Jose Mourinho has done his whining. He has made his excuses. He has pined for more squad investment and better players. And now, after just a half-season of grousing, he has his man.
He has Alexis Sanchez – who wasn’t his man until a week ago, but nonetheless now is. He has a versatile, world-class forward in his prime. He has, per most reports, the highest-earning player in Premier League history, and one who isn’t being paid for what he could do two years from now; one who is being paid for what he will do right now.
Mourinho, therefore, is running out of excuses to reach for. And if he were to reach for them, he’d instead find his new Chilean jewel, a player whose tenure at Manchester United might just make or break his own.
Sanchez, who signed for United as part of a straight-up swap for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, might not be the Red Devils’ best player. He might not be their most important. He will, though, play a significant role in charting the course of the Mourinho era.
Mourinho eras are notoriously short and succinct. They invariably feature success, but never longevity. The Sanchez deal gibes with that timeline. Whereas Mourinho’s two other massive signings were brought in as powerful but unfinished products, at 23 (Paul Pogba) and 24 (Romelu Lukaku) years old, Sanchez is what he is. And he might not be what he is for much longer.
He therefore will and should up the urgency at Old Trafford, and the pressure on Mourinho.
The Portuguese boss complained just last month that United’s $400 million of spending on transfer fees over two summers was insufficient. That United was a “big club,” but not, in its current state, a “big team.” His comments sparked furious debate. With Manchester City as the reference point, they weren’t necessarily wrong; but they were misguided.
As many pointed out at the time, City had spent more, but Pep Guardiola was doing more with what he had. He had found ways to develop and utilize the players he recruited, but also those he inherited. Mourinho hasn’t maximized his resources, even if those resources weren’t quite as copious or exploitable as Guardiola’s. That was the common criticism.
The counterargument was that the talent gap truly was restrictive beyond managerial repair. With Sanchez on board, it’s no longer justifiable. Mourinho can no longer cry poverty. He has sanctioned, and reportedly advocated for, the purchase of a talismanic attacker. As the Independent‘s Miguel Delaney wrote, Sanchez “was assured he would be the main man. He would be the star. This was key. Jose Mourinho had big plans for him.”
Nobody can be sure what those plans are. Mourinho could use Sanchez as a proper winger; as a narrower wide forward; as a Romelu Lukaku partner; or even as a No. 9. He can give him freedom or specific instructions. He can utilize him in any gameplan, against any opponent, in any situation. He can drill him into one role, or concoct new ones every week.
Mourinho is no longer restricted. Which is why this signing, and the 18 months that follow, will be so telling.
Mourinho, as he slips toward the first sophomore season sans domestic title of his managerial career, has been questioned not as a temperamental figurehead or behind-the-scenes decision maker, but rather as a football coach; as a teacher and tactician. Sanchez’s first few years in Manchester will answer those questions, in one way or another.
– – – – – – –