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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Alexis Sanchez can emulate Robin van Persie and become a transformative figure at Manchester United

Chilean forward the latest high-profile signing in the Mourinho era and should help revive a tradition of quick counter-attacking football.

Alexis Sanchez has joined Manchester United on a four-and-a-half year contract from Premier League rivals Arsenal. Darren Staples / Reuters
Alexis Sanchez has joined Manchester United on a four-and-a-half year contract from Premier League rivals Arsenal. Darren Staples / Reuters

Farewell, Manchester United. Hello, Sanchezter United. It did not take long for a club to be renamed; not officially, of course.

Yet besides excitement at a new signing and a sense of schadenfreude towards Arsenal, it reflected the sense that Alexis Sanchez could be a transformative figure.

The last time United recruited Arsenal’s best player, Robin van Persie won them the league. Not single-handedly, but with such a catalytic contribution that he became talismanic and with such a relish for life at Old Trafford to suggest Sanchez may also raise his game in a new environment.

There is a difference: Manchester City’s 12-point advantage means Sanchez is unlikely to render United champions in his debut campaign. There are similarities: like Van Persie before him, he has joined at 29.

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United’s huge income, and they have the biggest turnover in world football, means that they can afford his salary, however vast it is, which is not say that he will be offering value for money in his 34th year.

But his signing represents another step in Jose Mourinho’s pragmatic quest to make United more potent. They scored a mere 49 league goals in 2015-16, a scarcely better 54 in the Portuguese’s first season. With 49 already this season, they are undergoing an upgrade.

It reflects Romelu Lukaku’s arrival, Anthony Martial’s improvement and Jesse Lingard’s surprise emergence as a prolific force. All of those factors mean Juan Mata is the likeliest of the current front four to make way for Sanchez; if his most probable role is either as a No 10 or on the right, and his fervent scurrying and considerable quality means he could make a success of either, the reality is that neither is his best position. He is not so much the player United needed as much as an opportunity they felt they could not reject.

In part, that is because of their current ethos. There feels a concerted, commercially-influenced desire to revive their status as a glamour club. They have compensated for a comparative lack of goals and league titles with transfer-market ambition.

Since Mata’s arrival four years ago, they have become a byword for bringing in big names: Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, Lukaku and now Sanchez.

They have had competing attractions, but there has been a symbolic shortcoming. Squad numbers can seem irrelevant these days, but they can also evoke history and identity.

Players can be part of a tradition and United’s magnificent No 7s – George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo – were.

Since the Portuguese’s 2009 sale, the shirt has either been vacant or worn by Michael Owen, Di Maria and Memphis Depay, three who failed, or Antonio Valencia, who reverted to 25 after an uncomfortable year in the spotlight.

Between them, they have scored 11 of United’s 617 league goals in that time (Wayne Rooney provided 118 wearing No 10 and the various No 9s chipped in with a further 82). It is eight-and-a-half years since Ronaldo left and, while United were prolific and successful for the first four, they have rarely touched such heights, in terms of excitement since.

Perhaps Sanchez will be the new flagship player, though that mantle may rest with Pogba. Certainly he should help Mourinho revive a tradition of quick counter-attacking, aided by Pogba, Martial, Lukaku, Lingard and Marcus Rashford.

His arrival also feels an acknowledgement that Ibrahimovic will not return to his best. With his technique and an arrogance borne of excellence, the Swede offered some reminders of Van Persie. Instead, in a different way, Sanchez should.

Extra Time is the podcast from The National’s sport desk. Subscribe to and rate the show on Apple Podcasts, or listen on Audioboom, Pocket Cast or your favourite podcasting app.

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