Manchester United have completed the signing of Alexis Sanchez. It was just as well that they did so, considering how much his wages have skyrocketed at the club since it was first rumoured the club were interested in him.

We take a short walk down memory lane to look at the extraordinary levels of reporting by the press.

First let’s journey back to deadline day in August, 2017. Around midday, Guillem Balague suggested that Sanchez was close to signing for Manchester City for a fee that was £55m and £5m in add-ons (well, he actually said £55 and £5, so maybe this puts his more recent outrage into perspective).

The deal looked so set in stone that even other professionals were commenting. Charlie Adam of Stoke told the BBC “I heard three weeks ago that the deal was done, completed. Agreed, finances, everything was agreed. All they had to agree was the fee between Arsenal and Man City. I heard that three weeks ago.”

On the same day, the Express and other media outlets widely reported that City were willing to push to £70m to get the deal done. Crucially, they report on the player’s wage demands. Sanchez had reportedly refused £300,000 per week to stay at Arsenal and that Manchester City had agreed to pay him £400,000 per week.

James Robson of the MEN spoke about Sanchez being offered ‘City’s coveted number 9 shirt‘ in early August. It had been worn by such legends as Niall Quinn, Nolito, and Valeri Bojinov.

No deal was struck and Sanchez remained at Arsenal, though it was widely accepted that City were favourites to sign the player and would instead get him on a free transfer at the end of the season on that £400,000 per week salary.

However, Gabriel Jesus picked up an injury. Pep Guardiola was left with Sergio Aguero, one of the world’s top strikers, to fill in his position. The manager’s reputation for bringing through young players is as widely renowned as Manchester City’s youth system yet despite this magnificent opportunity to showcase that with Jesus’s temporary absence, City were instead linked with a move to sign Sanchez in January instead, choosing to pay a fee to Arsenal.

Arsenal were rightly enraged by City’s conduct over the Sanchez deal (and Manchester City in return were reportedly ‘furious’ with Arsenal for keeping their player) but agreed to sell for £35m. City, knowing they had everything in place to sign the player, offered just £20m. Curiously, that same report said Sanchez’s agreement with City was apparently £250,000 a week, or £13m a season. It seems clear that the difference in salary would have been represented in high signing-on and agent fees. And, again, City, believing they had a deal which had been agreed despite not agreeing anything with the player’s club, felt they could force Arsenal to sell them a player who didn’t want to stay. Other reports suggested City may be willing to go to £35m in order to close the deal.

On 11th January, it emerged that Manchester United had made a £25m bid though details of a proposed salary were ambiguous.

On the same day, Sky Sports reported that Henrikh Mkhitaryan could be involved in the deal as a potential straight swap.

On 12th January, Jose Mourinho confirmed United’s interest, though he did refuse to comment directly on the negotiations, saying it wouldn’t be right.

On Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday on 13th January, Paul Merson said that Mourinho had taken a huge risk by admitting the club’s interest, as United could end up badly embarrassed if Sanchez chose City.

“It’s a big gamble what Jose’s done with Alexis Sanchez though by going ‘I want Sanchez’,” Merson said. “Because if Sanchez chooses to go to Man City, that’s a real custard pie to Man United. He surely wouldn’t just say it for the sake of saying it, there’s got to be something going on. Man United there’s no about about it are still the biggest football club by a million miles. But that would be a custard pie if Mourinho goes ’I want Sanchez’ and he goes ‘no I’m going to go to Man City’.”

And so the story of Sanchez’s escalating reported salary began. That Saturday, the Sun reported that United would pay Sanchez £60,000 more than he would have earned at City. They said United would offer £350,000, as opposed to City’s £290,000 offer. They also mentioned that they would pay Sanchez a £25m signing-on fee and his agent a £5m fee. City, remarkably, “refuse to pay agent Fernando Felicevich £5m in commission.”

On the same day, the Mail reported the same wage as the Sun. Their report said : “City have told the Chilean if he waits until the summer he would be able to pocket almost £70million in wages – double Arsenal’s transfer valuation.” At a rough calculation, over a four year deal, that would be approximately £365,000. On a three year deal, it would be approximately £485,000. That last figure is important to bear in mind considering the forthcoming numbers.

Arsene Wenger commented after his team’s defeat to Bournemouth that he expected a conclusion within 48 hours.

Barney Ronay wrote for the Guardian on Monday 15th January that United ‘spending a fortune’ to get Alexis Sanchez at 29 made sense. The implication was obvious. United were throwing money at an ageing player in a desperate ploy to close the gap to City. Quite what Barney made of City’s £60m offer four months earlier is not clear.

“There is a natural note of weary cynicism about this,” Ronay wrote. “Take one mega-club in a state of retrenchment. Add one semi-megastar with a hungry agent, whose club career is in danger of unspooling into well-remunerated underachievement. Chuck in one trophy-crazed Portuguese short-termist. Welcome to modern football squared. The noodle partners will be delighted. Except, like all ideas born out of football’s more cartoonish oppositions, this is only half the story. In reality Sánchez to United could end up an excellent move for all concerned. Over the full three and a half years that contract would add up to £50m and as a total package around £100m, or the equivalent of a more standard (insanely inflated) wage plus a £75m transfer fee. This is pretty much what United would pay on the open market.”

