Why Alex Sandro could shine at Manchester United despite a year of struggle
If a year is a long time in politics, it’s an eternity in football. Little over 12 months ago, almost any Juventus supporter would have argued that Alex Sandro was the best left-back in the world. While fans of any club will constantly champion their own players ahead of any other, Sandro's continually excellent form meant that this was much more than mere bias.
Like his compatriot Marcelo, the Bianconeri star had played with consistency and ferocity, displaying all of the attributes needed to excel in that role. He proved himself capable of dominating the entire flank singlehandedly, and his defensive diligence and tactical awareness – attributes he'd honed to perfection in Serie A – were perhaps better than those of the Real Madrid flyer. But he had also continued to blossom as an attacking force.
Sandro, delivering crosses that even Roberto Carlos admitted were “more accurate than mine”, was a devastating threat to both of Juve's main Italian rivals and Champions League opponents as his side completed a domestic double and reached the Champions League final. They lost 4-1 to Real Madrid in Cardiff, but that did little to dispel interest in Sandro, who emerged as a top transfer target for then-Premier League champions Chelsea.
Summer of speculation
Talk of a move raged all summer, with a fee anywhere between £60m and £75m discussed, but no agreement was reached and Sandro remained at Juve as the 2017/18 campaign began. But the player who turned out in black and white was a shadow of his former self; he never came close to reaching his previous standards, and lacked the sharpness and drive that had made him such a force in previous seasons.
Sandro was regularly dropped by Max Allegri, who preferred to deploy Kwadwo Asamoah in a lot of important matches last term. But the Ghanaian surprisingly outperformed the Brazilian and fully deserved to get the nod. Sandro insisted he was “fully focused” on helping Juventus in a January interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport, but there was little doubt that his attention was elsewhere.
Mistakes he never made, like hesitating in possession or misplacing passes, suddenly became regular occurrences. Disastrously, he played Cristiano Ronaldo onside in the latter stages of the two sides' Champions League quarter-final tie and was subsequently beaten in the air by the Portuguese superstar – a sequence which directly led to Real Madrid’s last-minute penalty.
Compared to last term, Sandro has made fewer tackles, interceptions, clearances and blocks per 90 minutes, created markedly fewer scoring chances (just 25 against 50 in 2016/17 when he played only 285 more minutes of action), and completed fewer take-ons.
It has been a remarkable dip. Yet that hasn't stopped Manchester United from reportedly making a move for him, with one notable Italian outlet insisting that a deal has already been agreed.
According to Turin-based newspaper La Stampa – which has strong ties to the Agnelli family who own Juventus – a fee of €50m will see Sandro head to Old Trafford, although an announcement won't be made until after the FA Cup final. Matteo Darmian could potentially head in the opposite direction, but either way it seems United and Jose Mourinho won't be deterred by one poor season, and will look to reinvigorate the 27-year-old this summer.
It's clearly a gamble, but if the Reds can help Sandro rediscover his very best form, that mooted transfer fee could be a steal. The Brazilian can help resolve what has been a problem position for United over the last four years, ever since Patrice Evra left for Juventus – the player who, in turn, helped Sandro become a better player in Turin.
Learning with Uncle Pat
"I don't care about how much I cost – I'm working to improve day by day, both in defence and in attack. I'm still developing,” Sandro told Sky Italia back in 2015. "I'm training with great players here, such as Evra, whose career I've followed since he played for Manchester United. I'm a big fan of his and it’s an honour to work alongside him.”
Despite vying for one spot in the starting XI, the duo grew closer over the next 18 months. Sandro – who cost the Bianconeri €26m from Porto in 2015 – learned the nuances of his role from the vastly experienced veteran. Like Paul Pogba and Alvaro Morata, he called Evra “Uncle Pat” – a nickname that often appeared to be a joke, but one which carried a significant amount of respect from the three younger men.
By January 2017, it was clear that Sandro no longer needed help. Evra recognised he would rarely feature in the side, so moved on first to Marseille, and then West Ham as his former pupil played almost every game at Juve.
In his three seasons with the club, Sandro has made 114 appearances, collected Serie A and Coppa Italia winners' medals every year and reached the Champions League final in 2017.
His first two campaigns were truly special under Allegri’s careful guidance; a realisation of the potential that he'd shown at Porto. He was able to play as a wing-back when the Italian coach opted for a three-man defence or in a more orthodox back four, and displayed the versatility, strength and pace that would appear to make him an ideal fit for the Premier League.
The Brazilian also had a superb understanding with Pogba, who played on the same side of the pitch – something that would almost certainly happen at Old Trafford too.
A year is a long time, but Alex Sandro is worth the risk. Get it right, and Manchester United could be signing one of the best left-backs in the world.