It seemed like it was the start of a new era: before the 2016/17 season began, there was a palpable sense of excitement around Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho’s reign had been ushered in with four relatively high profile signings: Zlatan Ibrahimovic – the lion, the legend, the king – arrived on a free transfer as one of the best strikers in the world. Paul Pogba became the most expensive player of all time, and Eric Bailly arrived as a hotly tipped prospect for the future. And then there was Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Despite being the previous season’s Bundesliga Player of the Year, his United career never fully got going. He was often omitted from the United team early in his first season, and was hooked at half time against Manchester City in September. Although he eventually came back into the team, and even scored in the Europa League final, it is possible that he never really recovered.
Mourinho had questioned his fitness, but Mourinho’s definition of the word isn’t the same as other people’s. In addition to physical fitness, Mourinho has said, “With regard to the psychological side, which is essential to play at the highest level, a fit player feels confident, cooperates with and believes in his team-mates, and shows solidarity towards them.”
For Mourinho, there was, clearly, a an issue of fitness with Mkhitaryan. It may well have been mental, instead of physical. This is a player who, after all, did take some time bedding in when he first arrived at Borussia Dortmund. He needed time to adapt, to be 100% mentally focused. This is not to diminish his talents, for he remains a tremendous footballer, but it is clear that Mourinho was never convinced of his mentality.
It is in this way that we can see the stark contrast to Alexis Sanchez, who, as Mkhitaryan leaves Old Trafford for the Emirates, will move the other way. Sanchez is a winner; a player with the mental fortitude to drive him to be the very best. This has occasionally manifested as a problem at Arsenal. His frustration on the pitch at times has been obvious, as was his irritation at what he perceived to be a lack of ambition in failing to make big name signings.
While he clearly let this affect his performance on the pitch, often looking less than bothered in the last few months, it would be impertinent not to suggest that he has a point: Arsenal, the team who always finish in the top 4, ended up 5th last season. This time round, 6th looks much more likely. Arsene Wenger’s side have often looked bereft of ideas both on and off the pitch, and Sanchez’s agitation for a move was no doubt inspired by his desire to move forwards, upwards, just as much as it was by a bigger wage package.
He could have gone to Manchester City, where he would be reunited with his former manager Pep Guardiola, but in a way, he is much more suited to Manchester United than either Arsenal or City. Mourinho has instilled an almost galactico-style approach, fusing the superstar magic of David de Gea and Paul Pogba with an instilled work ethic by academy graduates and lesser names; Jesse Lingard’s constant tracking back, Antonio Valencia’s renewed consistency.
Sanchez can be another jewel in this team, allowed the freedom to attack at will. Mourinho might drill his team defensively, but he allows his attack to improvise, and surely Sanchez will relish this platform to shine. Under Guardiola, he could have been part of something more, but he would have no doubt been a much smaller cog.
The endless automations practiced by the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea can be devastatingly effective, but at Old Trafford Sanchez will be given a blank slate; an opportunity to add a little sparkle to a team whose robust pragmatism has often bordered on tedium. Just exactly how well Sanchez and Manchester United do over the comings months will be no doubt intriguing, but if there is one thing for certain, it is that the Chilean will be up for the challenge.