Two of the fiercest competitors in football took to the field last week at the legendary Maracanã in Brazil. Luis Suarez did what he normally does; putting in a shift while also finding it in himself to instinctively appeal for handball when the opposition keeper handled the ball inside the box (as you do) and also trying to get Gonzalo Jara sent off for tripping a pitch invader. The Uruguayan did not get his way with the referee but still left the field a content man, helping his team to a 1-0 victory over Chile at the Copa America.
Alexis Sanchez was his normal self too, but unlike Suarez, its been on display only in the national colours for Chile for a while now. Ever since his country failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, he has been a shadow of the player he had been at club level in the preceding years. His last few months at Arsenal were arduous and he is yet to hit the high notes at Manchester United.
Back in a national team shirt after a rare summer off last year, he seems revitalised at the tournament he has helped his country win two times in a row. His spot kick against Colombia over the weekend took Chile into the semifinals where they start as favourites against Peru. Over the three games in the group stages, he contributed a couple of goals and an assist, including the winner against Ecuador. Even in defeat against Uruguay, he was arguably the best player on the park, and it has been delightful to see the player enjoy his football once more after seemingly being in a sulk for close to two years.
Will Manchester United get the player they thought they had bought in the next campaign then?
Unlikely, for a multitude of reasons. For starters, Chile play a very different system to what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer employs at the club. Sanchez operates closer to goal for Reinaldo Rueda’s side, and more importantly, does not have to perform the defensive duties that is demanded of him at United. For a player on the wrong side of thirty now, that can have a huge impact on creative output.
Arsene Wenger once warned that his constant desire to play, even after just returning from international duties in far away continents, would catch up with the player. And it has. Injuries and fatigue have taken toll and his body is no longer suited to the rigour an exhaustive Premier League campaign puts on a footballer, especially at the top end. As a result, the enthusiasm seems to have dulled at club level. He got an ankle injury in the clash against Ecuador but it did not stop him from playing against Uruguay. Obviously unsettled at Manchester, he was far more content spending time in the treatment room rather than on the field last season.
He also does not seem to feel valued at his club, which clearly isn’t the case with his home country. He is adored in Chile for being the talismanic presence in that country’s golden generation of footballers. Even though former coach, Jorge Sampaoli, once said that he could be an aloof presence with the national side, he is liked by his teammates and the chemistry built over two successful Copa campaigns is discernible on the field.
Even when he was playing well at Arsenal, tales of dressing room discord often hit the headlines and Sanchez does not seem to have built relationships at United either. The reasons may be many, with his exorbitant wages clearly a factor, but he has not found the reassurances and unconditional love a player like him needs to perform at the highest level week after week.
Even if Chile go on to win the Copa America an incredible three times in a row, it might be best for both the player and Manchester United if there were a mutual parting of ways. The club have only recently invested in young Daniel James and he is clearly the future on the left wing, which is where Sanchez operates. There has been interest from Serie A, and it is a league well suited to players with a high level of technical ability but whose legs have begun to go.
His performances this summer have reminded everyone that there is still a player in that ageing body. He will never be the force of nature that he used to be while at his best, but a good coach will stoke the fire in him again at club level. It just won’t be at Manchester United.