A move to Man City would reunite Alexis Sanchez with Pep Guardiola. Adam Bate looks at how things went at Barcelona and why Sanchez is the Catalan’s great unfinished project.
Pep Guardiola’s style of play is well defined, his beliefs about the game famously established. But sometimes even he is drawn to something different; attracted instead to another way of doings things; convinced he can bring fresh qualities to even the greatest of teams. That is what happened when he decided to take Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona in 2011.
That Barcelona team is seen by some as the high point of football. Their dismantling of Manchester United in the Champions League final that year was perfection. But Guardiola’s desire to evolve continued and while there was a high-profile pursuit of Cesc Fabregas that summer, he is on record as saying that the main target was a Chilean talent from Udinese.
If Fabregas was seen as steeped in Barca’s traditions, Sanchez’s strength was that he wasn’t. He was more direct. “He came to offer something that we didn’t have,” explained Guardiola. “He can play in all three positions in attack, he has lots of energy, defensive intensity, one-on-ones, dribbles, with a vertical sense of the game, and he is also a great kid.”
While Guardiola’s instincts told him that renewal was essential, it was never going to be easy to find a role for his new signing. There was a public apology to Sanchez after leaving him as an unused substitute in the Super Cup win over Real Madrid in August as the coach preferred to stick with Pedro instead. Ultimately, Sanchez started only 20 league games.
Injuries played their part but even some of those were self-inflicted. When Sanchez came on as a substitute against Sporting Gijon in March only to depart with a groin problem soon after, it sparked a memorable Guardiola rant in which he urged the player to use his head. He was discovering that Sanchez’s all-action approach is unleashed rather than harnessed.
Not that it was a total failure by any means. Sanchez’s tally of 12 league goals was more than anyone else bar Lionel Messi, who enjoyed the best scoring season of his career with 73 goals in all competitions. Guardiola said of Sanchez: “He played really good in Barcelona but normally when you play with Messi all the players beside him are not at his level.”
Sanchez still had his moments in that first season. When he did get his chance against Real Madrid, he took it – producing a dynamic display in a Copa del Rey quarter-final victory at the Bernabeu. “He has stolen my heart,” said Guardiola afterwards. “He is very young, but he came forward and sacrificed himself a lot. I think the club has made a special signing.”
But even though Sanchez stayed for two more seasons after Guardiola’s departure, he was still allowed to leave – his three years at the club ending without a Champions League triumph despite Barca having won the competition in the year prior to his arrival and the year after his exit. The accepted wisdom was that he preferred being the main man.
Dani Alves suggested recently that Sanchez needs to be the protagonist. His old Chile boss Jorge Sampaoli explained it in tactical terms. “Alexis needs freedom and in Barcelona he had to cover a certain area that was not best for his personal game,” said Sampaoli. “He had to be part of a philosophy that wasn’t convenient for him. Now he appears to be freed again.”
Could that ever be the case under Guardiola? The City coach feels the issue is one of role rather than style. “I think the position Arsenal are using him as a striker, in front, it is perfect for him,” he said last season. “In Barcelona maybe I didn’t help him too much because he played wide. He can do that but he is better between the lines, closer to the goal.”
With Guardiola already facing the challenge of fitting Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus into the same City side, there is not an obvious vacancy there in his current line-up. But in a sense, there has been something of a role reversal in England. It is Sanchez who is the proven Premier League success. Guardiola is the one still trying to adapt.
Maybe both can be convinced that a reunion would be beneficial. They certainly remain on good terms, embracing after a 2-2 draw between City and Arsenal in April, and Sanchez recently recalled fondly Guardiola’s speech in the dressing room after his final game as Barcelona boss. “That experience has stayed with me,” he admitted this summer.
The 3-0 Copa del Rey win over Athletic Bilbao inside the Vicente Calderon Stadium is likely to forever remain Guardiola’s last ever game at the helm of Barcelona. Time will tell if it is also to be his final match as Alexis Sanchez’s manager. He missed out on Dani Alves. But there is still a chance for Pep Guardiola to have another crack at his great unfinished project.