“All you need is love” sung the Beatles in their 1967 release of the same name, and according to Chile coach Reinaldo Rueda, that’s what’s been missing from Manchester United misfit Alexis Sanchez’s game over the last 18 months.
Over three and a half seasons with Arsenal following his £35 million move from Barcelona – where he had to make way for the arrival of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez from Liverpool – Sanchez built a reputation as one of the most feared forwards in the Premier League.
He was twice voted Arsenal’s player of the year and featured in the 2014/15 Premier League team of the year.
But in his 18 months with United, Sanchez has lost both form and confidence, and now the Premier League giants are reportedly desperate to offload him and his reported £400,000 a week salary.
Yet Sanchez has shown signs of his old self at the Copa America, where he scored the winning shoot-out penalty against Colombia to send Chile into a semi-final meeting with neighbors Peru.
He also scored in each of Chile’s opening two matches, victories over Japan and Ecuador, meaning he’s scored more times in this month-long competition than he did in the entire Premier League campaign for United.
According to Rueda, it boils down to one thing that is missing from his life in rainy Manchester: “love.”
“In the national team and because of the attention they receive, the players don’t want to leave,” said the Colombian coach, who is no fan favorite himself due to leaving out popular goalkeeper Claudio Bravo from his Copa squad.
“Despite not playing for their clubs, they come here with commitment and forge a strong group.”
Sanchez is a hero in his country having been one of the stars of Chile’s back-to-back Copa America victories in 2015 and 2016 – the only ones in their history.
The Wonder Kid
He’s known as the “Nino Maravilla” – the Wonder Kid – in his homeland and is Chile’s record goalscorer with 43. There’s even been a film made about his life, in which he starred.
As well as scoring the winning penalty against Colombia, he netted the decisive goal in the 2-1 victory over Ecuador, and helped blow out the scoreline late on in the 4-0 thumping of Japan.
In Manchester, he managed just one Premier League goal in 20 appearances, although only nine of those were from the start.
He looked lost most of the time in the red shirt of United, rarely able to link up effectively with his team-mates or produce any of the pace and trickery that was a feature of his career at Udinese, Barcelona and Arsenal.
But he’s not alone in putting behind him disappointing club seasons to thrive with his national team.
Colombia’s James Rodriguez, seemingly unwanted by either his parent club Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, where he spent the last two seasons on loan, was all creativity and ingenuity with Colombia in Brazil until they lost to Chile.
And Philippe Coutinho, jeered by Barcelona’s fans and pilloried in the notoriously demanding Catalan press, scored a brace in Brazil’s opening match against Bolivia and remains an unconditional starter in coach Tite’s team.
But while they can be under-appreciated at their European clubs, they remain adored by their countries’ fans.
“That’s why players like Coutinho, James or Alexis, who didn’t have a great season, become themselves again with the national team,” said Rueda.
“The treatment that is given to the players as professionals and as people generates the reciprocity that allows them to give their all.”
In his current form, Sanchez looks not only capable of leading Chile to an unprecedented third straight Copa title, but is putting himself in the shop window to earn a move to one of Europe’s giants and end his United nightmare.
Club requires right-back. Club scours the globe for right-back and is seemingly linked with every possible right-back you’ve heard, or never heard of.
Club is on cusp of announcing arrival of right-back. Then… club finds some reason to torpedo the deal and, instead, sign no-one and look in-house for solution. Turning instead to someone who operates in a completely different position and has never played right-back in his life – or someone vastly inexperienced, mediocre or past his best – to fill said key position.
This has basically been Manchester United’s mantra for identifying and acquiring players in crucial positions over the last five summers.
But, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s arrival, United have actually selected a round peg for a round hole. How about that. This sends a signal that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might actually know what he’s doing after all.
Wan-Bissaka this week became United’s second signing of the summer, after Daniel James. And while some Red Devils fans will fail to be enamoured by the capture of a tentative talent rather than a shiny star, the club are belatedly doing what they’re supposed to. Buying players in positions they, well, require players.
