[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is a classic Ed Woodward deal. Manchester United’s imminent capture of Arsenal winger Alexis Sánchez will bring a world-class star to Old Trafford in a transfer that includes eye-watering sums of money. It is also a deal that, just weeks ago, few on the Red side of Manchester countenanced. Sánchez was off to Manchester City, to join the collection of £50 million full-backs of whom José Mourinho is apparently so jealous. Then City dithered and Woodward stepped in. Far from a long-term plan, the deal for Sánchez highlights the short-term thinking that reverberates through United’s hierarchy. It may also be a game-changer for a team still in need of extra stardust.
When the transfer is complete, United will spend something approaching £60 million on a fee, signing on bonus and agent’s commission, together with wages that will make Alexis the best-paid player in England. They are unprecedented sums, especially for a player that has appeared to be out-of-sorts for much of the season.
But that would be churlish analysis given the player’s long-held desire to leave behind Arsenal’s barren trophy cabinet for a platform more in keeping with his ambitions. At 29, Alexis will sign his last long-term contract when he joins United; there are only so many chances left to win trophies and secure his financial future. Neither of which is likely to come at the Emirates.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Alexis will sign his last long-term contract when he joins United. There are only so many chances left to win trophies and secure his financial future.[/blockquote]
Yet, United’s outlay this January is only possible because of the barely credible last-minute decision at City to dither on a transfer that the club’s hierarchy had once assumed was in the bag. Indeed, last summer City had an offer of £60 million accepted for Sánchez, a fee already reduced on a player entering the final year of his Arsenal contract. The deal broke down only when the London club failed to sign a replacement. This time, United’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan is set to smooth the deal.
The Blues appear to have about-faced at the last-minute, Pep Guardiola and director of football Txiki Begiristain making the calculation the player’s demands, together with potential disruption to a squad already likely to win the Premier League, offered an unhealthy mix.
Arsenal was never in the running, with Arsene Wenger admitted that his club had offered “the maximum we could afford” in terms of a counter-offer for Sánchez. The Londoners remain unable to compete with City and United in the market despite moving to the Emirates a decade ago.
“There’s no mystery that United and City have bigger financial resources,” Wenger added. “I respect United because they generate the money they pay to the players with their own resources. After that it’s down to them how much they want to give to the player. United are very well managed financially and on the pitch so that’s why I don’t have any problems with the money they pay.”
City’s loss is United’s gain. Not least because the Reds, having struggled to score against top-class opposition over the last two years, need a touch of stardust in the final third. Sánchez will bring that and more.
He has completed three seasons with the Gunners, securing double figures in both goals and assists each time. Last year Sánchez scored 30 times and provided 14 assists, his best return during 10 seasons in Europe. In total the player has 80 in 165 games for the club, operating mostly from wide areas.
Despite the vast sums in play, Phillipe Coutinho’s £142 million move to Barcelona this month offers some context, and Alexis might just represent a good deal. After all, over the past three seasons the Chilean has better numbers for goals, assists, chances created, dribbles, and passing than the Brazilian.
He also knows what it means to perform on the biggest stage. At Barça, Sánchez formed a highly productive strike partnership with David Villa and Lionel Messi until Neymar’s controversial transfer in 2013 and then Luis Suarez’ addition a year later transformed Los Culés‘ attacking triumvirate.
The player could be deployed in any one of four attacking positions at Old Trafford: as a replacement for Romelu Lukaku up front, disrupting the Anthony Martial – Marcus Rashford job-share on the left, displacing Juan Mata on the right, or as an alternative to Jesse Lingard through the middle. The new recruit might represent an upgrade in any of those positions.
Either way, the transfer will offer Mourinho options, both in terms of where the Chilean plays and where others could move. Should the forward be deployed as the right-sided player of three behind Lukaku – his Barcelona position – Juan Mata may finally get his long-sought opportunity at number 10.
Beyond the pitch, United’s outlay will bring the Reds further into line with City’s spending since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement more than four and a half years ago. United has spent around £730 million since the Scot left Old Trafford, to City’s £789 million. Including Mkhitaryan’s presumed £30 million value, United have sold more than £220 million worth of players during that period, compared to a similar amount at City.
Transfer fees are not always a sound proxy for value, of course, with clubs balancing fees against wages. Total fees also take into account not only a player’s quality and age, but length of contract, as United will exploit with Alexis.
Fees are also only one side of the story, with United’s latest published annual wage bill of £264 million placing the club third behind Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona in European terms. Sánchez will take that figure past £290 million in the next financial year. Where Ferguson complained that “there is no value in the market,” during the Glazer family’s more parsimonious years, United now competes at the top end of the transfer market.
The challenge is not just how much money is spent on transfers and wages, but where it is spent though. Woodward’s agent-led approach to transfers continues brings players through the door, but at a heavy price in terms of fees paid to Jorge Mendes, Mino Raiola, and others. The club will reportedly pay Fernando Felicevich in the region of £10 million to complete the deal. And despite United’s heavy outlay in the post-Ferguson era, there have been far too many failures. More, it seems, than at City.
Where the Reds heavily leverage the European super-agent network, City has little compunction in voicing a belief that the club’s more structured approach is superior to United’s. It is a line being pushed forward this week. After all, Begiristain is well-connected in Europe and beyond and has a well earned reputation for long-term transfer planning. Plans, however, that United has gazumped.
Despite the Mourinho’s protestations to the contrary United’s manager has been well backed by the Board. Sánchez will join an increasingly stellar cohort of the Portuguese’s signings, including Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Nemanja Matic, Victor Lindelöf, Lukaku and Mkhitaryan. That’s more than £330 million in backing, including potential add-ons and agent fees.