By the time this column goes to print, Alexis Sanchez could very likely be a Manchester United player (save a last-minute collapse), while Henrikh Mkhitaryan is joining Arsenal in a swap deal. How Bundesliga’s player of the year two seasons ago fizzled at Old Trafford is a story in itself. But nobody seems to be bothered about the Armenian’s football ‘plight’ at the moment, which is pretty understandable. Sanchez, if United eventually manage to pull it through, would be the biggest transfer coup of the season. Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, all but confirmed the deal during a press conference on Thursday. “I have worked on transfers for 30 years, so it is likely to happen, but any moment things can break down,” Wenger said, adding: “This would be an exchange of players and I think one would replace the other.” One day later, United manager Jose Mourinho said: “Clearly, everybody knows that we are there…” So this story is about how United spectacularly managed to win a race that had been Manchester City’s to lose. We would go the financial part of Sanchez’s transfer later. The Chilean, one of the best forwards in the Premier League with 60 goals and 25 assists over the past three-and-a-half years, would be out of contract at Arsenal at the end of the season. The Gunners pulled out all the stops to keep him at the Emirates, but Sanchez had long stopped believing in Wenger’s project.
It was evident in his laughs on the team dug-out, as Bayern Munich hammered Arsenal 5-1 in a Champions League fixture last term. Sanchez is 29 years old and he knew full well that his chances of winning major trophies lay elsewhere. Arsenal, after all, haven’t won the league since 2004. Sanchez was very close to becoming a City player for £60 million on the summer deadline day, August 31, last year. But Wenger blocked the move at the eleventh hour because he couldn’t sign up a replacement. During the ongoing January transfer window, however, Arsenal were resigned to losing their star player to City, although the Manchester club’s valuation for the player had been reduced to £20 million. Sanchez would become a free agent at close season and the reduction was acceptable. Sanchez reportedly coveted a City move, with an eye to rekindle his association with Pep Guardiola. The two know each other well from their Barcelona days. Also, City are the name of the game this season—12 points clear at the top of the Premier League table and in the hunt for an unprecedented quadruple.
So what prompted Sanchez to snub his ‘favourite’ club and fall for their cross-town rivals? The popular theory is that United hijacked the deal, flexing their financial muscle. They are offering the player £350,000-a-week (after tax), which makes Sanchez the highest earner in the history of English football. Besides, the winger would reportedly get a £20-million signing-on fee, while his agent pockets in excess of £10 million. Arsenal’s share in the deal is around £30-plus million plus Mkhitaryan from United. City were reportedly not willing to pay more than £20 million for a player, who would be a free agent in four months’ time. They also baulked at the demand of Sanchez’s agent. And a section is trying to make us believe that between football and money, Sanchez has chosen the latter. Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown has branded Sanchez “the biggest mercenary in football”.
To start with, City thrive on an avalanche of petro-dollars. As Mourinho had said, “They buy full-backs for the price of strikers”. In a crazy football market, where Barcelona forked out £140 million to sign Philippe Coutinho and centre-half Virgil van Dijk came to Liverpool for £75 million, it was astonishing that City refused to pay more than £20 million for a proven match-winner. Sanchez’s contract expiry at Arsenal in June notwithstanding, £35 million for a player of his class was a bargain. Given City’s riches, it was peanuts.
They also could have comfortably matched United’s £350,000-a-week wage for Sanchez. Guardiola has spent over £400 million on transfers since taking charge in 2016 compared to Mourinho’s £286 million at United during the same period. As Wenger pointed out, United generate money to pay their players “with their own resources”. Also, the Red Devils, despite being a commercial behemoth, spend less than 50% (a little over 47%) of their annual revenue on player wages. From Sanchez’s perspective, if he were so keen to re-establish his bond with Guardiola, he could have easily waited for four more months before walking into his mentor’s embrace.
So the more logical conclusion is that Sanchez wanted to have United on his CV and when England’s biggest club showed interest and offered him a lucrative financial package, he couldn’t say ‘no’. City might be the nouveau riche and presenting eye-catching football under Guardiola, but over the long term, City and United are still a big mismatch. United comfortably dwarf their ‘noisy neighbours’ in terms of global fan base, commerce, history and success. This is why they managed to snatch Romelu Lukaku as well from under the noses of Chelsea. When the dust settles and a footballer looks back at his career post retirement, an association with elite clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Milan and United gives him an exalted status. Sanchez’s choice became easy once United came calling.