It has been one-way traffic in Manchester for most of the 2017-18 season so far, with City’s domination of the Premier League and progression in all three cup competitions leaving United idly watching on from the other side of town.
Jose Mourinho’s dissatisfaction with his United side’s fortunes hasn’t even been taken out on Pep Guardiola. Such has been the chasm between the two sides, the Portuguese has found himself with little to bark at his old adversary about. Instead it is Antonio Conte whose ire Mourinho has attracted in order to pull off his usual trick of filling column inches with his antics rather than his team’s shortcomings.
But it is against just this backdrop that United have finally struck their first real blow of the season, snatching Alexis Sanchez from under the noses of Guardiola and City . While it comes too late in the day to suggest that the Blues’ 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League is under any sort of threat, the chances of United sticking with City beyond this term have been increased as much thanks to the resource denied to their rivals as by the addition of the Chilean to their own ranks.
Sanchez had seemed destined for the Etihad Stadium over a period of some months. With City having agreed a £60 million fee with Arsenal last summer only to be thwarted by the Gunners’ inability to secure a replacement, it initially appeared this was only a postponement of the formalities rather than true closure.
Yet City’s decision not to meet Arsenal’s reduced £35m valuation in January allowed United to step in, and Mourinho can rightly claim to have finally secured some sort of moral victory over Guardiola. While it is unclear exactly what path the transfer saga might have taken had City offered the same terms United did, there can be no doubt that the Red Devils’ decision to flex their financial muscle won the day.
Those defending City’s corner will claim that they just didn’t see the value in the deal, with Sanchez’s £350,000-per-week wage demands and the huge fee commanded by his agent Fernando Felicevich being considered prohibitive. But a club which has spent £52m on Benjamin Mendy, £50m on Kyle Walker, £47m on John Stones and £42m on Eliaquim Mangala, could surely have seen their way clear to give Sanchez what he wanted rather than allow United to narrow the gap in quality between their respective first-team squads.
Whatever the truth behind City’s stance, the bottom line is that Mourinho and United now have a player Guardiola desperately wanted at the Etihad. As victories go it is a small but significant one for the Portuguese, and the United boss seemed to revel in the fact that his club were about to beat rival clubs to Sanchez’s signature when speaking about the 29-year-old last Monday.
“I have a feeling he can stay [at Arsenal] but also a feeling he can move, and if he moves I think we have a chance. But I think most probably a player like him has other big clubs interested,” Mourinho told a press conference after United’s 3-0 win over Stoke and for once he had every right to be smug.
It appears to all and sundry as though City are building themselves into the team against whom others will gauge themselves for some time to come. Whereas their previous Premier League-winning campaigns have been followed by downturns, they look as well set as they ever have to back up success with success.
And that makes United’s power play over Sanchez all the more important. The club has invested heavily in Mourinho and in his vision, handing him something close to a blank chequebook in order to bring them their first league title since 2013. Watching from afar as City calmly added another supremely talented footballer to their ranks would not have been in keeping with their apparent quest for the biggest prize.
What’s more, Sanchez is coming into a squad which needs just such his range of abilities. While City have an already-overflowing pallet of star players, United have questions to answer in a number of positions with the right-sided attacking role which Sanchez filled so ably at both Udinese and Barcelona chief among them. This transfer strengthens United significantly and arguably makes far more sense than it would have for their noisy neighbours.
City’s loss to Liverpool at Anfield last Sunday closed their lead at the top of the division by a negligible amount, but their defeat to United in the chase for Sanchez’s signature could prove to be far more important in the longer term. Guardiola will still be the one lifting the Premier League trophy come May, but Mourinho has finally struck a blow which could help to foil the Catalan’s bid to become the first City boss to win back-to-back crowns.
“He is the f***ing boss, the f***ing master,” Guardiola said of Mourinho's ability in the press room back in 2011. “And I don’t want to compete with him for a moment.” Now that Sanchez is a Manchester United player, the competition might only just be beginning.