Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 November 2019

Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan loan moves a sign of the times in the Premier League and Serie A

Part of a high-profile swap deal just 19 months ago, both players are spending this season on loan in Italy after failing to impress in England

Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived in Rome on Tuesday ahead of his loan switch to Roma. EPA
Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived in Rome on Tuesday ahead of his loan switch to Roma. EPA

It isn’t quite the end of an error, let alone two. For the next nine months, Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be out of sight and, at times, out of Manchester United’s and Arsenal’s minds. Then their loans in Italy end and they become their parent clubs’ problem again.

They have already had 19 months to repent about the events of January 22, 2018, over the swap deal that was presented as a coup by both but became an indictment of each.

In the context of Sanchez’s abominable return of three goals in 32 league games for United, Mkhitaryan’s eight in 39 for Arsenal is almost a success, especially when 10 assists are factored in. Yet the fact is that the man who left Germany as the Bundesliga’s reigning player of the year has been loaned out.

So has Sanchez. In a sense, they have traded clubs of a similar stature: the Chilean left one triple European Cup winner for another, in Inter Milan; the Armenian has swapped beaten Uefa Champions League finalists from capital cities.

But they are deals that reflect more than just the plight of marquee signings who turned into bit-part players. They tell much about the Premier League, Serie A and the transfer market.

Italian clubs think they can benefit from England’s economic muscle. Sanchez definitely falls into the category of the unsellables, the players whose salaries are such that no one would buy them.

United are paying him £175,000 (Dh770,000) a week to play for Inter. Arsenal are at least collecting a €3 million (Dh12.1m) loan fee for Mkhitaryan. There is clearly a theory in Italy that they can borrow Premier League players without the need to buy them. Juventus specialise in raiding England for free transfers; Emre Can in 2018, Aaron Ramsey in 2019.

Serie A has savvy enough negotiators to realise they can acquire players of pedigree without paying a transfer fee. Sometimes they win their game of brinkmanship. Roma tried to loan Dejan Lovren and Marcos Rojo before borrowing Chris Smalling.

But the profile of player they have signed is also instructive. Roma is doubling up as a retirement home for Premier League players. They have loaned the 27-year-old Davide Zappacosta but Mkhitaryan, Smalling, Federico Fazio, Edin Dzeko and Aleksandar Kolarov were all born in the 1980s.

The Premier League has become younger and quicker, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard reducing the average age of the Manchester United and Chelsea teams and the pressing games of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino in vogue. Of the 41 players top-flight English clubs signed for £10m or more in the summer, only one – Burnley’s Jay Rodriguez – was over 26.

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If an exodus of the experienced makes sense, it suggests Serie A has become a repository for footballers no longer able to cope with England’s physical demands. Maybe tactical and technical prowess will compensate in a different environment.

Perhaps Sanchez, the livewire whose dynamism looked drained by the time he arrived at Old Trafford, who seemed to have too many miles on the clock after reaching 700 career games before his 30th birthday, might be able to look fast when scurrying around in a slower division.

“He’s a great player who hasn’t done well in the last two seasons at Manchester United,” said Inter manager Antonio Conte. But if Sanchez is in terminal decline, it will only be Inter’s issue for one year.

In a summer when Serie A has gained the veteran Fernando Llorente, borrowed ageing attackers and sold young forwards, in Everton’s Moise Kean and Wolves’ Patrick Cutrone, to the Premier League, it suggests short-termism reigns in Italy.

But in the short term, United and Arsenal are spared awkward questions about the men they swapped.

Updated: September 3, 2019 12:41 PM

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