Alexis Sánchez’s return to old home brings out his best
Manchester United forward scored the opener in what was a much-improved show
Manchester United’s Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring his side’s first goal in their 3-1 win over Arsenal in the FA Cup fourth round. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters
Just past the half hour on a chilly night Alexis Sánchez did something he managed far too seldom in the dog days of the late-Wenger era. He got the Emirates crowd on its feet: fists clenched, leaping about the seats with something close to delirium. Albeit, on this occasion Sánchez had just scored a goal against Arsenal, choosing to celebrate extensively with his grey-shirted Manchester United teammates in front of the home fans behind the goal.
You can hardly blame him. For one thing it was just his second goal for United since March last year. And for another Sánchez was enjoying a rare treat on a slightly wild night in north London. This time around he finally got to play against rather than in front of an Arsenal defence.
All those months of skulking at the far end of the pitch, all those lost weekends. Well, here was a chance to see it from the other side in a first half when Arsenal’s full-backs pushed up giddily, leaving the flanks open, and the red and white shirts partied like it was 2016.
Sánchez was always likely to be the story here on his return to the starting XI. He will remain so after a performance that raised the first suggestion in a long time of a grand attacking force not yet eking out the final dregs of its reserve tank.
How do you solve a problem like Alexis? This Saturday is the one-year anniversary of his debut for United. That FA Cup fourth-round tie was down in Somerset against Yeovil, a night that saw many a quiveringly enthused Sánchez screed filed from a freezing tent outside the main stand.
Things haven’t exactly worked out since. In fact, it has been a truly remarkable period in any career, in its own way an acme of modern footballing absurdity. Before this game Sánchez had played 90 minutes since the start of November.
During that period Manchester United had paid him £4m. Since Yeovil they’ve paid him at least £18m, and not just for his missing goals, but for his powers of antimotivation, his unleadership, his feel-bad factor around the place.
This is a player who has in the space of a year and a half become a one-man symbol of systemic failure at not one but two Premier League super-clubs; a player with a very modern touch of death about him. It is exceptional, legacy-defining work. Just not in a good way.
Not that Sánchez is done yet judging by his performance here. He started on the left of a three-man attack, with Jesse Lingard in the centre and Romelu Lukaku on the right. It was a formation that asked a little more of Lukaku, who at times under José Mourinho seemed almost totally static, lumbering backwards like a dying redwood toppling through the forest canopy.
Sánchez was booed the first few times he touched the ball. They were very minor touches. But they were minor boos too. The Emirates still doesn’t really do cauldrons of hate. This was more a high-grade casserole dish of well-mannered disapproval.
With eight minutes gone Sánchez had a first run at Ainsley Maitland-Niles, buzzing and spinning and twirling in the old familiar way. And United did look good in those opening exchanges. Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera seem to have found an effective formula, Herrera sitting deeper for long periods. Paul Pogba is clearly enjoying being allowed to be himself, to pass nicely, to glaze that United midfield with craft and guile.
The opening goal came just as the Arsenal defence was overcome with a strange kind of slackness. Or perhaps not so strange. A few moments earlier Sokratis Papastathopoulos had stumbled off after a protracted period of trying to stay on, a man clearly in pain but apparently concerned above all with keeping Shkodran Mustafi off the pitch.
Rightly so as it turned out. Within 10 minutes of Papastathopoulos going off Lukaku found himself with time to play the most exquisite little reverse pass behind a flat defence. Sánchez had made a fine curving run. He had time to veer around Petr Cech, taking 30 little millipede steps to every galumphing goalkeeper’s stride, before conjuring a lovely floated finish from a tight angle.
Two minutes later Lingard added a well taken second, again finding more open green spaces. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pulled one back after good work from Aaron Ramsey. And Arsenal pressed hard in patches, bringing on Mesut Özil in time to give him a bizarre eight minutes on the same pitch as Sánchez while a thousand doomed late-Wenger Arsenal dreams flickered away just out of sight.
Sánchez left the pitch with 18 minutes to go. But this still felt like a moment of shifting tides. Another game, another Norwegian resurrection act. Sánchez is the sixth United attacker to score under the new manager. Once again the team looked fluent and easy and full of speed and movement.
And who knows. If Ole Gunnar Solskjær can even find the Sánchez on-switch, a player who until now has seemed gripped by a strange congealment of the spirit, maybe it really is time to find out how far he can take this travelling red caravan from here. – Guardian service