Premier League: Alexis Sanchez, Henrikh Mkhitaryan's 'dream' swap deal best outcome for all parties involved
Not many get the chance to fulfil their dreams, but Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have the perfect platforms at their disposal to fulfill theirs
Manchester United fans were extremely impatient as they waited for the moment Alexis Sanchez would be unveiled as the club's latest No 7. The vaunted jersey had been vacant since the club sold Memphis Depay to Lyon in what was another failed experiment after Angel Di Maria's short-lived tenure as the club's No 7. And then the moment arrived. In what was a truly unique announcement, the club uploaded a video of Sanchez playing the piano to the tune of "Glory glory Man United" wearing his No 7 jersey. At that very moment, Arsenal announced the signing of Henrikh Mkhitaryan from the Red Devils in what was a historic swap deal. Just like that, the January transfer window became one of the biggest transfer windows ever.
That is not what January is known for though. The norm in January is for clubs that are fighting to avoid relegation and looking to climb up a couple of spots in the table to strengthen the most. However, this season has been very different. Liverpool's £75 million move for defender Virgil van Dijk and Barcelona's signing of attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho for an initial fee of £106 million, with the deal potentially rising to £142 million had everyone's jaws on the floor. The January window had finally become relevant and how. Top clubs never used to get their hands dirty in the winter window but 2018 really sprang a surprise on fans and experts alike.
Swapping two very high calibre players at this scale is almost unheard of. How did we get here then? It took two willing clubs, one player who did not want to renew his contract and one player who couldn't fit into his manager's philosophy. A straight swap made sense for both teams involved, with their valuations of their respective players matching. Manchester United got their man in Alexis Sanchez, a player who gives the Red Devils' attack world-class status. Arsenal signed another player typical of their club — a classy, hardworking midfielder, good on the ball and with the ability to pick the killer pass.
Since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, United haven't had a No 7 who has stayed long enough or performed at a high level consistently enough to impress. After many disappointments, this is the first time the fans are sure this isn't going to be a bust. A man with Premier League pedigree, a worker who suits Jose Mourinho's style to perfection and a player who is considered to be one of the best in the world, Sanchez is definitely one who can bear the burden of the club's history and everyone associated with United would be hoping that he hits the ground running and takes the club another step closer to reclaiming their former glories.
For the Arsenal faithful, Mkhitaryan represents an interesting addition. A player who has always admired the club from afar, the Armenian now joins Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Ozil as the best attacking players at the Emirates stadium. As the Gunners continue to try and rebuild their squad, it is still a mystery as to if the attacking midfielder has been brought in to play alongside Ozil or to be his replacement. However, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang still being linked with the North London outfit, the club's winter business looks unfinished and time will tell what sort of a role Mkhitaryan will play.
Money key but not the only motivation for Alexis Sanchez
Alexis has signed a four-and-a-half-year deal with the Old Trafford club with his weekly wages reportedly in the region of £500,000 before tax, making him the highest-earning player in the Premier League, ahead of new teammate Paul Pogba. The Chilean looked set to move to Manchester City earlier this season with reports indicating that the move would be finally completed in January. However, United then stepped into the race and were able to make the better offer, securing his signature. Yes, the money being talked about is unbelievable and exorbitant, but the Red Devils are a commercial giant and are using the revenue they earn to pay his wages.
Money has been pointed out as the major reason for his move to United, but there were many other factors that remained in the background that swung the decision in favour of the Jose Mourinho managed side. Having been identified as a key signing by Pep Guardiola, Alexis Sanchez would just have been another brilliant player part of the incredible treasure chest of attacking riches at the Spaniard's disposal. That was probably a sticking point for Sanchez, as he is always eager to play every match. At United, he will be the most experienced attacking player, offering them flexibility, ambition and personality.
Another reason was the fact that he has earlier played for Guardiola at Barcelona, where his tendency to always keep attacking and wanting the ball at all times led him to stray from the team's strategy on a few occasions, something which infuriated the current City coach. However, what tilted the scales permanently in United's favour was the fact that Sanchez and his agent were willing to renege from their oral agreement with the Citizens in order to explore a better deal, which Ed Woodward and the Red Devils had no problems delivering.
