A typically rainy Sunday morning in Manchester and there was a distinctly rueful expression on the face of Alexis Sanchez as he drove his Bentley into United’s Carrington training complex.
What a contrast this was from 12 months previous, when his face had adorned every poster and billboard promoting the club’s pre-season tour of the United States.
California. Michigan. Florida. Wherever United went in the summer of 2018, Sanchez was the star attraction.
Alexis Sanchez looks rueful as he reports back for pre-season training with Man United
The forward has only just returned from his summer break following the Copa America
It marks a stark contrast from the optimism of last summer, when he scored against Real Madrid during United’s pre-season tour of the States
Just six months into his United career following his January move from Arsenal, that had been the Chilean’s chance to make his mark and whet the appetites of fans ahead of the upcoming campaign.
After Chile’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, Sanchez had the luxury of a full pre-season to prepare himself as his team-mates slowly trickled back to training following their duties in Russia.
There had been a false start when the US authorities initially refused to grant him a visa because of his 16-month suspended jail sentence for tax fraud in Spain.
But once Sanchez arrived on American soil, he was undoubtedly United’s star turn, scoring in victories over AC Milan and Real Madrid. His prospects looked bright.
Now, as Sanchez reports back for the new season following Chile’s run to the semi-finals of the Copa America, his outlook is about as gloomy as the Manchester weather.
Last summer’s hope for Sanchez quickly evaporated during an injury-plagued campaign
The Chilean struggled for form, scoring just twice in 27 appearances for the Old Trafford club
Sanchez in 2018-19
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team have already toured Australia, Singapore and China in the past three weeks – and Sanchez’s absence has barely been noticed.
United’s manager is slowly but surely revolutionising the team and, he hopes, their prospects ahead of a campaign where anything other than a top four finish is too miserable to contemplate.
With intense double training sessions out in Perth, Solskjaer is determined United won’t run out of steam at the business end of the season as they did last time.
He has pressed ahead with his masterplan to get United playing a high-pressing, possession-based game where the energy of youngsters such as Dan James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Mason Greenwood will be crucial.
And all of this has taken place while Sanchez was still on his holidays.
He was mentioned briefly in a press conference following Chile’s Copa exit – and then promptly forgotten once again.
It doesn’t exactly bode well for his chances of breaking back into the United side and justifying those wages of £500,000-a-week after a cursed 2018-19 season that saw him suffer hamstring, knee, thigh and ankle injuries.
Sanchez scores against Arsenal in the FA Cup fourth round – a rare bright point last season
But Sanchez failed to win the favour of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with his performances
Sanchez started just 13 matches and scored only twice during a season in which his performances invited only derision.
Younger, hungrier players have moved ahead of Sanchez in the manager’s thinking. James has performed well in the wide left position during the tour matches, while Anthony Martial is also effective there.
17-year-old Greenwood has performed well on the right side, scoring in the games against Leeds United and Inter Milan.
Two more teenagers from the academy, Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong, have performed solidly enough to force their way into Solskjaer’s thinking with the season’s start a fortnight away.
Sanchez accidentally sat in Solskjaer’s seat during the FA Cup tie against Reading in January
The remainder of the campaign was injury-plagued with Sanchez suffering four setbacks
Man United fixtures
Tuesday Kristiansund (A) 6pm
Saturday AC Milan (Cardiff) 5.36pm
August 11 Chelsea (H) 4.30pm
August 19 Wolves (A) 8pm
August 24 Crystal Palace (H) 3pm
August 31 Southampton (A) 12.30pm
Last year, Jose Mourinho had little choice but to play Sanchez during United’s pre-season tour because so many players were late back for pre-season following the World Cup.
This time, you sincerely wonder whether Solskjaer would have bothered playing Sanchez even if he had been available.
As he plays catch-up with his fitness, the Chilean looks set to become something of an expensive problem for United.
Solskjaer has been given the final say over his future by the club and all logic suggests it would be better if he moved on before the end of the transfer window.
But his stratospheric wages and injury record are enormous obstacles when it comes to finding suitors. You suspect only a team in the Chinese Super League would be willing to meet his salary demands.
It will certainly be interesting to see how forcefully United try to offload him in the weeks ahead.
Summer signing Daniel James has already impressed for United in their pre-season matches
17-year-old striker Mason Greenwood shone with two goals during the pre-season tour
What is for sure is that Solskjaer has a vision of how he wants United to play in the season ahead and the personnel to achieve it.
If that means Sanchez warming the bench once again, or playing in the reserves, it won’t bother the Norwegian. He certainly won’t indulge Sanchez, however rueful he looks.
So the onus is on the player to quickly catch up on his fitness work and do something to impress Solskjaer and justify the club’s continued outlay on his salary.
Otherwise, the Solskjaer revolution will steam on without him.