When Manchester United announced the signing of Juan Sebastian Veron on 12th July 2001, it was a statement of intent A genuine world-class star, and one who would significantly strengthen his new team. Despite his undoubted quality, however, it was a move that never worked out. Veron struggled to adjust to the Premiership, but the crux of the problem lay in United’s existing midfield: Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. They were a formidable partnership and had to be broken up to accommodate Veron, mostly with rotation of selection, or Scholes being shunted into different positions. Ultimately, despite some notable performances, Veron’s signing proved to be a mistake.
Ferguson learnt from it, but United did not: after his retirement, the club fell into the trap of chasing quality players, simply on the basis they could potentially transform the team, rather than specifically identifying the needs of the squad. Mourinho, in his first summer, reversed that trend, efficiently acquiring the four players he identified to improve the team.
That single-mindedness and focus was less obvious when United signed Alexis Sanchez in January. A quality player, available at an attractive price: the appeal was obvious. But was he what United needed? No-one would analyse United’s squad and deduct there was a pressing need for another left winger. Rashford and Martial had shared that position throughout the season, a tag-team partnership of pace and promise.
It seemed likely, then, that Sanchez would operate on the right, but he shot down that suggestion during his first press conference. While willing to play anywhere, he expressed his preference to play on the left, or centrally. Consequently, it seemed he would become United’s number 10, particularly after the departure of Mkhitaryan.
Sanchez’s performances in that role, though, have underwhelmed; he isn’t naturally suited to the position in the way Mata, for instance, would be. He isn’t someone who will link play, or offer neat through balls. Instead, he exerts his influence by twisting and turning past players, and attacking space, but often drops too deep to have an impact high up the pitch, regularly leaving Lukaku isolated. Consequently, he has often drifted back to the left wing, usually at the expense of Martial.
Naturally, it has raised questions about Martial’s future at the club. He may have been frustrated before that he isn’t a fixture in the starting line-up, but since January, his prospects have become bleaker, typified by his exclusion on Sunday against West Brom. It’s disappointing that one of United’s most exhilarating talents doesn’t consistently get the opportunities his talent warrants.
Mourinho, like many managers, has his favourites, and Sanchez falls into that camp. Even though his form has suffered, he continues to get selected. There’s little doubt the Chilean is prominent in Mourinho’s plans. And that’s no bad thing – he is a world-class talent, with an attitude to match: he bristles with desire and passion. Despite his patchy form, his determination and ability will see him succeed at Old Trafford.
It leaves United with an unbalanced squad, though, and it seems likely that will be addressed in the summer. Rumours are strengthening that Martial could be sold. Even if fans will be desperate for that not to happen, logically it makes sense, as there is not an effective way to accommodate Sanchez, Martial and Rashford in the team at the same time, and Mourinho has shown little appetite to even attempt to do so. It may have been bad planning that resulted in this situation, but persevering with it at the expense of strengthening the squad in much-needed arears would be compounding the error. A place in the squad and substantial funds could be freed up by a high-profile departure, and it appears, that Martial may be the man to go. There have been rumours about him leaving for over a year now, but it seems that this time they may prove correct.