The results of the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal are in and… well, they’re not the best.
Loaned out to Inter Milan and Roma respectively, Sanchez and Mkhitaryan certainly won’t reflect on the last two seasons as the most impressive of their careers to date. Few (including this writer) would have predicted that Sanchez would have so dramatic a fall from grace at Manchester United, while Mkhitaryan, despite a few flashes of genius here and there, never regained the confidence at Arsenal which once made him one of Europe’s most productive attackers at Borussia Dortmund.
Given their inflated wages and modest returns, the club hierarchies at United and Arsenal will be glad to have moved them on for the season. Their departures represent a challenge for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Unai Emery, however, who now have to recalibrate their squads after late clearouts.
Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian have also departed United in the last few days – the former linking up with Mkhitaryan on loan at Roma and the latter leaving permanently for Parma – while Nacho Monreal has left Arsenal for Real Sociedad and Mohamed Elneny, the lost boy of the late Wenger-era midfield, has gone on loan to Besiktas.
While those departures make sense from a strategic and financial point of view, those players, along with Sanchez and Mkhitaryan, made a combined 159 appearances last season and someone will need to make up the difference. That represents a huge opportunity for the next generation as, with the transfer window now closed, both United and Arsenal will have to look to youth.
Who’s done the best late business?
While United and Arsenal have both cleared out some proverbial deadwood and several high-paid underachievers – with Monreal, a very good player for Arsenal, the exception – there are pros and cons to their late housekeeping. For instance, according to the BBC, Manchester United are still subsidising Sanchez’s enormous wages at Inter, meaning that they have not entirely rid themselves of the heavy financial burden attached to his signing.
They are also, according to Solskjaer, now short in the forward department after the sale of Romelu Lukaku to Inter in early August. “We are one down, to be fair, but we just didn’t find the right one,” he admitted when asked about his strikers last week. Some pundits have suggested that they will now be over-reliant on Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, both of whom have a way to go to prove that they are prolific enough to bear the full weight of expectation at United.
While Arsenal will miss Monreal for his versatility in defence, even if they have a direct replacement in Kieran Tierney, they have done well to move on Elneny – an incredibly lightweight presence in the squad – and Mkhitaryan, whose wages are reportedly being covered in full. Having signed Nicolas Pepe and Dani Ceballos earlier in the summer, they have not been left short across the forward line or in the midfield. As such, Arsenal appear to have resolved more of their problems than United with their late business.
Who’s set to benefit most at Manchester United?
In the aftermath of Sanchez’s departure, Solskjaer has been talking up teenage striker Mason Greenwood as a serious successor up front. “He is a natural footballer,” he said last week. “He is enjoying his time on the pitch, he comes alive when he gets closer to the goal, which is great to see in finishing sessions… he’s got proper goalscorer’s goals.”
Only 17, Greenwood has featured in all four of United’s games so far this season – though without scoring – and can clearly expect plenty of game time in the absence of big-money signings ahead of him. Another obvious beneficiary of Sanchez’s departure is Daniel James, who has a free run of the wide positions up front without having to share minutes with him.
Having scored three goals in his first four appearances it is easy to forget that James is only 21 and was playing in the Championship last season, so he may be quietly pleased that there will be no-one to disrupt his early momentum at Old Trafford. Though he is still to make a senior appearance for United this term, Tahith Chong could also benefit from the free space which has opened up in the forward positions.
Who’s set to benefit most at Arsenal?
Having been fast-tracked to the first team after an impressive pre-season, Gabriel Martinelli will see Mkhitaryan’s departure as an opportunity. While the starting spots across Arsenal’s front three will no doubt be heavily dominated by Pepe, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan was often used as a go-to attacking sub last season and Martinelli will hope that he is allocated some of those minutes.
Martinelli is still only 18, however, so Emery may look to someone slightly more senior to pick up the slack. Reiss Nelson has already made two starts this season and, at 19, is ostensibly ahead of Martinelli in the queue. Coming off the back of an impressive campaign on loan at Hoffenheim, Nelson has experience on his side and Emery will want to capitalise on his sense of momentum. Bukayo Saka is another young wide man who could benefit, though at 17 he is the youngest of the lot and still has a long way to go with his development.