Although Manchester United and Arsenal’s rivalry isn’t quite the ferociously intense one in the days of Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and the Battle of the Buffet, Sunday’s meeting is still brimming with intrigue.
Firstly, it will be Arsène Wenger’s last match at Old Trafford as the Gunners’ manager. In almost 22 years, the Frenchman has experienced dizzying highs and crushing lows inside the Theatre of Dreams. He’s clinched league titles there, he’s both stunned Sir Alex Ferguson and been stunned by him there.
Yes, Wenger’s Old Trafford swansong will doubtless be a dominant narrative this weekend, but there is also the small matter of Alexis Sánchez turning out against Arsenal – the first time he’ll have done so since leaving in January.
The Chilean’s transfer rocked the Premier League after a proposed move to Manchester City collapsed as he joined United instead.
After three-and-a-half seasons in North London, the 29-year-old forward jumped ship and joined José Mourinho. For Arsenal fans, it dredged up haunting memories of watching Robin van Persie link up with Fergie to deliver the Scot the last of his 13 league titles.
Sunday’s clash may be at Old Trafford but, rest assured, the travelling band of Gunners supporters will jeer and howl at Sánchez at every possible opportunity.
Of course, the more pitiless contingent of the Arsenal fanbase have revelled in Sánchez’s slow start to life as a Red Devil.
They have watched gleefully as Sánchez has struggled to hit the ground running in a new system, under a wholly different manager and with a new crop of team-mates not attuned to the Chilean’s intricacies.
Let’s look at how Sánchez has performed in the first few months of his United career compared to his final half-season at the Emirates.
Sánchez was one of Arsenal’s most influential attacking players – and the stats illustrated as much. The former Barcelona winger averaged 2.56 key passes per 90 for Arsenal this season, the third-highest in the league after Eden Hazard and Mesut Özil. That number has dropped to 1.62 during his time in the North West.
Sánchez’s efficacy in the final third for Arsenal resulted in him having a league-high xA per 90 of 0.4, as well as a healthy xG per 90 of 0.41, ranking him 16th.
The playmaker notched seven goals and three assists in 19 league appearances for the Gunners this season. His xA per 90 at United, however, is 0.24.
At United, he has two goals and three assists in league games. He hasn’t managed to contribute to the goalscoring charts for United as he would have liked, but he is taking considerably fewer shots for Mourinho’s side, with 1.7 compared to 3.6 at Arsenal. In terms of total scoring attempts, Sánchez averaged 4.12 at Arsenal compared to his 1.73 at United.
Strikingly, his xG at Arsenal was 6.93, towering above the current rate of 2.01.
So, while Sánchez may have lost some of his clinical edge at United, he is not getting the same amount of goalscoring opportunities, with 13 shots for his new employers compared to 54 at Arsenal.
Sánchez established himself as one of the most accomplished players with the ball at his feet while at Arsenal, a devilishly elusive attacker with a low centre of gravity and two nimble feet at his disposal.
However, with his confidence taking a slight knock, he has been losing the ball at United with greater frequency. Dispossessed 2.9 times per 90 at Arsenal, that number has gone up to 3.35 for United, a higher average than any of his team-mates.
While he takes more risks with the ball in trying to unlock defences, Sánchez has, at times, been guilty of relinquishing possession too easily at United and, while he has still created chances for those around him, his 0.34 big chances created per 90 at United is down from his 0.41 for Wenger’s men.
Ultimately, Sánchez’s numbers at United don’t quite match up to his time at Arsenal. But that is not a reason for his new side’s fans to worry.
While his first few months at Old Trafford have been rocky, Sánchez appears to have been rejuvenated recently, producing two of his best performances for the club in the last three games (against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur).
Fresh from arguably his finest display for United, running himself into the ground in last weekend’s FA Cup semi-final victory over Spurs, Sánchez will turn out against his former side rejuvenated and confident that he can make his former manager’s last trip to Old Trafford one to forget.