Curiously, Ronay’s comments are focussed on United’s financial offer, rather than Manchester City’s, which, has can be seen by the reporting above, was pretty much identical. The only difference is that Manchester United had made a straightforward, formal offer to Arsenal, and were therefore permitted to conduct these negotiations.

On Tuesday 16th January Goal.com published this blog which got some notice on social media. Blogger Sam Lee wrote that Manchester City ‘pulled out’ of their own pursuit of Alexis Sanchez because they put ‘morals over money’. The crux of the point was that Guardiola and the City board were furious that Felicevich was now asking for more money. A curious development indeed, and an insight into a) the warped, hypocritical principles held by some in sport, and b) the warped, hypocritical way in which those principles are represented and reported.

By this point, Sanchez’s comments about it being a ‘dream to play for Manchester United’ earlier in his career had surfaced, but let’s put this aside and consider this from Felicevich’s position (as much as that goes against the grain). The player he represents was under contract at a club. One club had made an improper advance and believed they had an agreement up to a year before the player’s contract was due to expire. However, when attempting to agree a deal with the player’s club, they could not, for whatever reason. Another club then made a formal advance through the proper channels and the player’s club accepted the offer. When the agent discovered that United’s offer was similar but that the offer to him personally was more lucrative, he then informed Manchester City of this development. City had the option to match United’s offer and certainly their wage offer to the player was in the vicinity.

Do Manchester City have any entitlement to feel aggrieved? Can they claim the ‘moral’ high ground over Sanchez or Felicevich or United? As unscrupulous as football agents go, no, City cannot claim this, and they particularly cannot do it to Arsenal, a club who they have pilfered again and again and again over the last decade by throwing money at their stars. Does Guardiola, who wasn’t present for most of that recent history, have an entitlement to feel aggrieved? Does this fit in with the media narrative that Guardiola is holier-than-thou, a pure footballing icon in a world of mercenaries?

There were further developments. Having realised that Arsenal were keen to bring in Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mino Raiola made his own presence known so much that he told reporters that ‘Sanchez was part of the Mkhitaryan deal, and not the other way around’. It became clear then that the deal would be a straight swap with no transfer fee involved. All that remained was for the Armenian to be convinced to take an undisputed backward step in his career in the pursuit of first team football.

It became clear that the deal would not be concluded in time for either player to be registered to play at the weekend and that gave plenty of time for journalists to weigh in and do some calculations. First off, Matt Law’s ‘exclusive’ for the Telegraph where it was claimed that Manchester United’s deal to sign Sanchez would cost the club £180 MILLION. This was broken down as thus : “The 29 year-old will be paid £14m a year after tax – just under £27m a year before tax – to join United, on top of his £30m valuation, £20m signing-on fee, and an agents’ fee worth more than £10m.” Law’s numbers mean that he was suggesting Sanchez would be getting a salary in excess of £550,000 per week.

The Mirror broke it down as thus:

Per year before presumed 45 percent tax: £25.5m

Per month before tax: £2.1m

Per week before tax: £490,000

Per day before tax: £70,000

The Mirror also claimed that Sanchez will earn £400,000. The Times reported £450,000 a week but also said “United are prepared to pay £350,000 plus additional sums for his image rights. However, the package they offer him will not be as lavish as the one he sought to join Manchester City.”

From £350,000, to £400,000, to £450,000, to £500,000, to £550,000 +… and today, the Mail went that one step further by saying Sanchez would earn £600,000 a week.

Numbers have dominated the coverage of United’s stunning gazumping of City. Just a couple of days prior to United’s interest becoming known, nobody batted an eyelid about City’s willingness to get the deal done. Mark Critchley of the Independent wrote a detailed article praising City’s ruthlessness whilst also questioning, in a far-more light-hearted way than some of his peers have done by weighing in on United, why City would stockpile another senior player.

“City’s willingness to finalise a deal for the Arsenal forward now rather than in the summer has puzzled some, given that Sanchez will be available free of charge come 30 June and he has shown little sign of courting interest from elsewhere,” wrote Critchley. “Why, when in such a comfortable position in the league and with only one relatively straight-forward Champions League tie to negotiate before Jesus’ return, is it necessary to pay £25m or so for another forward now? Who would he even replace in City’s first-choice starting line-up?… Once Jesus returns, Guardiola could well keep rotating the pair until the season’s end and continue to rely on supplementary goals from midfield. City would still win the title at a canter, maybe even a cup competition too. Yet with each passing victory, domestic achievements become less of the point. This season, this side has an opportunity to do more than just that. The depth that signing Sanchez would provide will also apply to European competition, as the Chilean will be eligible to play in the Champions League if he signs this January, despite his participation in Arsenal’s Europa League campaign.  After a favourable knock-out phase draw that saw tough ties for fellow contenders as well as a favourable one for City against Basel, the Etihad hierarchy have the chance to draft in an elite talent at a cut-price to help achieve a short-term objective. The European Cup that this club craves in order to establish itself among the continent’s elite will be likelier with Sanchez in tow. Given the relatively low costs involved for a player of his talent, it makes sense to move now.”

