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Manchester United : Bluff and bluster over Sanchez

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01/14/2018 | 10:43 am

IF football transfers are often a game of bluff and double-bluff, with a dose of mischief thrown in, then Alexis Sanchez's situation is a classic case.

For those who may have missed the previous episodes, here's a quick recap: Sanchez, arguably Arsenal's best player, refuses various contract extensions to his deal which runs until June 30. Arsenal don't want to lose him as a free agent, so they entertain an offer from Manchester City in late August. Pep Guardiola offers a lot of money - well north of Pounds 70 million reportedly - but Arsenal say they will only do business if they get a player (Raheem Sterling) in exchange. City turn them down, knowing time is on their side.

The January window arrives and even Arsene Wenger has to concede it is unlikely Sanchez will re-sign. An unofficial price tag of Pounds 35m does the rounds as the Gunners focus on his supposed replacement, Bordeaux's 20-year-old Brazilian winger Malcom. City offer Pounds 20m, substantially less than in August, but it makes sense. They don't need the Chilean to win the Premier League, given their huge lead at the top of the table and they can get him for nothing in less than six months.

Enter Manchester United.

Jose Mourinho calls Sanchez a "phenomenal player" and stories circulate that his club would be happy to meet the Pounds 35m asking price. Mere Mourinho mischief? A lifeline to his old enemy Wenger in order to derail his more recent enemy Guardiola?

It is hard to read things differently. Sanchez is a "phenomenal player" who, despite an unsettled season in a poor team, has chipped in with goals and performances. But he is a winger/forward hybrid and United's team already includes a gaggle of young players in that role: Marcus Rashford (20), Antony Martial (22) and Romelu Lukaku (24).

The fee isn't outrageous - even for a 29-year-old on an expiring contract - but the wage commitments would be huge with Sanchez holding all the cards. And you would imagine other areas, like midfield and defence, would be greater priorities for Mourinho.

That is why City's contention that they won't budge from the Pounds 20m offer and, if need be, simply pick him up for free in the summer, makes sense. It also makes sense for Sanchez: a chunk of the Pounds 20m City would save could go into his pocket in wages.

As for United, it feels like a half-hearted attempt. But it keeps Mourinho in the headlines for something other than the puerile war of words with Antonio Conte. At least that's something.

We are so accustomed to evaluating clubs and managers based on cliches of the "table-never-lies" variety that we often miss the evidence under our noses. Mark Hughes was sacked last weekend as Stoke City manager, following a loss in the FA Cup to Coventry City. (That alone ought to raise questions: had Stoke won, would he still have been sacked? And, if not, would it mean that he was suddenly good enough to keep his job?)

Under Hughes, Stoke finished ninth for three consecutive seasons. They dropped to 13th last year, but they were also only three points away from finishing eighth. Heading into the weekend, ahead of tomorrow night's trip to Old Trafford, they had slipped into the relegation zone and that, presumably, is what led to Hughes' sacking.

You imagine Stoke will replace Hughes with someone who gives them a better chance of staying up and, whether or not he achieves that goal will determine whether sacking the Welshman was the right decision, at least in the popular narrative. But then what?

The reality for clubs like Stoke is that in the modern, polarised game, they won't be finishing in the top six. Those three straight ninth-place finishes were Stoke bumping their collective heads against the ceiling. This was their Champions League trophy.

If that is going to be their benchmark, they have to accept the fact they won't reach it most years. And, in fact, the gap between ninth and relegation is just one or two bad, or unlucky, games. That's the reality for clubs in their position.

Hughes' mandate was to rid the club of Tony Pulis' DNA while maintaining mid-table status. It wasn't a particularly grand vision but he achieved it, while this season paying the price for some bad luck and some bad signings (though, it's worth remembering Stoke have their own recruitment specialist, Hughes was never omnipotent).

It is not news that the margins between success and failure are slim or that the stakes are high: we keep repeating this endlessly. What is, or should be, surprising is how often clubs continue to think a managerial change can have more of an impact than simply a change in fortune.

THE suggestion that Phil Neville is a leading candidate to manage the England women's team was met with scorn in some quarters and it is not hard to see why. He has less than two seasons' worth of experience in coaching, both as an assistant, both ill-fated: at Manchester United and at Valencia. And, of course, he has never worked in the women's game, though one newspaper pointed out that "he has started following England women players on Twitter".

Why someone with those credentials, or lack thereof, should be magically teleported into one of the biggest jobs in women's football is difficult to comprehend, beyond some kind of media stunt. Then again, it is in keeping with the treatment the women's game often continues to get, even from the BBC.

Last week, their equivalent of Match of the Day was actually presented by a current player, Alex Scott, who happens to play for one of the sides involved in the biggest game of the day, Chelsea v Arsenal. That would be like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain presenting MOTD2 tonight and reviewing Liverpool v Manchester City.

Nobody bats an eyelid. Nobody sees a conflict. Nobody even raises the possibility that a journalist or professional presenter or even a retired pro-turned-pundit might be a more appropriate choice.

Hopefully not because it's just "all a bit of fun". Like Phil Neville becoming England women's head coach.

Credit: Kathryn Course

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