As any self-respecting football anorak will know, third seasons are to most football managers what kryptonite is to Superman: bad news. It was the legendary Hungarian coach Béla Guttmann who first noted that “the third season is fatal” — by that point in a manager’s life cycle, he posited, there is simply no more fresh expertise to pass on.
Jose Mourinho knows this better than most. Remarkably, he has never failed to win the domestic title in his second season at any of his clubs. But in his 18-year managerial career he has reached a third season only three times before: twice with Chelsea and once with Real Madrid. On each occasion, a title defence failed to materialise and Mourinho was ignobly shoved towards the exit, all that more bitter than before.
It doesn’t take a Guttmann quoting geek to tell you that Mourinho is a neurotic man, determined to beat his rivals by any means necessary with a keen eye on his own legacy. And so he will be more aware than anyone that his judgement season is fast approaching, only this time without the title that usually precedes it. Don’t let talk of a new contract fool you: should his third season at United go the way of Chelsea’s doomed 2015/16 campaign, he will find himself bombed out of the club in similar circumstances. In many ways, his situation has never been more stark.
It is in these circumstances, then, that Alexis Sanchez looks likely to arrive at the club, as Mourinho begins his preparations for next season’s title campaign, the current one already lost. “Our squad was not (built) to have new players in January, but if on the table is a fantastic opportunity, you fight for that fantastic opportunity,” Mourinho said with a half-smile earlier this week. Clearly, he senses an opportunity to good to turn down.
You can see why Mourinho, who sources close to the club claim has taken a leading role in bringing the player to the club, is so keen. Sanchez will inject a fat-thighed shot of adrenaline to United’s attack and is the exact antithesis of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, that long country walk of a player, who Mourinho is jettisoning for his slow build-up play and habit of dwelling for too long on the ball.
More than that; perhaps it is not too fanciful to believe that Mourinho may even see something of himself in the Chilean. Both are born winners. Both haven’t been doing as much of that as they would have liked in recent times. And both possesses a hard individualistic streak — Miguel Delaney’s profile of Sanchez ahead of last season’s FA Cup final painted a picture of a player never happier than when “in the park with his beloved dogs and his girlfriend without any hassles … with complete freedom”.
But, really, what does pushing so hard to spend £35m and up to £400k-a-week (not to mention the astronomical signing-on and agents fees) on a 29-year-old who turns 30 halfway through next season say about Mourinho’s long-term planning? And at what point do those numerous other costs, in addition to that admittedly enticing transfer fee, stop this transfer from resembling a ‘bargain’?
Sanchez’s playing style cannot be ignored here. He does not play with the languid grace of, say 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or even the intelligence and poise of Juan Mata, who is the same age as him. No, Sanchez is a selfish, snarling terrier of a forward, who plays only in brilliantly uncompromising vertical lines. His raw physicality has — and will continue to be be — his greatest asset.
With Manchester City now beyond the horizon and competition for the top-four fierce, that is the quality that most appeals to Mourinho at this juncture. But such an obdurate approach to the game means Sanchez’s performance levels are more likely to nosedive than smoothly curtail, especially considering he has played over 50 games for the past seven consecutive seasons. Not only does he offer precious little sell-on value, but —logically — precious few seasons left at the top, too.
The Robin van Persie defence can be mounted, of course, but his £22.5m arrival from Arsenal represented a break with tradition in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season of the club: a parting gift from the club’s executive board. By that point it was no longer Ferguson’s job to worry about the future — and look where the squad he left behind got the managers that followed.
And where does his arrival leave United’s talented young wide players? The most logical way of fitting Sanchez into Mourinho’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation would see him jumping into the team ahead of both Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. While that would not necessarily spell disaster for 20-year-old Rashford, it would surely only add to the already growing speculation that Martial may see his future away from the club.
Alienating Martial, who has already scored eight Premier League goals this season despite starting in just 12 games, would be a huge loss. The 22-year-old is exactly the kind of player United should be building their attack around, not freezing out in favour of an unapologetically short-term solution — a charge Mourinho has been accused of more than once in his managerial career.
Not that such qualms proved enough to prevent United from eagerly jumping ahead of City in the race to snap up Sanchez. And not that the vast majority of United’s fanbase will allow anything to get in the way of their celebrations at signing one of their rival’s best players. Such delight is understandable. But in the excitement, let us not allow two separate narratives to collide: signing Sanchez makes sense for Mourinho but not necessarily Manchester United.