José Mourinho’s long goodbye is in session. Manchester United’s season so far is beginning to bear many of the hallmarks of three years ago at Chelsea. If that pattern is followed, there are more twists and turns to follow; he wasn’t sacked until December 17 of the 2015-16 season.
The turf war between manager and Paul Pogba has gone public, and the removal of the possibility of Pogba captaining the team under his watch did buy Mourinho some approval among those fans sick of the Frenchman’s preening. But that small victory couldn’t be savoured for too long.
Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup defeat to Derby County was a sincere embarrassment. Losing on penalties is usually no disgrace but United’s performance until Marouane Fellaini equalised in the last minute bordered on the disgraceful. The big Belgian, derided since he arrived at the club five years ago, is Mourinho’s go-to guy, someone who can be counted on when crisis descends.
Left on the bench was a player that Manchester United have not been able to count on. And it wasn’t Pogba, omitted from the squad and sheltered from the blame this time. It was Alexis Sanchez, the best paid player in the Premier League. His arrival in January helped push his club to the top of the wages league, it was revealed in Tuesday’s conference call with investors. Pointedly, that call also suggested a lack of on-field success may at last be affecting profits.
United’s snatching of Sanchez under the noses of City in January has paid very few dividends. It did not stop City sauntering to last season’s Premier League title, and they instead signed Riyad Mahrez in the summer, younger and seemingly far more motivated. Where Sanchez has receded into the shadows, unable to lift his new club, Mahrez looks delighted to be playing alongside City’s fellow magicians.
Meanwhile, the Chilean has scored just three goals in 23 United appearances, and was subbed off after 63 minutes of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Wolves, having been an ineffectual passenger against a newly promoted team who offered United something of a football lesson. He was given the hook having lost the ball 16 times.
The wisdom of signing a player who would occupy the same left-sided position as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial was questioned from the start. And none of the trio have benefitted: while Sanchez falters, Martial and Rashford have gone backwards. The bench is no place for two players of such rich talent.
Sanchez might have come on a free transfer but without a sincere and rapid improvement he is in imminent danger of becoming the grandest flop signing of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. Fellaini, the first of the arrivals in the summer of 2013, has now proved his worth, Juan Mata has occasionally shown off his abilities, Radamel Falcao was only a loan signing while Bastian Schweinsteiger cost a low transfer fee and did not linger long.
Which leaves Angel di Maria, the £59.7m signing who wanted to leave Manchester almost as soon as he got a look round the place. It could be convincingly argued, however, that the Argentinian provided far greater flashes of his talent than the Chilean has so far before he rapidly fell victim to Louis van Gaal’s overcomplicated tactical stratagems.
Like Juan Sebastian Veron, Ferguson’s greatest folly, and Di Maria, Sanchez has been a South American star who has struggled with life in Manchester, by contrast to City’s enclave of players like Sergio Aguero and Nicolas Otamendi now and Pablo Zabaleta in the recent past.
Sanchez was actually a man apart at Arsenal, too. Someone who prefers his own company, he is not known to be one for mixing with the lads, even when with the Chilean national team, but on the field he responded to Arsene Wenger’s indulgence with match-winning performances right up until it became clear he saw his future beyond the Emirates.
New surroundings and greater riches are yet to lift his performance level at United. Mourinho’s tough love techniques have produced only flat-lining performances.
Sanchez cannot even play the card of being jaded after the World Cup like so many of his colleagues; Chile didn’t qualify for Russia. There were some brief flashes on United’s pre-season tour of the United States but that followed a delayed arrival after a visa issue.
The last goal that Sanchez scored for United was the equaliser he struck in April’s FA Cup semi-final defeat of Tottenham, in which he produced his sole match-winning performance in a United shirt. He is not alone in failing to perform for Mourinho this season. Few players have shown their best, but Sanchez’s decline is particularly damning for a manager on the path to oblivion.