Straight swaps without any transfer fees are increasingly rare these days, but in trading out-of-favor talents, Arsenal and Manchester United put an end to internal drama and come out better for it.

By Jonathan Wilson
January 22, 2018

Swap deals are very rare in football these days, particularly straight swaps without any kind of fee being involved. Football may have, over the years, lost its sense of value, but its sense of cost has never been more acute. For two players with different wage and bonus structures, of different ages, and with different lengths of time remaining on their contract to balance out exactly is extremely unusual. But the agreement that takes Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal to Manchester United and Henrikh Mkhitrayan in the other direction is one of those unusual instances, and a case where, at least initially, everybody seems to benefit.

Sanchez gets to leave Arsenal. Although he’s won two Chilean titles, an Argentinian and a Spanish league title, plus two FA Cups and a Copa del Rey, there’s a sense that he’s slightly unfulfilled as far as club titles go. As late-period Arsene Wenger becomes late-late-period Wenger and Arsenal continues to stagnate, it’s easy to understand why, at 29, Sanchez felt the club’s ambition no longer matched his own. That recognition has, fairly evidently, had an impact on his attitude and form this season.

It’s probably too simplistic to say that Arsenal’s 4-1 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday was born of the relief of being shot of a turbulent presence, but equally it’s not entirely unrelated. Arsenal, whose oddly lackadaisical approach to renewing contracts meant it faced losing Sanchez for free in the summer, might have expected to get £20 million for him this January. It’s entirely reasonable to ask why it did not try to sell him for £50 million or so last summer. Perhaps Wenger still thought he could persuade Sanchez to stay, or perhaps he didn’t realize how unsettled the Chilean was and reasoned the financial loss was worth it for a player who might help secure Champions League qualification.

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That £20 million, though, would not come anywhere close to landing an equivalent player in the modern market. A Sanchez with three years left on his contract could reasonably be expected to cost around £80 million today. Transfer fee inflation has hit Arsenal hard; its policy of keeping money in the bank, seemingly waiting for a crash, looks to have been a failure. Mkhitaryan, no matter his disappointing form for Manchester United, may not quite be an £80 million player, but he is certainly worth more to Arsenal than £20 million, even if he seems a more natural replacement for Mesut Ozil, who is also out of contract at the end of the season, than Sanchez.

Mkhitaryan never seemed to fit into Jose Mourinho’s plans. He had excelled at Shakhtar Donetsk and Borussia Dortmund, both hard-pressing teams, but struggled when asked to operate as a link man between a deep-lying defense and a distant forward line. He would seem to have a natural place in an Arsenal lineup in the creative line of either a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-2-1. It may even be that he could play alongside Ozil. Arsenal’s pressing is oddly inconsistent, often slipshod but occasionally brilliant. Mkhitaryan has shown before that he has both the energy and discipline to play in a side that presses hard and well.

United, meanwhile, quite apart from the coup of pinching Sanchez from City–and for all City will point out that it was its decision to back out of the deal when Sanchez’s agent sought to renegotiate a deal that had already been agreed, the fact remains that United’s intervention derailed a transfer City wanted to push through–gets a hungry, energetic player who should add pace and spark to an attack that too often over the past couple of seasons has seemed sluggish and predictable.

Sanchez brings the advantage of being able to play as the out-and-out striker. Perming three from Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Sanchez, with Paul Pogba pushing on from midfield offers the possibility of a very quick and mobile forward line. But he could equally play to the left with Romelu Lukaku a more fixed central point. He increases United's attacking options radically.

And yet City’s stance also makes sense–even if there is a concern that it has missed out on both Sanchez and Dani Alves in the past year when deals seemed done. It’s not so much the moral point of walking away from negotiations because it felt an agent had acted dishonorably–although that may serve the club well in the future–as a sense that bringing in Sanchez simply may not have been worth it.

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Sanchez loves to play, demands to play. He would sulk if substituted at Arsenal, and yet it’s far from clear he’d have been a first choice at City, where the forward line has been so good that Bernardo Silva has been a bit-part player. His wages are reported to be in excess of £400,000 a week. City, understandably, was troubled by that, recognizing that a player coming in on that sort of money would have an inflationary effect through the squad. Already, it’s been reported, that Pogba is looking to renegotiate his contract at Old Trafford.

But they will probably see that as a price worth paying. This is a rare instance where, at least at this stage, all parties in the deal will probably feel they come out of it pretty well.

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