As Alexis Sanchez nears the Old Trafford exit, the Manchester United No. 7 shirt will soon sit vacant once more. For all the memories of Beckham and Ronaldo, Cantona and Robson, Coppell and Best, those fresher in the mind are of unfulfilled promise and repeated disappointment.
The creator of the Peanuts magazine strip, Charles M. Schulz, once wrote that the ‘secret to life… [was to] replace one worry with another’. The United No. 7 has indeed been one worry after another, their attempts to fill the shirt much like Charlie Brown’s repeated attempts to kick his football whilst playing with Lucy. Charlie Brown never succeeds without falling, much like the form of some of the names on this list.
Since Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Real Madrid in 2009, five men have attempted to be the to meet the expectations that come with wearing the prestigious No. 7. The result has been resounding failure: they have scored a combined fourteen goals in a hundred and fifty-three league games since.
With the help of a few choice quotes, the Manchester United’s No. 7s of the past decade are ranked here:
1. Michael Owen (2009-2012)
“Nothing makes a player more productive than the last minute.” – John Kessel
At a pub quiz, if asked to ‘name the Manchester United players to score a hattrick under Sir Alex Ferguson’, Michael Owen is likely the answer that will slip your mind.
Having lost Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, United were strongly linked to a host of world-class forwards, with Karim Benzema, then at Lyon, and Franck Ribery both reported to be on their way to Old Trafford. By the end of summer, they had signed Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia. Not quite the upgrade required.
Owen, however, went on to have a decent career at United, scoring seventeen goals in fifty-three appearances. Signed to provide backup for Rooney and Berbatov, rather than as a direct replacement for Ronaldo’s goals, his 96th-minute winner against Manchester City has gone down in folklore as one of the great Stretford End moments. A hat-trick against Wolfsburg and a goal in the League Cup final ensured he contributed to what was a frustrating season for United.
His banal punditry and fondness for Liverpool means he’s unlikely to be remembered with any great affection, but in terms of value for money, and expectations to reality, he remains United’s best (or more accurately, least disappointing) No. 7 since Ronaldo’s departure.
2. Antonio Valencia (2012-2013)
“You certainly know when you have an opportunity, and you want to take advantage of it. And it's certainly disappointing when you don’t.” – Peyton Manning
It would be fair to say that the arrival of Antonio Valencia as Cristiano Ronaldo’s replacement was a tad underwhelming. Valencia confounded expectations however, and the 2011-12 season which earnt him the No. 7 shirt saw him named United’s Player of the Year. Although they lost the league title on goal difference, Valencia’s sumptuous goals at Ewood Park and Molyneux were examples of how often he made the difference that season.
Inheriting the No. 7 shirt, however, saw Valencia’s form take a nosedive. Sir Alex Ferguson began to experiment with less conventional wingers, with Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa regularly shifted out wide, most notably away at the Bernabeu. Both Nani and Ashley Young were used ahead of him, and even though he managed forty appearances that season, he would chip in with only one goal. A return to the No. 25 shirt was requested.
Valencia’s transformation to right-back under first Louis van Gaal and subsequently Jose Mourinho was admirable, and despite his obvious shortcomings, he performed well during a difficult period in the post-Ferguson years. His career as a whole will be rightly remembered as that of a solid servant to the club, but his season at No. 7 was perhaps his worst in a red shirt.
3. Memphis Depay (2015-2017)
“There is a very thin line between confidence and arrogance.” – Adam Peaty
There was much excitement about Memphis’ arrival at Manchester United. Raw talent? Tick. Goalscoring ability? Tick. Freekick specialist? Another big tick.
When United completed his signing for a reported £25 million in June of 2015, he told new manager Louis van Gaal that he wanted the No. 7 shirt that Angel di Maria was vacating. It was a sign of confidence welcomed by most reds and if he could come close to matching the careers of United’s previous three signings from PSV – Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Park Ji-Sung – it would be £25 million well spent.
