Footballers as condiments isn’t often a subject that comes up. David Luiz could be pickle, given the state his defending often leaves him in. James Milner, mayonnaise – safe, somewhat unexciting but incredibly versatile. Marmite has too many options to mention.
And then there is Alexis Sánchez, who, apparently, is like a bottle of ketchup.
“You know that bottle of ketchup that you squeeze yet nothing comes out…” Manchester United’s interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær began an answer to a question ahead of his side's FA Cup tie with Chelsea. “But when it suddenly comes… there is loads! I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
Solskjær was referring to Sánchez’s fortunes in front of goal – the Chilean has only scored twice all season and has struggled for form for much of his time at Old Trafford.
Once he gets one, the Norwegian was saying, they’ll flow freely like the United-red table sauce, which is excellent on a hot dog combined with some French mustard, Anthony Martial or Paul Pogba, perhaps?
Drip. Drip. Drip
So far, Sánchez’s season has not been a particularly tasty one. Largely consigned to the bench, there are audible wonders about whether the 30-year-old is past it.
There are lifelines, of a sort. His rate of 0.31 expected goals assisted per 90 minutes is in the Premier League’s top ten – of those to have played more than 20 per cent of available minutes – and leads United’s squad by a noticeable gap.
However, it’s a rate built off a small number of appearances and owing a big debt to a 0.66xG chance created against Burnley. Sánchez, in fact, has never set up more than one chance in a league match this season.
This is almost the exact opposite of Solskjær’s ketchup metaphor for Sánchez’s scoring; instead, this is a steady, if unimpressive, drip-drip-drip of chance creation.
Take out the first few weeks of the season and his chances created against Leicester and Burnley, and his rate drops to around 0.23 expected goals assisted per 90. It’s still a rate that would be towards the top of the list for United, but it’s no longer an argument to force him into the side.
No room, no room
There’s an argument that Sánchez is a type of player who just doesn’t fit into the current United system.
On the surface, his stats for moving the ball up the pitch are fairly good. As mentioned, he’s not being outstripped by anyone else in the squad for setting up shots, and his passing numbers look eerily similar to Martial’s.
Both complete around eight passes towards goal in the final third per 90 minutes, and both receive around 14 of this type of passes per 90. Both also average around four completed passes into the box per 90 too.
However, look at the positions on the pitch they usually occupy. Martial, while still managing to be a goal threat, gives United a width that Sánchez doesn’t seem to.
Under Mourinho and continuing into Solskjær’s tenure, that left side of United’s attack has usually been more of a second striker role, filled by either Martial or Marcus Rashford. Sánchez isn't really a second striker.
Meanwhile, Paul Pogba plays high up the field on the left side, in a similar area that Sánchez operates in.
What does this mean for Sanchez?
So, although Sánchez has been putting up fairly good stats, maybe there’s just no place for him in his current form on that left-hand side.
With United’s lack of athletic full-backs and the presence of Pogba, Martial’s adherence to keeping the width is an underrated tactical trait.
Sánchez doesn’t offer that and to force himself into the side he’d need to be performing well enough to justify not just displacing Martial, but forcing Pogba into a different role as well.
Unless the ketchup bottle starts flowing freely in the near future, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.