The arrival of Alexis Sanchez in January was meant to be a catalyst for better things ahead for Manchester United.
The Chilean arrived at a club that had gone seven games unbeaten, including four straight wins, and built an eight-point buffer between themselves and those teams left chasing Champions League positions.
With Paul Pogba beginning to show flashes of his previous Juventus form, Jesse Lingard turning in career-best performances week-on-week, Anthony Martial enjoying his greatest goal-scoring run in two years and Marcus Rashford on the verge of breaking his personal record for goals in a season with four months to spare, Sanchez’s addition looked set to complement a well-oiled attacking machine with the added bit of flair which would make them feared once more in both England and Europe.
But six games on there are suddenly question marks relating to every one of the players Sanchez was meant to take the pressure away from. Far from providing the perfect balance to Jose Mourinho’s side, the 29-year-old’s biggest impact has been in upsetting what cohesion there was in United’s starting line-up.
“What he does for us is add competition for places, which any manager would tell you is fantastic,” United great Lou Macari told Goal earlier this month. “It sort of livens up one or two others, and in our case it gives us a better chance in Europe.”
And while Macari’s words reflected a common belief among the United fan base, the reality has been quite different in the early days of Sanchez’s career with the club. As Chelsea arrive at Old Trafford on Sunday, they do so knowing that United are at a low ebb.
Wednesday’s dismal performance in the 0-0 draw at Sevilla was just the latest setback, and the sideshow caused by concerns over the relationship between Mourinho and Pogba is threatening to undermine their season.
Being the club’s record £89.5 million signing and most outgoing presence, Pogba has caught the greatest headlines in his recent run which has seen him fail to complete 90 minutes since Sanchez’s arrival. But Martial’s three-game scoring streak prior to Sanchez taking his favoured spot on the left has also given way to a run of five matches without a goal.
Add in Lingard’s gradual decline over the same period and Rashford’s injury-affected stretch of five games without a start – his second-longest such stint in the professional ranks – and United have seen four of their most influential players lose their way over the course of Sanchez’s Old Trafford career so far.
While Rashford has been in and out all season thanks to his tussle for a shirt with Martial, and Lingard’s run of exemplary form was always likely to hit the buffers at some point, the travails of Pogba and Martial could well be apportioned in huge part to Sanchez’s deployment on the left-hand side of the attack.
As United look to develop attacks Sanchez often finds himself dropping deep to collect possession, drifting right into the sort of areas which Pogba loves to attack with the ball. It was notable also that the French midfielder had been used more to the right of the midfield two in recent months in order to allow the left-footed Nemanja Matic to play towards the left. But the two moves have combined to shift Pogba out of his favoured role, and even when playing on the left of the midfield three after coming on against Sevilla in midweek he was largely ineffectual as an attacking force.
It is surely Martial who has been most adversely affected by Sanchez though, with the 22-year-old having been shifted from his most effective position just when he was enjoying a significant upturn in form. When playing off the left Martial provides a real attacking threat, with his ability to shift onto his right foot at any moment causing all sorts of worries for back-pedalling defenders.
Yet when switched to the right he becomes a completely different player. Instead of being a threat on goal he basically becomes a right-winger, and that just isn’t his game. When on the right his best hope is to get outside a man, but from there it is all about the sort of delivery a natural right-sided player would have. It is not as simple as Martial changing flanks, deploying the Frenchman on the right alters his workload completely.
One answer might be to use Sanchez on the right of attack, but Mourinho has used him exclusively on the left to this point. While the occasional switch of the wide men has given Martial a tantalising taste of what he is missing, it has never been more than a temporary change of angles.
If Mourinho is to continue with Sanchez on the left then there are a multitude of questions to ask. Where will he play Martial? How does he give Pogba the space into which he can attack? How many minutes can Rashford expect to play? Can Lingard thrive inside of Sanchez if the Chilean is given licence to roam his way?
In the six games prior to the swap deal which saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan head for Arsenal, Pogba, Martial, Rashford and Lingard had combined for 16 starts and seven goals. In the six matches since they have collected seven starts and two goals – Rashford and Lingard scoring away to Yeovil Town in the FA Cup.
Sanchez’s signing was always likely to upset someone, but so far it appears to have compromised more players than might have been expected even by the most pessimistic of United fans. While Mourinho keeps having to field queries regarding Pogba, it may well be his most-recent high-profile capture which is causing him the most headaches right now.