and in turn, allow space in the middle for the likes of Lukaku, Pogba, Martial et al to exploit.
‘But, Sanchez plays on the left’, I hear you say. Well, he hasn’t always.
In fact Manchester United were linked with a guy called Alexis Sanchez back in 2011. He was a right winger plying his trade at Serie A side, Udinese. It was his performances at Udinese that earned himself a €26m (a significant transfer fee at the time) transfer to Barcelona, where he continued to play.
He was part of a fantastic forward lineup that included the likes of Pedro (now Chelsea), David Villa and the Argentinian magician that is Lionel Messi. In his last season at the Nou Camp, Sanchez scored 21 goals in 54 appearances, with the majority from the right wing, and only left the club due to the arrival of Luis Suarez from Liverpool.
It was only at Arsenal that he actually started playing on the left (and eventually through the middle) on a regular basis.
Back to the present day then, and back to the question at hand, where will Sanchez play? Well for those thinking it automatically means that Anthony Martial is on his way out of the club, i hope this has dispelled some of your fears. While Jose could of course wield his often ruthless axe in the direction of the Frenchman, I believe that it will be down the right or behind the striker where we will be seeing Alexis Sanchez on a regular basis.
His arrival does give Mourinho plenty of options though. In the absence of Lukaku, he can play up front. He is a different option to Martial and Rashford on the left, while undoubtedly strengthens down the right.
What his clear is that it is a very good signing from Manchester United, and while the Premier League title race may be over this year, it will give the side a huge boost in their FA Cup and Champions League endeavours.