One of the longest running transfer sagas of the winter window has come to and end, and while it took a different shape than we thought it would a couple of weeks ago, it could have a fairly profound impact on the rest of the Premier League season. Alexis Sanchez has left Arsenal after three and a half years and joined Manchester United, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan going the other way in a rare swap of two higher-profile players.
This is a transfer that has a major effect on both teams, and while it may not directly influence the title race — let’s be honest, Manchester City is running away with that sucker and Sanchez won’t help United close the gap that much — it will make the race for the top four more compelling. Both teams are getting a player they very much need in order to improve themselves down the final stretch of the season, and it could help to re-shape how the season plays out from here.
The bigger headline-grabbing part of this move is Sanchez’s move to Manchester United. His presence gives them the more dynamic, flow-shifting attacker they’ve needed for ages. Romelu Lukaku gave them the hyper-athletic battering ram that helped them bulldoze opponents early on, but without a slashing presence to play off him and keep defenses honest, his form has struggled as defenses have focused on him.
United have tried various players in different roles to help him, but none of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, or Juan Mata brought the full set of on-ball talents that Sanchez does to support and free up Lukaku. His ability to play both as a creative presence and a direct attacking option who can cut apart defenses on his own will make Manchester much more difficult to gameplan against than they have been for the last few months.
For Arsenal, Mkhitaryan brings them a more balanced presence that they’ve needed. Andre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Iwobi, and Granit Xhaka all represent good players in attack and midfield, but they’ve lacked a facilitating presence who can support and link all of those players and their roles. Jack Wilshere has been tried in that role in varying degrees of success, but for the most part, Arsenal’s varying players in those key areas of the pitch have had to function as individuals, not as a unit.
Mkhitaryan can be that facilitating player, the linking element who binds those disparate pieces together. At Borussia Dortmund, he was at his best when he was allowed to roam, filling the gaps around the pitch using his work rate to get where his teammates needed him to be to either keep the ball moving, reset an attack, or make a key run back to help cut off a counter attack. At Manchester United, he’d been used more rigidly, locked into one role for a game and not even allowed to settle into that role for long before his shaky form had Jose Mourinho yanking him from the lineup. Arsene Wenger has used players like Mkhitaryan in the past, though, and will almost certainly recognize the value of his versatility and utilize him accordingly.
But more than the good for for the teams this deal represents, it’s also a good move for the players themselves. Sanchez and Wenger clearly didn’t see eye-to-eye anymore, and he wanted a new — and presumably higher-level — challenge than what Arsenal was currently able to offer him. That’s why he started running down his contract and trying to force a move. At United, he’ll get that challenge, even if they’re pretty much out of the title race already this season. Mkhitaryan had struggled under Mourinho at Manchester United, stuck in a more rigid system than he works well in. Both players should now be in environments that will be better for their careers, and improve on their recently down form because of it.
At their best, Sanchez and Mkhitaryan can be two of the best players in the EPL. This season, that hasn’t been the case, but these moves should help unlock that potential again. It’s also going to make both Manchester United and Arsenal better teams after fading in form for some time, making the top-four race among United, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham Hotspur much more interesting during the run-in to the end of the season. This is a much-needed injection of quality and excitement at the upper end of the EPL table, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch how this transfer pans out for everyone involved.