A young, talented home-grown player, Wan-Bissaka is an exciting acquisition. He’s not fully established by any means. Arriving at a gargantuan fee that could eventually rise to £50million is eye-popping for a player who’s only just completed his first full season of professional football.
The Croydon-born defender not only has to adapt to the news he’s replacing Rio Ferdinand as United’s most expensive defender, but he now sits behind only Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Angel Di Maria as the club’s fourth costliest signing ever. No pressure then.
But Wan-Bissaka doesn’t strike you as someone who is overawed or nervous. Having made tentative steps at Crystal Palace with seven appearances at the tail end of the 2017/18 season, he played 35 of 38 Premier League games last term and looked like a seasoned veteran.
He was second only to Watford’s Etienne Capoue for most interceptions (84) in the league, while only two more players in Europe’s top five leagues made more tackles than his 129 (Wilfred Ndidi and Idrissa Gueye).
Meanwhile, now ex-team-mate and former United player Wilfried Zaha painted a picture of a young man purely interested in the game and bettering himself on the field.
“Unless you speak to him, he will not say a word,” said Zaha, who himself is expected to leave Selhurst Park.
“That’s why people like him. He doesn’t really chirp up much – just comes in, does what he has to do, then goes home.”
Defensively excellent, “Spider” – nicknamed because of his long legs which plenty of Premier League attackers have come into contact with – remains a work in progress going forward.
He contributed sparingly as a rampaging modern full-back is required – although he did post three assists (4th), 61 dribbles (2nd) and 0.3 crosses per game (3rd) among Palace players.
You feel that’s an aspect of his game that he’ll have to improve going forward at United, but one he is also in the right environment to develop.
Wan-Bissaka’s, like James, is not a big name that will get the younger portion of the fanbase purring, but it should permeate more positivity among the older, wiser generation.
Those who are aware that for all the many things to blame for the club’s current decline, not filling voids post – and indeed even pre – Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement is chief among them.
Gary Neville knew he was finished as a top-level pro at United on New Year’s Day 2011. United barely escaped The Hawthorns with a fortunate 2-1 win against West Brom – Javier Hernandez scoring the winner after the hosts had missed a second-half penalty.
Red Devils legend Neville had been roasted by Jerome Thomas and said famously in his autobiography a few years later: “The end came for me on New Year’s Day, 2011 – and it came on a toilet at The Hawthorns.
“It wasn’t the way I’d have chosen to finish, but I knew for certain that this was my last game.”
Neville announced his retirement a month later. Eight years have passed and United have failed to find a long-term successor. John O’Shea and Wes Brown were more than able deputies during their Old Trafford careers but Brown, then 31, and O’Shea, 30, both left the club for Sunderland that summer.
Fiery Brazilian Rafael da Silva was seen as the heir apparent at right-back and he got his chance when the aforementioned trio left. But after 169 games he departed for Lyon in 2015 with archaic Louis Van Gaal favouring a 3-4-3 formation, and preferring either Antonio Valencia or Jesse Lingard at wing-back.
Rafael made just 11 appearances in his final season before departing for Ligue 1. The ensuing four years has been a real comedy of errors in United’s defence. But especially at right-back where initially Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were deployed, to cut their teeth.
Converted wingers Valancia and Ashley Young have filled in admirably without ever fully looking the part while Matteo Darmian arrived in the same summer Rafael departed after a promising season with Torino in which he’d been named in the Serie A Team of the Year.
He enjoyed a decent debut campaign but once Van Gaal was jettisoned, he was never able to convince Jose Mourinho of his worth – it’s hard to do when you’re a right-back playing on the left side of defence most of the time.
Diogo Dalot enjoyed an impressive opening season in red – especially in attack – last term and he’ll provide adequate cover for Wan-Bissaka in 2019/20, while also furthering his own development.
A lot of panic has – probably understandably – emanated from United fans in the early part of this summer due to a catastrophic season. But Solskjaer’s first two signings suggest he is actually taking a methodic and sensible approach to the market this summer.
