On deadline day Inter Milan secured the signature of Alexis Sanchez from Manchester United. Granted, it is only a loan deal, as Inter do not have the confidence in the player, or his age, to offer Sanchez a permanent deal. This is indicative of the drop-off that the Chilean’s form has taken recently.
In one and a half seasons at Old Trafford, Sanchez only mustered five goals in all competitions. His poor performances led Ole Gunnar Solksjaer to drop him from the team. For the 2019/20 season, the Norwegian could only guarantee Sanchez Europa League and Carabao Cup football.
Sanchez’s sharp decline in Manchester is made all the more starling given his emphatic spells at both Arsenal and Barcelona. In Catalonia, the Chilean scored 42 goals in three seasons, he managed to assist 35 on top of that. In North London, Sanchez was even more prolific than his time at Barcelona. He bagged 70 goals and assisted a further 44 in three and a half seasons, truly world-class numbers. It is no exaggeration to say his performances dragged Arsenal to FA Cup wins, and top four finishes- something Arsenal have failed to replicate since his exit.
However, I am most interested in his time at the more humble Udinese, found in the rolling hills of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia in north-eastern Italy.
Here we can see how Sanchez fared at Udinese, and use this as a potential lens into how his future at Inter could pan out. Of course, Alexis is arguably a different player now- less hungry, but more mature, and a different man. But, there are elements of his game that remain, and therefore, it will be helpful to assess the time when he previously graced the shores of Serie A.
Furthermore, Francesco Guidolin would often employ Udinese in a 3-5-2 formation, with Sanchez playing just behind the mercurially talented Di Natale. Of course, this formation will ring a bell for anyone who has watched Inter this season. 3-5-2 has been Antonio Conte’s favoured choice- perhaps it won’t be long until we see Sanchez playing behind another striker, this time Lukaku.
His time in Italy, for both playing experience in Serie A, and the role he played in a formation identical to his new manager’s choice, make his time at Udinese intriguing to anyone pondering on how Sanchez will do this season.
Sanchez was first spotted by the eagle-eyed scouts at Udinese at the tender age of 16, whilst playing for Cobreloa in his native Chile. He moved to Italy for a sizeable £2 million fee in July 2006.
Aged just 17, Udinese recognised that Sanchez would not yet be ready for the intensity of Italian football. He was sent on loan first to Colo-Colo, and then to the Argentinian giants, River Plate.
These successful loan stints in South America did enough for Udinese to recall Alexis for the 2008/09 season, and he featured prominently in Pasquale Marino’s first team plans.
Still, it was clear that the talented Chilean was still raw. He managed a modest three goals and two assists in 32 Serie A games. But, Udinese persevered.
The following 2009/10 season showed signs that Sanchez had grown as a player, he seemed more accustomed to Serie A football. There were still moments of weakness, however.
Sanchez did not have a league goal to his name until February. He finally scored in a win against Cagliari. A much-needed boost for the player, as calls for him to be dropped were getting louder by the week. That goal sparked an upturn in Sanchez’s form, as he finished the season with five goals and four assists in Serie A.
However, it was not until the 2010/11 season, where Sanchez, eager to improve upon his previous campaign, would truly make his mark upon Italian football.
Francesco Guidolin gradually eased Sanchez back into the team, after the Chilean endured a strenuous summer, where he featured at the 2010 World Cup with Chile. Sanchez only played the full 90 minutes twice in his opening six games, often being brought on off the bench.
Udinese were clearly struggling without their energetic Chilean at his best. They picked up just one point from their opening five games.
He arrived back on the scene in the most imperious fashion, however. In matchday 10, Udinese faced a trip to Bari. The ever-pragmatic Guidolin often experimented with different formations. This time he chose to deploy the 3-5-2 as a means to get the most of Di Natale and Sanchez’s attacking talent, whilst not being opened up at will defensively.
Sanchez was tasked with occupying the ‘hole’ of space that was left by defenders who were so often glued to the illustrious Di Natale.
The space that Sanchez was able to drive into was taken full use of midway through the first-half. After receiving the ball from Kwadwo Asamoah 40 yards from goal, Sanchez proceeded to charge into the open space on the right-hand side, shrugging off a challenge of a Bari midfielder. He then struck the ball from 25 yards. Like a bullet, it flew into the top corner of the net, with no back-lift, the ball remained tangled into the Bari net, as Sanchez received hugs off of his Udinese teammates.
Into the second-half with Bari pressing for an equaliser, Sanchez and Udinese were able to undo them on the counter-attack. The Chilean drove into the Bari box, as the leggy Bari defenders backed off him. He slid a pass to his countryman, Mauricio Isla, who fired home. 2-0 Udinese.