Memphis’ confidence, however, was misplaced, and despite an exciting double in a Champions League qualifier against Club Brugge, he failed to fulfil his potential. He was chastised for his flashy lifestyle by then-assistant manager Ryan Giggs, and by Wayne Rooney for turning up to an under-23s match in a Rolls-Royce and cowboy hat. After just two league goals in his first season, Memphis was given just twenty minutes of Premier League football in late 2016, before being sold to Lyon in January.
It was farewell to another No. 7, and the circus of finding a replacement began once again. What about us? Well, we’ll always have FC Midtjylland.
4. Angel di Maria (2014-2015)
“Ability without honour is useless.” – Cicero
It is a measure of the catastrophe that is below him in this list that Angel di Maria escapes last place. His short United career encapsulates the post-Ferguson era: excitement, flair and renewal, followed by disappointment, collapse and the raising of the white flag.
Di Maria arrived at Old Trafford as one of the world’s leading players. His crucial role in Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph made their decision to let him go baffling, and his versatility – playing wide or in a three-man midfield – made his transfer seem good value even at a British record of £59.7m.
Di Maria’s quality was obvious, and two goals and two assists in his first four matches saw him win both the club’s Player of the Month and Goal of the Month awards. However, it was this that made his nosedive in form so disappointing. His FA Cup quarter-final sending off against Arsenal, for manhandling referee Michael Oliver after being booked for diving, was the nadir of a terrible season.
After refusing to board the club’s flight to the United States for the pre-season tour, he forced through a move to Paris Saint-Germain. His career at United could well have been salvaged, but he had likely preferred a move to Paris over Manchester in the first place. He wasn’t keen on hanging around, and by the time of his transfer, most supporters were not sad to see the back of him.
5. Alexis Sanchez (2017-2019)
“Man cannot live by incompetence alone.” – Charlotte Whitton
Alexis Sanchez has a legitimate claim not only to be United’s worst-ever transfer, but to be the most catastrophic piece of business by any British club.
The Arsenal man already looked a shell of his former-self after his summer move to Manchester City fell through, and reports suggested his sullen presence in the dressing room was not welcomed by team-mates. United beat their cross-city rivals to Sanchez’s signature at the second time of asking, but only by throwing obscene amounts of money in his direction. Figures vary, but it is widely accepted that his basic wage comes close to £400,000-per-week, a number which increases with bonuses and image rights.
What have United received in return? Three league goals.
More importantly, however, the transfer has had a detrimental effect on all future dealings the club engages in. David de Gea, a player whose loyalty is underappreciated, rightly demanded to be on wages similar to Sanchez’s, a demand it now seems has been met. Ander Herrera was not given the same concessions, and thus a valuable squad player departed for free. In terms of incomings, Paulo Dybala was able to demand £350,000-per-week to join the club, citing Alexis as the benchmark for attacking talent.
In corrupting their own wage structure, United may one day look at Alexis Sanchez’s arrival as a mistake which cost them more than any other. Off the pitch, he represents the muddled thinking of the club’s directors, and on it the malaise of the footballing side.
He is not just United’s worst No. 7, but he may be United’s worst ever signing.
EPILOGUE: The decline
On 10th May 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo scored his final league goal for Manchester United, against Manchester City. He had scored fourteen since January, taking his Premier League total to eighty-four, and winning his third title in the process.
On 12th May 2019, ten years later, Alexis Sanchez was left out of the match-day squad for United’s 2-0 home defeat to already-relegated Cardiff City. He was unable to add to his single league goal that season, and thus he, Memphis Depay, Angel di Maria, Antonio Valencia and Michael Owen had collectively scored just fourteen league goals in ten years.
A decade after one of United’s finest ever players vacated the No. 7 shirt, no-one has come close to the standard required to fill it. With the club’s return to the top of English football seemingly some way off, it may be some time until it they do.