It is contrary to the last five years when Ed Woodward has assumed a mad professor role, wildly throwing cash at big names in the hope they can conjure some magical formula to get United out of the deep malaise they have fallen into.
That formula has not been found with just two signings, far from it. Solskjaer still needs to acquire at least three more players he is targeting – a centre-back and two central midfielders the priority.
But it is a sensible approach. James sparked it and now a right-back has been found. It’s a tentative start in getting United right back to the top where they belong.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka joined an exclusive club earlier this week – and we’re not talking about Manchester United. Well, we are, but the club we’re really talking about is the most expensive United signings in history.
The 21-year-old has swapped Selhurst Park for Old Trafford for an initial fee understood to be £45million, with another £5million possible in add-ons possibly taking the deal to £50m.
That means Wan-Bissaka jumps straight into the top five most costly Red Devils ever, nestled in fourth, behind Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Angel Di Maria.
But how do the top 10 rate in terms of success. Have they been a hit, miss or maybe?
1 Paul Pogba (£89.3m from Juventus, August 2016)
He already owns the tag of most expensive player in club history. It’s also fair to say Pogba has the potential to be one of United’s greatest-ever players.
Or should that be had? Because it’s equally feasible to believe the French World Cup winner won’t be at Old Trafford by the time the 2019/20 Premier League season kicks off.
When you’re the most expensive footballer in the world (Pogba has since been bumped down to fifth) it’s hard to stay out of the spotlight, which Pogba rather likes. The problem is that for all his immense talent and humanitarian and charity work, it seems Pogba prefers the limelight more than actually being a footballer.
An unquestionable talent, who finally looked to be fulfilling his potential when he rose to the occasion after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took interim charge, he nevertheless regressed towards the end of the season.
2 Romelu Lukaku (£75m from Everton, July 2017)
Another player who, while infuriating, is hard to know whether to place in the keep, scrap or maybe pile. One thing is abundantly clear. Lukaku does not fit into a fluid and fast United system under Solskjaer.
An incredible scorer of goals – the Belgian is already joint 19th on the list of most Premier League goals (113 in 252 games, he’s ninth in terms of ratio: 0.45) – and yet he often fails to do it against the big teams.
His Red Devils record, on paper, is solid enough (42 goals in 96 games). But after bulking up hugely last season, he lost the pace that had been such a feature of his play in a devastating debut campaign in which 12 more goals were plundered.
His technique and touch are also atrocious by elite football standards.
3 Angel Di Maria (£59.7m from Real Madrid, August 2014)
Has there ever been a bigger disappointment in a United shirt? Who else can any fan remember being so excited about when his signing was announced, and yet so disengaged when he subsequently left following a fallow period in red? Juan Sebastian Veron, Radamel Falcao, Alexis Sanchez?
Still, it’s hard to argue against it being Di Maria – a player who’d just picked up the man of the match award in the Champions League final for Real Madrid.
It started well – two goals (his chipped effort in a madcap 5-3 defeat to Leicester was unreal) and two assists in his first four games. But injury, being at odds with the archaic Louis van Gaal and his home being burgled all contributed to a nightmarish downfall.
After being sent off in the FA Cup against Arsenal, his Old Trafford career was over.
4 Aaron Wan-Bissaka (£50m from Crystal Palace, June 2019)
Time will obviously tell whether the 21-year-old can live up to his exalted price tag. After all, not only has Wan-Bissaka entered the top five most expensive United signings of all time, he’s also usurped the great Rio Ferdinand as the Red Devils’ most expensive defender ever.
The promising England defender enjoyed a stunning breakout season at Crystal Palace, blazing a trail across many defensive categories, including second most interceptions (84) in the Premier League, while only two more players in Europe’s top five leagues made more tackles than his 129.
United fans should be excited. Their defence is about to be upgraded.
