It’s 2009. Cristiano Ronaldo has just completed his world-record £80m move from Manchester United to Real Madrid. Manchester United are looking for a ‘New Ronaldo’, and one has appeared on the north-eastern boarder of Italy, at Udinese.
After two years of scouting and interest, the aforementioned ‘New Ronaldo’ – or shall we call him ‘NR7’, given he will assume the No 7 shirt at Old Trafford – joined Pep Guardiola and Barcelona, a physical, powerful and direct runner with a penchant for cutting inside and shooting with power and always going at 100mph.
It may be nearly seven years after when they originally tried to get him but Manchester United have finally signed Alexis Sanchez, for a £30m fee and on wages of more than £300,000-a-week – for the next four and a half years. Oh, but he’s now 29 and at a very different stage of his career.
Last season was his best yet. He played in all 38 Premier League games and scored 24 goals in total, up from his 13 goals the season before and 16 in his debut term. Yet this season is different, only seven goals and a limited influence, likely to be because his head has been elsewhere and his rapport with his teammates has deteriorated.
Playing at 100 mph, as Ronaldo will profess, takes a toll on the body and Sanchez, if he truly is ‘NR7’, has a thing or two to learn from the master of adaptation to the rigours of age. The Chilean has totalled 50 games a season for each of the last seven, remember, and he has a four-and-a-half-year deal to fulfil after all. United won’t want a repeat of Robin van Persie and his diminishing influence as he entered his 30s.
Ronaldo won two Ballon d’Ors and finished runner-up in a third since turning 30. He is a freak, a phenomenon, one that United couldn’t even dream Sanchez of emulating, but one they will hope he learns from.
“I speak with Cristiano all the time and I know him very well,” Zinedine Zidane said in May of last year as Ronaldo scored 10 goals in five knockout games to thrust Real Madrid to back-to-back Champions League glory. “He knows that until now, he played 60-70 games a season and the accumulation of all those years meant he needs to rest a little. All I know is that players need to rest, especially if they want to arrive at the final stage of the season in top condition.”
Ronaldo himself, upon turning 30 in 2015, noted the change in his game in order to manage his body, and how he became “a striker”, rather than the more physically demanding role as a winger.
”I'm different now, I'm more a penalty-box player, not so much on the wing,” he told Marca after winning yet another Golden Shoe. “Because you score more goals from there, so I changed my position slightly. It's been a natural change and it's certainly kept me happy.”
That’s what Sanchez will eventually need to learn to do under Jose Mourinho at United, and it will prove all-the-more difficult given the instant success that will be demanded of him. The Old Trafford faithful will not want to see their new signing confined to the bench in order to manage himself for bigger games.
This, of course, is future talk, Sanchez does not turn 30 until midway through next season and will still be playing with all the vigour, energy and enthusiasm of a 10-year-old on a school playground.
The 100mph man will be needed for the full four-and-a-half years if Manchester United are to shush their noisy neighbours, the neighbours that so nearly homed Sanchez, but if he is to do so effectively – ‘NR7’ will do well to learn to obey the 60 mph speed limit from time to time.