The Chilean has struggled to justify his huge salary since joining from Arsenal last year and not even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been able to lift him
Alexis Sanchez’s head went down, his expression was pained, his mind clearly busy.
Off came the gloves along with the tape wrapped around his left wrist, and his furrowed brow was given a quick wipe before he exchanged pleasantries with Anthony Martial and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and headed for the Manchester United bench.
It is becoming an increasingly familiar scene to witness. Sanchez with a frown rather than a big infectious smile has simply become the way of things since he swapped Arsenal for United in January 2018, and there was nothing to come out of Sunday’s 1-0 win at Leicester which suggested the catalyst for change is any closer to being found.
The Chile international’s difficulties under Jose Mourinho were never far from people’s thoughts but his early struggles under Solskjaer have in some ways been even more obvious because of the upturns in form in many of his United team-mates.
His manager tried to paint a positive picture of his performance after the game, but it was clear that Solskjaer knows something needs to change in the way Sanchez is performing.
“He’s played well today but we just had to change the dynamics of the game a bit, and Anthony of course has fresh legs,” said Solskjaer. “So, I don’t think there’s any problem with the confidence. He’ll come good.”
But while Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Martial have all revelled in the greater freedom handed to them by Solskjaer, Sanchez has been one of the few high-profile members of the squad who has failed to kick on thus far.
He did score in his return to the Emirates Stadium as United swept Arsenal aside in the FA Cup, but even that night he was an anonymous figure for long stretches.
And while he had missed a lengthy spell through a hamstring injury leading up to that game, his manager believes even that was something he could have managed better himself by not playing on for the beginning of the second half in the cup against Reading after feeling a tug in the same muscle.
“A player loves to play football, doesn’t matter who you are and he’s been hindered by injury, I know how frustrating that can be and how eager you are to get back,” said Solskjaer in January.
“Maybe in the Reading game at half-time he should have told me [he ought] to come off because the next 15 or 20 minutes were a setback.”
But at the moment almost every game is a setback for Sanchez regardless of whether he starts or not.
When he misses out, his stock in the United ranks seems only to fall due to the form of those he is battling for a starting place, and when he does start, he seems incapable of producing the kind of performances which Solskjaer needs to see in order to consider him as one of his regulars.
Where once Sanchez would be darting in behind defences in the way that Lingard, Rashford and Martial have been so successful of late, he has too often been found dropping between the lines to play what to him is an unnatural game.
The more he yearns to be involved in play, the less he seems to be able to get himself into the positions from which he is most devastating.
Under Mourinho, such an issue was understandable. The team’s play during the Portuguese’s reign was so much slower and more ponderous, and it so rarely allowed United to break at speed and free up their attackers to get beyond the last man.
But with Solskjaer actively encouraging such an approach, it is now a glaring issue that Sanchez seems unwilling or unable to play in that fashion.
Sanchez needs to find a reset button somehow; otherwise his form levels combined with his extortionate £400,000-plus weekly salary become a huge issue.
The more Solskjaer becomes convinced that his favoured starting XI doesn’t contain the 30-year-old, the more likely it is that United will be forced to look at the whole situation at boardroom level this summer.
Of course, he has been injured lately. And yes, he has not got the run in the side he might otherwise have been afforded as a result.
But now that he finds himself on the outside of the first-team picture looking in, Sanchez needs to arrest his struggles sooner rather than later if he is to form a compelling argument for being considered irreplaceable in the United squad for next season and beyond.
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