Sanchez’s ability to pick up pockets of space off the central striker is certainly something that will encourage Inter fans. Presumably Lukaku will occupy a couple of defenders, which should grant Sanchez some room to drive with the ball, as he did against Bari to devastating effect.
Moreover, Sanchez’s pace and dribbling ability on the counter-attack should excite Nerazzuri fans. If Inter are ahead in a game, Sanchez should still be able to expose open teams with his pace, creating chances for either himself, Lukaku or Latauro Martinez.
Four months and six goals later, Sanchez had arguably his greatest game in the black-and-white of Udinese.
Another away trip success, this time against Palermo.
His first came through a poor clearance from a Udinese corner, with the ball bouncing around in the box, Sanchez demonstrated his poaching abilities, hammering the ball into the net with his left foot from 10 yards out.
Sanchez’s second highlighted both his class and confidence. After being put through by Di Natale, Alexis showed his burst of pace to run past the defender scampering behind his heels. Once in the box, he did one, two, three stepovers, before taking the ball around Sirigu and passing the ball into an empty net. If Sanchez still possesses that blistering pace, then Inter should be able to have similar success to that Udinese team away from home.
His hat-trick was completed before the first-half had finished. He outmuscled a Palermo defender on the left-hand side, raced into the box, and then skipped past another defender onto his right foot, allowing him to cut inside and drag the ball into the bottom left corner.
At half-time Udinese were 5-0 up, and Sanchez had three. It seemed that Guidolin’s 3-5-2 was working to devastating effect.
Sanchez claimed his fourth in the second half, after having his first close range shot parried away, he retrieved the ball to the right of the goal and poked the ball into the left corner from the tightest angle.
Unfortunately for Sanchez that would be his last involvement, he was substituted off after 53 minutes, but Udinese did not need him anymore, as Le Zebrette went on to win the game 7-0.
Two weeks later Udinese produced yet another stellar away performance, with Sanchez thriving once again in his central role. This time the victims were Cagliari.
Sanchez was unfortunate not to get the first goal when he latched on to Isla’s fizzed pass on the right wing. His sublime touch allowed him to take the ball into the Cagliari box, but his low effort was pushed wide by the Cagliari goalkeeper.
A Benatia header gave Udinese the lead, and once again the opposition pushed up the pitch in search of an equaliser. A dangerous game, when facing Sanchez.
Udinese pinched the ball off Cagilari outside their own box. Pinzi quickly found Sanchez on the half-way line- Udinese had a two-on-two.
A carbon copy of his second goal against Palermo, Sanchez produced a flurry of quick stepovers, leading to the dazed Davide Astori losing his footing. Sanchez raced on, even past the keeper, and he placed the ball into an empty net once again. This was becoming a theme.
Into the second-half, Sanchez received the ball of Di Natale outside the Cagliari box. He proceeded to slot the ball into the path of the onrushing Italian who found the net. Udinese found themselves with an impressive lead once again. 3-0.
It got better for Udinese and Sanchez. Another counter-attack led to Di Natale on the edge of the Cagliari box he flicked the ball to Sanchez through two defenders. Sanchez now one-on-one quickly lifted his head up and passed it back to the Udinese captain who duly obliged and rolled the ball home. A masterpiece of a goal.
These three games only provide a mere snapshot of Sanchez’s time with Udinese, but they both display the immense talent that Sanchez possesses, as well as how well he works in Serie A, and in the 3-5-2 formation. In 31 Serie A games the Chilean scored 12 and assisted 10 goals, accumulating a goal or assist for every 108 minutes he was on the pitch. Interestingly, this also highlights the way in which Inter and Sanchez will be able to prosper away from home, with teams often playing higher up the pitch.
It would be wrong to assume that Sanchez will play in the same manner that he did in the 2009/10 season. The player may lack that extra bit of pace to burst past players, something he did so well at Udinese. Moreover, Udinese were often facing teams that allowed Sanchez and Di Natale acres of space, despite the undisputed quality of the pair.
Sanchez may not be afforded the same time and space at Inter, he may not even be granted the luxury of the position he was given by Guidolin. Conte may even deploy him as a wing-back, although that would be a huge waste.
But, if Conte can recognise the impact that Sanchez has already had in Italy playing in a two in a 3-5-2 formation, then he would be foolish to not start the Chilean up-front with either Lukaku or Martinez. If Sanchez is to be used in a way that is similar to nine years ago, then expect him to match his tally of 12 goals and 10 assists in 2019/20.