Manchester United have a No. 7 once again, and Alexis Sanchez needed just 72 minutes on his debut against Yeovil Town to suggest he will perform more like Cristiano Ronaldo than Memphis Depay in the club’s most iconic shirt.
There will be tougher tests ahead than League Two Yeovil — though there might not be many tougher pitches than the heavy, uneven surface at Huish Park — but Sanchez’s first day at the office saw him provide an assist, go close with a first-half free kick and show precisely why Jose Mourinho and United broke the bank to hijack his move from Arsenal to Manchester City in order to take him to Old Trafford.
The Chilean started on the left, drifted over to the right, into the centre and back to the left again during a high-energy outing in this FA Cup fourth-round tie. And by the time he was replaced by Jesse Lingard with 18 minutes left on the clock, Sanchez had shown enough to convince United supporters that not only can he be a great No. 7, but also a player who makes Mourinho’s team stronger and more clinical against even the strongest opponents.
Still, taking on the No. 7 shirt at United has become a dubious honour in recent seasons, largely because of those who have been weighed down by its history.
There is a view within the game that some shirts are heavier than others — the No. 10s of Brazil and Barcelona are obvious examples — but United’s No. 7 shirt has been given special status for almost 40 years, with Bryan Robson (also known as “Captain Marvel”) the first “Magnificent Seven” of the modern era.
Robson handed it over to Eric Cantona, who elevated the shirt to another level with his impact on and off the pitch, before David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo came along to give the United No. 7 almost mythical status. But once Ronaldo placed the No. 7 back on the dressing-room peg after leaving for Real Madrid in 2009, the magic began to wear off.
Michael Owen had the reputation, but not the fitness, to carry it off, while Antonio Valencia wore it for one season before asking to hand it back in favour of his old No. 25. Angel Di Maria, whose goal in a 2-0 FA Cup win at Yeovil in January 2015 was a rare highlight of a dismal year at United, struggled in the No. 7 shirt, while his replacement, the Dutch winger Memphis Depay, insisted he possessed the talent and charisma to wear it before going on to prove he had neither.
So Sanchez arrives with the No. 7 having been in cold storage since Depay’s exit to Lyon 12 months ago and with its lustre having dimmed since Ronaldo headed for the Bernabeu nine years ago.
This was an impressive start by the 29-year-old, one that highlighted not only Sanchez’s quality, but also his bravery and readiness to put up with heavy-handed treatment by opponents such as Yeovil centre-half Nathan Smith, who was rightly booked for kicking him into the air on 29 minutes.
By that stage, Sanchez had overcome a nervous first 15 minutes, when he gave the ball away four times, to become United’s most productive outlet. He hugged the left touchline, neatly linking with Juan Mata and Scott McTominay, before making his first decisive contribution as a United No. 7 when setting up Marcus Rashford for the opening goal on 41 minutes.
Sanchez drew defenders away from Rashford before passing to the England forward on the edge of penalty area. Rashford then broke toward goal before passing the ball into the net to score. Sanchez’s contribution was recognised by captain Michael Carrick, making his first appearance since undergoing a heart procedure during the autumn, who sought out the new boy to congratulate him on his assist.
But there was more to come, and more rough challenges to ride, with Sanchez creating United’s second for Ander Herrera on the hour mark. A break through the centre of the pitch in the Yeovil half enabled Sanchez to pick out Ander Herrera, who scored again at Huish Park, three years after netting at the same ground.
Mourinho insisted prior to this game that Sanchez needed the run-out having not trained fully at Arsenal for the week prior to his move, so the manager knows that his new signing still has more to give. But this was a night when Sanchez provided the cutting edge across the final third that United have lacked for so long. He injected pace and unpredictability to the forward line and he was far too good for Yeovil.
Mourinho has signed him to make a difference in the Premier League and Champions League, rather than against journeyman professionals in the FA Cup, but Sanchez has already proved his ability to do that with Arsenal.
Next Wednesday’s clash with Tottenham at Wembley will offer a clearer glimpse of what Sanchez will bring to United, but he has already shown he can make the No. 7 magnificent again.