For all the positivity around Manchester United since Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s arrival, there remains one glaring issue that is yet to be solved: what to do with Alexis Sánchez?
The Norweigan coach, so far, has drastically improved the atmosphere at the club. He has guided a previously inconsistent side, clearly lacking in confidence, to seven successive victories, including an impressive 1-0 win at Tottenham last weekend. And he has got the best out of players who been criticised throughout the season under José Mourinho – most notably, Paul Pogba.
Sánchez, though, remains a conundrum. He has played just twice since Solskjær’s appointment, sidelined with a niggling thigh injury. And when he has featured, he has continued to look frustrated, disillusioned.
No one doubts Sánchez’s talent: he proved at Arsenal that he is one of the division’s best when on top form. But at United, he still appears out of place. Solskjær has work to do to lift his confidence, to make the Chilean a functioning part of his team and restore the self-belief that has been so desperately lacking since his move to United.
“Of course, he’s got high standards himself that you demand from yourself,” Solskjær has said of Sánchez. “When it doesn’t work for you, as it clearly hasn’t and he’s had some injuries, then it’s difficult to suddenly click and put that confidence on.
“So we’ve had individual chats but, of course, it’s a fresh start for him with me and Mike [Phelan] coming in – it’s a new lease of life for him maybe. Hopefully, we can see the best of him because he’s a top, top player.”
There is almost a feeling of now or never for Sánchez. His performances were not consistent enough under Mourinho, but that was true of many others in the squad, too. When he is given an opportunity to come into Solskjær’s team, a team now playing the kind of fluid, counter-attacking football that should suit him, there will be no excuses.
Sánchez has shown glimpses of his ability at United. Even in his two most recent games, against Newcastle in the Premier League and Reading in the FA Cup, he provided two assists. And he did not play the full 90 minutes in either match.
When he has played in the Premier League this season, Sánchez has been one of United’s most creative attacking players. He has averaged 1.06 big chances created per 90 minutes, the best of any player in the division by some margin.
Sánchez’s averages of 0.53 assists and 2.49 key passes from open play per 90 are impressive, too. It must be remembered, though, that it comes from a small sample size: the 30-year-old has totalled just 505 minutes of action in the league so far this season.
Nonetheless, the stats are promising and suggest Sánchez is not too far away from rediscovering his best form. When he has featured this campaign, he has too often been on the periphery, making sporadic contributions, threatening the opposition defence only occasionally. At Arsenal, he was a constant menace. That has not been the case with United.
Regular game time will help Sánchez again reach that level. But there is no guarantee of that given the form of United’s other attacking players. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are performing well, and the latter was exceptional in the win over Tottenham at Wembley.
Sánchez, then, will need to impress if he is back in the squad for Saturday’s home game against Brighton. At some point, he will have to take the impetus if he is to rescue his Manchester United career, which at present is at risk of ebbing away.
“A player loves to play football, doesn’t matter who you are,” Solskjaer has said. “He’s been hindered by injury. I know how frustrating that can be and how eager you are to get back. But he’s champing at the bit in training. His attitude has been fantastic in training and I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
Sánchez can count on the faith of his manager, who has shown himself to be trusting and an accomplished motivator. The question, though, is whether Solskjaer is capable of pulling him out of the rut he has been in since joining United.