By Suresh Nair
THE English Premier League (EPL) transfer window only shuts end of the month but the sensational move of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal to Manchester United, in a swap deal with midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, is creating the biggest roar.
Primarily because Chile striker Sanchez, at 29, signed a four-and-a-half-year deal worth £14million a year after tax. He is likely to pocket a staggering £500,000-a-week!
The talk on the lips of most football pundits: Is a player close to reaching 30 worth this kind of big bucks?
Was Manchester City tactically smart in not signing him as they felt making him the best-paid player may affect team spirit as they head on towards the Premiership title?.
For the Red Devils, it’s the biggest gamble and the capture of Sanchez from Arsenal may come to define manager Jose Mourinho’s time at the club.
Mourinho is probably betting his last dollar that this exemplary Chilean signing will take United to a level where they can challenge Pep Guardiola’s runaway Premier League leaders, something that has been beyond them so far this season.
Indeed in signing Sanchez, Mourinho wants to prove a bigger point as he heads towards European titles that he has captured the sort of energetic creativity missing from the Red Devils this season.
The implications are obvious, perhaps even mind-blowing. United is sending a very clear message that throwing money at an ageing player can be deemed as a desperate ploy to close the gap to City, where money talks best.
Yes, Sanchez is a firecracker.
I, too, can wage my money that he can fizz past defences and will get the Old Trafford fans off their seats like George Best and Cristiano Ronaldo once did.
But the critics are holding up their knives and saying that Mourinho is the ultimate short-termist, as he has recruited someone who, at 29, is beyond his best. They particularly note that Sanchez has played more than 50 games for seven consecutive seasons, a heavy load on even younger legs.
But in my opinion, whatever the future, Sanchez, in my books, is simply more than world-class. He belongs with a select band of players like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Philippe Coutinho who have been proven to be single-handed Premier League game changers.
I believe going to the Red Devils’ den will transform Sanchez as it has freed him from the frustration of playing in a failing Arsenal team from whom many have sought an exit route.
The moment Chile went out of the World Cup was a game changer and Sanchez was dead set on leaving Arsenal quickly. At 29, his last shot at glory for his country was gone and I reckon he wanted to join a club with a chance of winning silverware, in England and Europe and beyond.
United is undoubtedly one of the richest mega-football clubs in the world and greedy for global titles in the coming years. And I believe this deal represents good business because they have snaffled a reported £100million player by exchanging him for one they no longer wanted. Even paying Sanchez his reported £70,000 a day wages does not take the overall deal beyond what has become the norm for the world’s leading clubs.
Currently chasing a 12-point gap at the top of the Premiership, I think finishing second would represent progress for United, who will now look for Sanchez to give Old Trafford the biggest morale-boosting lift.
Besides the overwhelming money-structure, it is a well-known fact there are also risks attached to recruiting a star-spangled player mid-season. Mourinho’s first task is to decide who to leave out of a team that has not been doing too badly.
According to the pundits, with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford competing for a place on the left, Sanchez may find his most natural position, where he cuts inside on to his right, is blocked so a berth on the right, at Juan Mata’s expense, is more likely. That would leave the Spaniard scrapping with Jesse Lingard for a more central role behind United’s main striker Romelu Lukaku while powerful midfielder Paul Pogba stays further back.
CRAZY SELECTION HEADACHES
But this is the kind of crazy selection headaches Mourinho came to Old Trafford for. But, having dispensed with Mkhitaryan, a player expensively recruited on his watch, the demanding Portuguese coach knows he must get the mix right this time to please his paymasters.
Former England manager Steve McClaren has warned of the dangers of “wage parity”. He adds: “The money matters especially in transfers done in mid-season. It is very important to players. Yes, they find out – at all levels – and if someone is paid a lot higher than others that can cause a problem.
“If he (Sanchez) is on the wages that is being bandied about then other players will know that when their contracts come up or they are in demand from other clubs. The others will be looking at renegotiation next season or the season after and getting to that (wage) level if they think they are at that level.”
From the perspective of Manchester City, were the Sky Blues tactically smart in not signing Sanchez as they felt making him the best-paid player may affect team spirit as they head on towards the Premiership title?
In fairness to Guardiola and the Blues hierarchy, they clearly knew the dressing-room dynamics could be an issue if Sanchez arrived in mid-season. The huge salaries associated with buying a player like Sanchez made it a very delicate job. The Chilean is about to earn more than Kevin de Bruyne will get when his current contract is upgraded.
With a Premier League title to be secured and realistic hopes retained of winning every trophy on offer, including the Champions League for the first time, in my view, City was unwilling to make such a commitment and unwilling to risk unsettling a group of players who have done so well for the first half of the season.
For the Red Devils, the dressing-room dynamic is a secondary concern to having a winning one. Despite landing the League Cup and Europa League in his first season, Mourinho knows having a decent shot at winning a bigger trophy requires better players – and quite a few of them. Sanchez unquestionably fits the bill.
As Mourinho said after Liverpool had paid Southampton £75m for defender Virgil van Dijk: “If you want the player, you have to pay. It is as simple as that.”
The final judgement on whether Mourinho has pulled off a coup over Guardiola will ultimately be made where it always is – on the pitch and in results.
In my opinion, I touch my heart and say that Mourinho and the Red Devils have signed an awesome world-class player, someone very highly regarded by Guardiola, and there is no doubt he has the capacity to have a biggest-ever impact at Old Trafford.
And, inevitably, the crazy deal at signing a player close to 30 for four years will be portrayed as a victory for United and Mourinho.
If, as he takes his place among Mourinho’s attacking riches, he can push United closer to City – or even beyond them – in the near future, then a genuine victory can be claimed.
‘DIAMOND OF A SIGNING’
Former award-winning Singapore coach Jita Singh believes Sanchez will be a “diamond of a signing”. He says: “He is so versatile. He can play left, he can play right and he can play down the middle as centre-forward, or as a Number 10. He is, very significantly, an excellent signing for United.
“You have got a player who can play in four positions, so where he is used might depend on the form of their other forward players, and also what Mourinho wants to do in certain games, because we know he likes to tinker with his team. It does not really matter, though. We know Sanchez can play pretty much anywhere across the front line, and we know how good he is because of what we have seen from him in an Arsenal shirt.”
Jita believes that Sanchez with the ball, especially in the final third of the pitch, will be the “killer stroke for the Red Devils”.
He explains: “I don’t think you can really coach a player like Sanchez. You can get him to fill in areas when you lose the ball – he will fit into their system in that way – but, if he does join United, when they attack then basically they just have to let the lad off the leash.”
Sanchez, very close to 30 years, will continue to set new bench-marks for world football. I believe deals like that will be seen less and less over the years, while Sanchez-type transfers will increase.
Mark my words, there will be a complete shake-up of the transfer system as we know it.
Alexis Sanchez is merely the tip of the iceberg. This is the dawn of a whole new age.
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist with EPL writing-experience of over three decades. He feels Alexis Sanchez deserves to be the highest paid player in Premier League history.