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Alexis Sanchez's Manchester United U-turn makes a confusing amount of sense

Alexis Sanchez (right) during a 2017 game against Manchester United. (Getty)

It was but a week ago that Alexis Sanchez-to-Manchester City seemed like a foregone conclusion. “When he comes, he will add something to the team,” were the words of City star Kevin De Bruyne on Wednesday. And the telling slip would have been more newsworthy had there not been a widespread sense that it was indeed a matter of “when,” not “if.”

Five days later, it still does feel like a matter of “when” – not if, but when Sanchez will join Manchester United.

Yes, United.

The Red Devils and Jose Mourinho appear to have come in at the 11th hour to hijack their rivals’ move for one of the best players on the market. Pep Guardiola is reportedly prepared to pull out of a deal to which, according to some, both Sanchez and the club had agreed. United looks set to meet Arsenal’s asking price and make the Chilean the highest-paid player in the Premier League.

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It’s a stunning 180-degree turn, from East Manchester to West, if only because Sanchez would have been a City player five months ago had it not been for Arsenal’s incompetence. A deadline day move fell through thanks to the Gunners’ inability to procure a replacement. United and Sanchez had rarely, if ever, been mentioned in the same headline or sentence back in August, nor in the months since.

United’s interest has accelerated from 0 to 100 quicker than a classic Mourinho counterattack, and it has left all kinds of questions about the dynamics behind the change of course unanswered. But the more you consider those dynamics, you realize the most pertinent question might not be why they’ve arisen, but rather why they didn’t arise earlier. What took Mourinho until now? Why hasn’t United been in for Sanchez all along?

The Sanchez-to-City hypothetical was understandable. But Sanchez-to-United is more than that. It makes too much sense. So much that the most confusing aspect of the saga is why it took United this long to emerge as the favorite.

City wanted Sanchez; United needs him

It’s easy to say Manchester City doesn’t need Sanchez. It’s also a tad too simplistic, and probably unfair. Any club could use a player of Sanchez’s quality. There’s likely only one in the world – PSG – for which he would not be a first-choice starter.

Yes, City’s rotation is crowded at the top of the field, but Sanchez would have chiseled out a prominent role. Guardiola, after all, doesn’t target players of Sanchez’s stature who don’t have that capability. There’s a very good chance the City manager saw his former Barcelona winger not as a winger, but rather as a more versatile No. 9. There’s a decent chance he saw him as a Sergio Aguero replacement – or, at the very least, an Aguero alternative, a Leroy Sane/Raheem Sterling alternative, and a high-impact supersub.

For a club like City that is currently competing for four trophies, and expects to be competing for three or four every year, there’s enormous value in that. And there’s value in a player like Sanchez whose role is necessarily undefined, and whose skills make that lack of definition irrelevant, if not advantageous.

But one thing is clear about the City vs. United comparison: Sanchez’s value above replacement – or rather value above incumbent – is far greater at Old Trafford. The marginal benefit he represents to United is more substantial. He can perform just as many functions at United as he could at City, but the players whose minutes he’d be seizing – Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial – aren’t quite on the same level as Aguero and Sterling.

Sanchez could liven up a United attack that has, at times, been uninventive. He could offer the best of both worlds on the wings, a combination of Martial’s direct running and Mata’s creativity. He could do wonders to ease the burden on Romelu Lukaku up top, either as an occasional change-of-pace replacement or even as a strike partner.

(Diagrams: buildlineup.com; GIF: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

He would broaden Mourinho’s options significantly. Whereas at City he would have been an upgrade, at United he is a new dimension – a dimension Guardiola either already has, or doesn’t see as a requirement.

Sanchez’s style might gel with Mourinho more than Guardiola

Miguel Delaney of the Independent had a great anecdote in a recent column on the subject:

Back when Guardiola and Sanchez were at Barcelona, the manager and his backroom staff used to regularly get frustrated with the Chilean, because he would so frequently break a core principle of the club. It was that when Sanchez got the ball for Barca, he would immediately put his head down and burrow forward in that single-minded way he does. Guardiola and his staff however would expect that every single Barca player get the ball and look up, look where their options were, and display some ‘pausa’.

There was always one bothersome disconnect in the Sanchez pursuit, ever since City firmed up its interest last year. One of the given reasons for it was a mutual, reciprocal desire for a Pep-Alexis reunion; but the two had only spent one year together, and Sanchez only three years at Barca, where he had been successful, but certainly not exceptional.

Both Sanchez and Guardiola have, of course, changed since then. Guardiola, at some point over the past 12 months, either craved the dimension Sanchez would bring, or craved a second crack at molding Sanchez into a different player.

However, it seems safe to assume, he either didn’t deem that dimension absolutely necessary, or wasn’t convinced that Sanchez, 13 years into his professional career, was still malleable.

Guardiola is known for free-flowing, attacking football, but in a way, Sanchez could have more freedom under Mourinho. Guardiola’s teachings actually introduce far more structure – albeit complex structure – to a team in possession. Mourinho, as he has said in the past, lets his horses run. Sanchez, therefore, won’t have to change at Old Trafford.

That’s not necessarily a reason he’d prefer to go to United ahead of City. But the question of whether he would change, or whether he can change, appears to have been enough to insert some doubt on the City side of the equation. And that’s likely one of the reasons Guardiola felt comfortable letting Sanchez get away.

How did this fall apart for City?

United’s interest – to outside observers, and reportedly even to City – at first smelled fishy. It reeked of one rival trying to hike up the price for another. City refused to budge from its offer, reportedly around $27.6 million, with the hope that, if it weren’t enough to convince Arsenal to part with its star forward in January, Sanchez would join for free in the summer.

But United sensed opportunity. It threw more money at Arsenal. It threw more money at Sanchez and his agent. Sanchez reportedly warmed to the possibility of United – and to a more lucrative contract – and City balked at competing with the Red Devils. Here’s more from Goal.com’s Sam Lee:

Goal has learned that the final straw came when Alexis’ agent, Fernando Felicevich, informed City in the past 48 hours that United are willing to pay more money in both wages and extra fees.

City have worked closely with Felicevich for the best part of a year and had agreed the terms of a January transfer with him in recent weeks, and they were less than impressed to learn of his demands for more money at the eleventh hour. City’s response was curt: we are no longer interested.


City’s decision to bail seems to have come down to three factors: One was undoubtedly money. The second was its already strong league position and squad. The third was Guardiola’s preference for players who are 100 percent committed to the cause – his cause. The moment Sanchez strayed, all arrows pointed away from City. The about-face is unexpected. But it – just like the initial interest – is understandable.

And so is United’s decision to put ludicrous sums of money under Sanchez’s nose. The transfer fee is deflated because of Sanchez’s expiring Arsenal contract. United won’t get a bargain, because whatever money it won’t be paying to Arsenal, it’ll be paying in the form of a salary, signing bonus and agent fees. But it won’t be overpaying, either.

And in the current market, the opportunity to capture a world-class forward – one who’s in his prime, who fills a need, and who comes at a somewhat reasonable price – is too good to pass up.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.