Copa America 2019: Rebuilding Alexis Sanchez and how Chile have reinvigorated Manchester United’s faded force

Sanchez has miraculously shown signs of his former self for La Roja to help them advance to the quarter-finals in Brazil 

Jack Lang
Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro
Tuesday 25 June 2019 06:55
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer confident of Alexis Sanchez's future at Manchester United

Sometimes, it is hard to even remember the good days.

Those matches when he exploded like a shaken-up can of lemonade, all sugar and fizz. The runs, the tricks, the goals. The growling bulldog spirit that ran through it all.

And why leave it at matches? Try weeks, months, seasons. When Alexis Sanchez had the bit between his teeth – and it did seem to be wedged in there pretty firmly – he was a genuine force. Just ask Arsenal fans. Just ask Arsenal’s opponents.

Today, though, all of that seems like a hazy dream. Last season, he scored two goals in all competitions. If anything, that paints his efforts in a positive light. Sánchez has been decarbonated, carbon-dated. They say the past is another country; for Sánchez, at this point in his career, it’s basically another continent.

Except wait, for here comes a Copa América, and what do you know? With one flash of that scarlet Chile jersey, Sánchez is suddenly relevant again. He scored one and set up another against Japan, then found the net again as La Roja booked a place in the knockout stages by beating Ecuador.

Last night, against Uruguay, he was arguably the best player on the pitch, combining industry and invention. He created early chances for Charles Aránguiz and Eduardo Vargas with deft passes that brought coos of approval from the red-shirted fans at the Maracanã; a second-half dash back down the touchline to ward off the danger of a counter-attack was less showy but arguably even more indicative of his mood. It was not, in the end, sufficient to swing things in his side’s way, but it was probably enough to raise a few eyebrows in the north west of England.

Make no mistake about it: Sánchez has been abysmal for Manchester United. Properly pretend-this-never-happened-and-burn-the-evidence bad. A string of injuries has hampered his progress, but when he has got on the pitch he has usually made the team worse, getting in the way of his team-mates and giving the ball away with a frequency bordering on the negligent.

A natural risk-taker, Sánchez is not a player capable of working himself into form with a sequence of six-out-of-ten performances. When he’s on it, he’s a lightning rod. When he’s not, he’s a liability.

Yet if his displays for Chile at this tournament are anything to go by, he is not yet a busted flush. The question, then, is this: why is he capable of performing for country and not for club?

Alexis Sanchez chases down Edinson Cavani

One answer is that Chile’s tactics suit him better. The coach, Reinaldo Rueda, has called him a “natural-born goalscorer” and, against Uruguay, played him in a roving two. This meant he was mostly receiving the ball on the edge of the box, not in that weird no man’s land he normally stands in at Old Trafford, 50 yards from goal. It also meant no constant tracking back; he only entered his own half on a handful of occasions.

“He has more freedom to play in his own style for Chile,” Samuel Ferreiro, a journalist for Las Últimas Notícias, told The Independent. “He has been asked to undertake too many defensive duties at Man United. For Chile, he can focus on attacking and can move around in the frontline.”

Beyond that, and more intriguingly, there are also mental factors at play. There is clearly something about representing his country that just gets Sánchez’s juices flowing in a way that club football does not – or at least hasn’t since he left Arsenal. There are three strands to this: the deep interpersonal relations among team-mates, forged across two successful Copa América campaigns; the embrace of the Chile fans, who love him unconditionally; and at the base of it all, national pride, bubbling away.

Alexis Sanchez celebrates for Chile

“Representing your country is the most beautiful thing there is,” Sánchez said last week, while Rueda suggested that being among friends with the national team soothes the forward’s insecurities. “Perhaps in Manchester he does not have the emotional bond he has with his team-mates here, that affection,” the Chile coach speculated. “He has a special connection with the team and the group is very fond of him. He always has a brilliant attitude with us. His work rate is contagious, and the love he has for the national team is really moving. We have given him a lot of warmth, which is what he needs.”

The Copa América has always held a particularly special place in his heart. It was Sánchez, after all, whose comically insolent penalty sealed the 2015 title for La Roja, ending their agonising wait for a major title and turning him into a national hero in the process. But his love for the competition could come at a cost to his club; he played through an injury against Ecuador, and this will be yet another off-season without an extended break.

Ah yes, that extraordinary run of tournaments. Sánchez was at the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Copa América and the 2017 Confederations Cup. He would have been in Russia last year had Chile qualified, and, barring injury or retirement, he’ll be at next year’s calendar-rearrangement Copa América as well. Unless he’s a secret Cliff Richard fan, there’s a good chance that the concept of a summer holiday is entirely alien to him.

Throw in qualifiers and friendlies, plus club commitments, and you’re looking at a whole lot of football – and a whole lot of travelling. Too much, arguably, and it’s here that Sánchez’s famous intransigence starts to look less an of an attribute and more of a fault. “He just loves to play,” is the usual refrain when he turns up at the stadium wild-eyed and sweaty, minutes after a 17-hour flight, but there’s a reason why Arsène Wenger sounded repeated warnings about him entering the ‘red zone’: you can battle through fatigue in the short term, but eventually it catches up with you, nagging at your tendons and taking the spring out of your step.

There’s no doubt that Sánchez isn’t the athlete he was three or four years ago. But there is still a player there, as he has proved over the last week and a half in Brazil. And if Manchester United are unable to sell him this summer – it looks a tough ask – they must hope that he can parlay the good vibes of his Copa displays into improved showings in the other red shirt.

Sanchez has endured a miserable time at Old Trafford

“He’ll certainly get his motivation back playing for Chile, and after that it’s a case of going back and trying to replicate it in Manchester,” Chile legend Ivan Zamorano told The Independent. “With a coach that places confidence in him, and more continuity, I think he’ll become a very important part of the squad next season.

“It’s a challenge for him, and I think he should stay. Manchester is a demanding place to play football, but if the manager wants him, I think that’s the best thing for him. I believe Alexis can contribute a lot more at Manchester United.”

The jury is still out on that one, but this Copa América has at least provided a timely – nostalgic, even – reminder of his best qualities.

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