5 Fred (£52m from Shakhtar Donetsk, June 2018)
Tough to deliver judgement on a player who’s only completed his debut season at United. But 2018/19 was an erratic and at times tough one for Fred in red.
A lot of his inconsistency can be put down to first-season struggles. Some was very good; in the initial throes of Solskjaer’s reign his boundless energy and appetite were key ingredients of United’s play – his display in the second leg of the last 16 Champions League victory over Paris Saint-Germain was immense.
At other times though he seemed unable to complete the most basic tasks like making 10-yard passes to team-mates or tracking runners. A big season ahead.
Verdict: JURY’S OUT
6 Nemanja Matic (£40m from Chelsea, July 2017)
A player who might not receive a lot of love from United fans but, much like a can of Ronseal woodstain, does exactly what it says on the tin.
Matic has served exactly the purpose for which Jose Mourinho brought his former charge to Old Trafford from Chelsea – a calm, assured, attritional presence in the heart of midfield.
The only issue is, Matic’s legs also succumbed to wear and tear last season. Excellent in his debut 2017/18 campaign in which his marshalling of the midfield allowed Pogba to roam menacingly, the snarling Serbian came straight into last season from the World Cup with very little time off.
Still only 30, Matic’s legs have seen a lot of action, which showed last term. Hopefully this summer, with requisite rest, he will be replenished.
7 Juan Mata (£37.1m from Chelsea, January 2014)
Arrived during a difficult period – David Moyes was struggling badly to fill Sir Alex Ferguson’s shoes and had previously overpaid for Marouane Fellaini.
Fans are generally on the fence over Mata. He’s an undoubtedly skilled playmaker, sublime passer and oozes intelligence, both on and off the field. At the same time he’s something of a luxury player. He’s often pushed off the ball too easily, lacks speed and is perennially hindered by the fact he plays so often out wide instead of the central attacking position he’s most suited to.
Still, a goal every 4.8 games, a scorer of some crucial ones and a great professional who’s won the FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League.
8 Anthony Martial (£36m from Monaco, September 2015)
Is there a more frustrating footballer on the planet than moody Martial? With other, less gifted players, it’s easy to lose interest or love for them if they aren’t able to make the grade at United.
But the flamboyant Frenchman has so much pace, skill, technique, flair and goalscoring ability, that he really should be talked about in the same breath as Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva across the city.
Except he isn’t. He’s nowhere near them. While those players have married their innate ability with an unquenchable thirst to improve and overcome obstacles, Martial seems unable or unwilling to break through to that elite level.
With a constant frown and look like he’d rather be anywhere else etched permanently on his face, United fans are still waiting for the complete player to emerge – four years after arriving.
9 Victor Lindelof (£31m from Benfica, June 2017)
Luke Shaw hoisted the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award – given to Manchester United’s player of the season since 1987/88 – last term.
But, following a poor last two months of the season, some felt Lindelof would have been the more deserving recipient after a solid overall campaign.
United’s defence was largely a shambles last season – they conceded 26 more goals (54) than they did finishing runners-up in 2017/18. That’s almost double.
But the Swede grew in stature throughout, eradicating a difficult debut season. He must improve further this year, but if only United could find a dependable defender to put alongside him, it would go a long way to fixing their defensive fragility.
Verdict: JURY’S OUT
10 Dimitar Berbatov (£30.75m from Tottenham, September 2008)
An elegant, languid footballer who appeared to be so laid back he was lazy. But the beauty of Berbatov was that he was so good, he often didn’t need to try because he was still better than almost everyone on the pitch.
It’s also hard to argue with a goal record of 56 in 149 games as the brilliant Bulgarian helped United win two Premier League titles and the League Cup.
He was joint top scorer (20) as United won the 2010/11 Premier League title and will be fondly remembered for scoring five goals in a 7-1 drubbing of Blackburn as well as a hat-trick – including a spectacular overhead kick – in a 3-2 win against Liverpool in September 2010.
It was the first treble by a United player against their old foes in 64 years.