Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
Artwork by @chapulana

8 months into his Manchester United career, the jury is still out on whether Alexis Sanchez is a good fit for Jose Mourinho’s side. During his time at Arsenal, Sanchez was The Gunners’ leading forward, whether playing on the left-wing or as a central striker. The Chilean’s pace, aggression and high work-rate together with his world-class finishing ability made him one of the Premier League’s very best goal scorers during his time in north London.

When Manchester United beat rivals Manchester City to the signing of want-away Arsenal forward Sanchez, the red half of Manchester believed they were getting a player who would instantly bring their forward-line back among the domestic and continental elite. But 3 goals and 6 assists in 22 appearances for The Red Devils is a return below expectations and Sanchez has had his fair share of criticism for his perceived lack of form. But is it the former Barcelona man’s form that needs improving? Or is his Sanchez evolving and adapting to a new role in his new team?

Same Position, New Role

While Sanchez spent most of his Arsenal career playing on the left-wing of Arsène Wenger’s attacking 4-2-3-1, his most prolific season for The Gunners came in 2016/17 when Alexis played most of his games as a central number 9. But since Sanchez’s arrival in January of this year, Jose Mourinho has preferably deployed a 4-3-3 system with Alexis positioned wide left of the front 3.

Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
The heat map above shows Alexis Sanchez positioned in a wide-left role for Man United.

Despite common misconceptions, Jose’s United look to dominate possession in most games that they play, particularly when they face supposedly inferior opposition. United typically play a holding number 6 at the base of midfield (usually Matic although lately it’s been Fellaini) which gives cover to the full-backs who are charged with getting up the pitch and supplying United’s wide options in the attacking phase of play. With Luke Shaw re-emerging as United’s first choice left-back, Jose’s side have a left-back who can dominate the left flank single-handedly and this allows Sanchez to drift inside and get closer to Romelu Lukaku.

Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
Both full backs are in shot here, both occupying wide positions allowing the United forwards and midfielders to overload the middle of the pitch. Notice how Sanchez move up and in to form a strike duo with Lukaku.

In tandem with Mesut Özil at Arsenal, Sanchez was part of a world class duo at The Emirates. Özil the mercurial creator and Sanchez the tenacious goal-getter. But perhaps that role masked Sanchez’s creative talents and his eye for a pass. Given that he plays a supporting role to Romelu Lukaku in this United team, Sanchez has adapted his game and showed he can mix it with the best of them when it comes to key passes.

Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
As Sanchez receives the ball on the left-wing, he is surrounded by Watford players who are playing a very high defensive line. Alexis’ options with so little space and time are minimal.
Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
But with Lukaku timing his run forward perfectly, Sanchez has the passing ability to pick him out with a brilliantly executed pass over the top of the Watford defence and into Lukaku’s path which unfortunately the big Belgian striker couldn’t convert.

Lukaku Partnership

Lukaku is the focal point of the attack and leads the line with his sheer size, athleticism and intelligent movement, much like the role Didier Drogba, Diego Costa and Diego Milito have previously filled for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and Inter sides. With Sanchez given licence to drift closer to the Belgian striker as mentioned previously, the two have seemingly struck up an understanding which is evident in the amount of key passes that Sanchez plays to Lukaku. In fact 3 of his 6 assist for United have been for the former Everton striker.

Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
With Matic looking for a forward pass, Sanchez makes a late move to get behind the Burnley defence.
Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
But the pass is not forthcoming and Sanchez again moves into space to be a passing option.
Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
Sanchez needs no more than a split second to notice Romelu Lukaku has found himself a gap between the Burnley back 4 and Alexis delivers the cross to perfection, 1-0 United.

It’s evident in open play when Sanchez receives the ball on the left flank for United, Lukaku immediately looks to make a run into space, whether that be behind the opposition’s defence or in between the defensive line. This type of partnership will only get stronger the more Sanchez and Lukaku play together and the early signs of their mutual understanding on the pitch are very promising.

Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
With United in a 3v2 counter attacking situation, Sanchez could have run centrally to selfishly make the play about him scoring. But instead he smartly stays just to the left of the 2 Burnley centre-backs and leaves Jesse Lingard in a significant channel of space to the right, meaning the defenders can’t commit to marking any player yet.
Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
Lukaku chooses to play it to Sanchez who feigns to cut inside and shoot, only to instead find the intelligent run of Lukaku’s for another great scoring opportunity.

So what’s the issue?

Expectations. Alexis Sanchez is on ridiculous wages at Man United, the type of wages United could have used to sign 2 world-class centre-backs. At Arsenal Sanchez was an elite European level goal-scorer and was considered one of the best forwards on the continent. But since he’s arrived at Old Trafford, Alexis has underwhelmed most United fans who were expecting to see a bonafide world-class forward to complement Lukaku.

Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
Sanchez has scored many a goal from this position at previous clubs yet seems reluctant to try attempts like this for United. Instead, he plays the safe pass back out to Pogba. Sanchez would find his scoring touch sooner if he can find his shooting boots quicker.

Instead, most fans now think Sanchez’s best days were always behind him, that he isn’t worth what he’s being paid and mostly, that he hinders the development of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial as he plays in their preferred positions. Additionally, Sanchez is only 11th among United’s most frequent passers this season and 9th among his teammates in the number of touches he’s had yet he is The Red Devils’ 3rd most dispossessed player.

Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics

But this isn’t necessarily a negative stat, the likes of Messi and De Bruyne were among the most dispossessed players in European football last season. What it proves is that these players, including Alexis, are trying things. They aren’t afraid to get on the ball in any situation and prefer to fail trying repeatedly rather than hide behind safe passes to maintain successful passing rate statistics.

Alexis Sanchez might not be among the best at retaining possession but it’s not why he’s selected by his manager, he’s needed to be daring and positive on the ball. It’s these traits that made Sanchez arguably United’s most influential player in their biggest games of last season, scoring against Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final and having 2 assists in that epic Manchester derby comeback. His creative spark has already been influential for United this season.

Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
Sanchez has again drifted onside after sustained possession from United and he is looking to receive the ball in between the Burnley defence and midfield, almost playing as a typical number 10.
Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
His movement has attracted attention from the Burnley centre-back James Tarkowski and left a gap in the Burnley backline. Shaw has read the situation well and has the pace to burst into the gap Sanchez has created.
Alexis Sanchez Tactical Analysis Statistics
A clever back-heel pass from Sanchez into Shaw’s path cuts open the Burnley defence and United eventually score their second goal from this situation. A second goal created in part by Sanchez’s brilliance. 

Conclusion

Perhaps Alexis Sanchez has not been the player United or their fans thought they were getting from Arsenal but to the Chilean’s credit, he has adapted to a different role under Jose Mourinho. No longer tasked with being his side’s chief goal scorer, Sanchez has displayed his creative qualities at Old Trafford and showed a willingness to adapt in his new surroundings.

No, we have not seen 20-plus goal a season scoring form from the Chilean forward but perhaps we’re missing the point. Sanchez was brought in to replace an outgoing creative midfielder, not a leading goal-scorer and the evidence shows he is fulfilling that role for his new team and his giving his manager reason to pick him every week. His potentially world-class strike partnership with Lukaku gives United fans a lot to be excited about and the form of Luke Shaw at left-back could also be a loosened restraint on Alexis should it continue. Should he stay fit then the signs are Alexis Sanchez will prove his significant worth when the season’s biggest moments arrive.