It looked for all the world that Alexis Sánchez would be joining Manchester City, either in January or as a free agent at the end of the season. But rivals Manchester United appear to have gazumped the Citizens' live for the Arsenal star.
Italian transfer guru Gianluca Di Marzio was first to publish the claims, reporting the Red Devils' interest in Arsenal‘s Chilean forward, with José Mourinho said to have sanctioned a player-plus-cash offer that would see £25million and Henrikh Mkhitaryan heading in the direction of the Emirates.
Sánchez was on the brink of a £60million move to City on the last day of the 2017 summer transfer window, only for the deal to collapse as Arsenal were unable to secure a replacement. Ever since, it has been taken as given that the 29-year-old would end up at the Etihad.
United's interest threw a spanner in the works, however. The Red Devils were willing to beat City when it came to both the fee offered to Arsenal and the wage package proposed to the player. Sánchez is thought to have had his heart set on a reunion with former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, but, in football as in most walks of life, money talks.
There were swathes of sharp-thinking football fans who expressed doubts over the validity of these claims. Some believed it is little more than an attempt from Arsenal to raise the player's price for fear of losing him for free in less than half a year. Others speculated that Sánchez's representatives might have leaked the news in an effort to hurry-up City's bid or garner a higher salary offer.
But it is now clear that United's interest in genuine, and moving for Sánchez makes a lot of sense for the Red Devils, in myriad different ways.
Aside from purely footballing matters, there would be the PR boost of beating their big-spending cross-city rivals to their primary transfer target – a shot in the arm for the 20-time champions who, to many, have fallen behind City when it comes to pulling power.
At boardroom level, amid Mourinho's open discontent at the size of his transfer kitty in comparison to that of Guardiola, supplying the Portuguese tactician with a world-class, ready-made Premier League star would go a long way towards appeasing the former Real Madrid and Chelsea boss.
Plus, with their iconic No.7 shirt still vacant following Memphis Depay's sale to Lyon a year ago, United would be acquiring a player capable of carrying the weight of the number sported by such legends as George Best, Eric Cantona and David Beckham, while offering the commercial pull to sell plenty of replicas.
The biggest impact Sánchez's arrival at Old Trafford would have, however, would in improving the team on the pitch. At 29, he will be aware he is approaching the last-chance saloon when it comes to his peak earning potential, and his next move must represent one which offers the chance to win the kind of the top-level silverware his Arsenal career has been bereft of. To that end, he will be extra-motivated to perform.
Although an orthodox winger has supposedly been top of Mourinho's shopping list since missing out on Ivan Perišić last summer, Sánchez, while not fitting into that category, would certainly add plenty to United's current attacking roster.
Namely, he is an elite attacker at the peak of his powers, whereas the likes of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard are still progressing. Meanwhile, Juan Mata and Mkhitaryan, while very good players, fall short of the highest bracket.
There will be a concern that Sánchez's arrival might hamper the growth of the aforementioned developing stars, taking valuable playing time from Rashford and Martial in the left wing position they most regularly occupy. A theory not without base, but, such is the versatility of the three men, they could easily be fielded together or carefully rotated to ensure the needs of all are met.
What's more, working alongside a player like Sánchez on a daily basis might aid the youngsters' progress in the way Cantona's presence was said to have accelerated the development of the likes of Beckham and Paul Scholes in the 1990s.
When juxtaposing Sanchez's key statistics against those of the attacking players already at Old Trafford, the one thing that stands out is that, while he doesn't stand head and shoulders above in any one category, he offers a broader spread than the others.
For instance, Sánchez's three key passes per 90 minutes this season and 2.2 from last term is comparable to Mkhitaryan‘s 2017/18 average (2.7). When it comes to dribbling, the Chilean's 2.4 completes take-ons per 90 is in the same range as Martial (2.5) and Rashford (2.4). And although his 0.4 goals and 0.2 assists per 90 hasn't set the world alight at the Emirates, last term, without the distraction of transfer speculation and enjoying a more central role, his 0.7 goals per 90 beats Lukaku's for 2017/18 (0.5) and matches Lingard and Martial.
Drilling a little deeper, the expected goals (xG) and expected assists (xA) metrics – which use historical date to place a probability value on shots taken and chances created respectively – show Sánchez's output is not only more well-rounded than any current United player, but also that he has been arguably more effective this term than last.
His xG90 of 0.49 is exactly the same as his average for last season, showing that the former Udinese man is still getting into positions to find high-quality chances, only perhaps this season his finishing has been a little less sharp. Only Lukaku (0.6) can top Sánchez in this regard.
With an xA90 average of 0.32, despite a drop in actual assists per 90 (from 0.3 to 0.2), we seen that Sánchez, broadly speaking, is creating a better quality/greater amount of chances this season, a return comparable to United's highest performers, Martial (0.39), Mkhitaryan (0.33) and Rashford (0.32).
Looking deeper still, expected goals chain (xGC) is designed to recognise the players who contribute to attacking moves at an early stage, who don't always get the glory of registering assists or scoring goals. A player's xGC90 collates the average xG of a subsequent shot that the passing moves said player is involved in leads to, giving each player, whether making the very first pass or putting the ball in the net at the end, an equal piece of the pie.
Sánchez's xGC90 this term is a staggering 0.96 – that's up from 0.76 last season and better than any of United's attackers (Martial is closest with 0.89).
With his experience, readiness, versatility and overall quality, Sánchez would be United‘s most multifaceted offensive weapon.