Getting down to brass tacks — how will Sanchez and Mkhitaryan fit in?
Manchester United are getting the finished article, a player who will immediately walk into the starting eleven. Considering that he played in his favoured position on the left for the majority of his time at Arsenal, Alexis Sanchez would probably expect to play that role for United as well. However, Anthony Martial has been in very good form on the left, working hard to track the defenders and using his speed, guile and finishing to great effect going forward.
Despite the Chilean himself stating that his preferred positions are on the left or behind the striker, it remains to be seen where Jose Mourinho fits him. It is quite possible that he plays Sanchez down the middle behind Romelu Lukaku, allowing him a free role to cause havoc. That would mean Jesse Lingard moves to the right. Another possibility is that Sanchez takes Juan Mata's place on the right, pushing the Spaniard to the bench.
Given all the possibilities, it will be really intriguing to see what Mourinho opts for as Sanchez is exactly the sort of attacking player he likes — hardworking, always running, clinical and physically strong. The Chilean's signing though confirms that the Red Devils will be playing a 4-2-3-1 for the remainder of the season, with Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic occupying the midfield roles. The creative responsibilities will still lie with Pogba, but the addition of Sanchez adds ruthlessness and dynamism to an exciting but young Manchester United attack.
Mourinho indicated that his attack is now complete and the fact that Alexis will be available for the Champions League knockout rounds makes him an extremely valuable signing. His presence adds another element to the United juggernaut and they are now definitely a bigger threat in the competition. In a season where their Premier League hopes are all but over, the Champions League is definitely a competition they would be targeting.
On the other hand, Mkhitaryan would probably take Alexis Sanchez's place in the Arsenal starting eleven, dovetailing with Mesut Ozil as the duo roam freely acting as playmakers. The fact that the two of them like to come inside looking for the ball would help their full-backs, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Hector Bellerin overlap frequently. The signing of the Armenian should also give Alexandre Lacazette a much dynamic role now, as he will now be the primary target, and he can look to use his pace and strength to get in behind the opposition defence frequently.
The uncertainty surrounding Aubameyang's possible move to the club hasn't dissipated yet and it remains to be seen what comes of that pursuit. If the Borussia Dortmund man does move to England to join his former teammate Mkhitaryan, it could make for an incredible attacking quartet at Arsenal. The possibilities are endless but an attacking 4-2-2-2, with Ozil and Mkhitaryan given the freedom of the pitch to link up with Lacazette and Aubameyang could spell nightmares for defenders. Till there is clarity on that transfer though, it is safe to assume that the former Manchester United man would slip into Alexis' role. With Ozil's future not clear yet, at least beyond the summer, time will tell what lies in store for Arsenal.
As the Gunners focus on winning the Europa League, they would be glad to have someone who has the expertise of negotiating that tough competition. Mkhitaryan was one of the stars for Manchester United in the Europa League last season and scored in the final to help them win and secure their place in the Champions League this season. With the knockout stages approaching, his quick adjustment would definitely be important to their progress in the competition.
Swap deal leads to dream moves for two 29-year-olds
This is a risky deal for both Manchester United and Arsenal. The two clubs have banked on two 29-year-old players to deliver for the next 3-4 seasons.
Mkhitaryan has always been an admirer of how Arsenal played football and Arsene Wenger's managerial ability. Though he did not get the chance to join the Gunners at an earlier stage of his career, he has now got that move, albeit in a manner that wasn't an experience to be savoured, used as bait by the Red Devils to sign Alexis Sanchez. Mkitaryan however has the chance to make a fresh start, forget about what happened at United and take the bull by the horns to become a fan favourite for the Gunners.
With Sanchez turning 30 in a few months, this is the last big payday for him and he needs to make sure he can realise his ambitions of winning silverware and challenging for major honours like the Premier League and the Champions League on a regular basis by performing to the best of his capabilities. As a youngster at Udinese, he was linked with Manchester United. Though the move didn't happen then, it has gone through now. The onus is on him now.
Though pretty late in their careers, both these players have seen their dreams come true and the only hope is that it works out for them on the pitch. Not many get the chance to fulfill their dreams, but Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have the perfect platforms at their disposal to fulfill theirs.
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