Summary? City were splashing the cash but this was an impressive flexing of the muscles which made more sense than not. (Critchley, to his credit, has maintained this line, saying City may regret not ‘swallowing their pride’).

Guillem Balague, Sky Sport’s Spanish football correspondent, and known Pep Guardiola apologist, tweeted that Sanchez’s choice was ‘Pep or money’. On 19th January, the Mirror reported the ‘reason why Guardiola left Sanchez’.

The report said : “Pep Guardiola claims Manchester City ended their long pursuit of Alexis Sanchez because they did not want to risk the stability of the club. Guardiola backed City’s decision to give up on Sanchez because they felt the £35million transfer costs plus the striker’s £500,000-a-week wage demands were too much. City have carefully developed their wage structure at the Etihad and Sanchez’s salary would have dwarfed that of top earner Sergio Aguero on £250,000-a-week. The Chilean’s signing might also have complicated Kevin De Bruyne’s contract negotiations when the Belgium playmaker, who is so important for City’s future, is close to signing a new £220,000-a-week deal.”

City had three scenarios where they may have signed Sanchez. The first in the summer, for a fee of £60m, which would have included wages of £300,000 and agent/signing-on fees. The second in January, for a lower fee, and a similar salary. The third in the summer of 2018, on a free transfer, where they had assured the player and his agent that they would receive the equivalent of the transfer fee they had been willing to pay, over the duration of his contract.

Their stance in the summer was well known and in January it was re-affirmed when they made an offer of £20m. They were willing to buy the player and they were so keen to get him that they would pay what they felt was an extra £20m just for the sake of an extra few months. So, what happened between their offer on 9th January and the 19th January, when Guardiola said “In my period at Barcelona, in my period at Bayern Munich and now here, I never put pressure on the club to say I want those players when the club believes and says it is too much. I respect that decision and I move forward and look for another solution because the stability of the club is the most important thing. Normally we try to be stable with the wages of the players because I think it is good for the team and stability of the club”?

Having intensively scouted the player for a year, having been willing to pay £60m for him four months ago, and having been willing to pay £20m for him ten days ago, and having – by every single report – been willing to made Sanchez their best paid player, what prompted such an urgent internal review of salary structures where the result was to not proceed with their bid?

Whisper it, but could Paul Merson have been right for once? Have Manchester City simply been ‘custard pied’ and are desperately trying to claim they were the ones who said no?

The strangest thing isn’t that – of course they were going to make out like they didn’t want him anyway, it’s a classic case of the scorned lover – but it’s in the tone of reporting with the respective clubs. At Manchester City, Sanchez would have been a player on more than a quarter of a million pounds a week, a player not even guaranteed a first team place, signed just because City have the kind of financial flexibility to make signings on a whim like that.

His prospective signing was viewed in the light that he was another star player going to join the Pep project, reflected by all both before and since the United bid, who claim his head was turned by money. This despite the fact that he could have waited six months and been considerably more wealthy than he will be even at United.

Jose Mourinho commented in December that it was difficult for United to compete with City financially. He was roundly criticised for this. In the time since Pep Guardiola has been in charge of Manchester City, the perception has been significantly altered enough so that City’s success is no longer attributed to their colossal transfer outlay. If we are to accept City’s moral outrage is over a reported £5m in agent’s fees, then it is so unpalatable a theory as to be offensive to anyone who understands football and/or economics.

There are some sane voices in the media who maintain United are simply a bigger club and still have a certain draw about them. There are some with longer memories than three months who remember City still haven’t won anything and United still did win a couple of things last season.

On Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement Neil Custis made the jibe about City’s own merciless pursuit of unashamed mercenaries, suggesting that Yaya Toure didn’t move to Manchester because he was a fan of Colin Bell. Custis has a point. City’s number nine may be ‘coveted’ (it isn’t, but sure, it may be), but United’s number seven shirt has a prestige that appeals to any star player. Maybe in fifteen years that prestige will be as diluted as it seems to be at Liverpool, but for now it still means something.

Yesterday the Sun carried a report that Sanchez had offered a student money to have sex with him – a claim the player strongly denied today on his social media accounts – which is a story about alleged events from August over the last few months and yet apparently only have any relevance now, when he is set to move to Manchester United. Curiously, these sorts of reports were absent when the player was set to move to Manchester City.

These are the sort of things Sanchez can expect now he’s signed for United – alongside the accusations of being a mercenary that were also noticeable by their absence when he was set to join the ‘project’ across town.

Manchester United are about to sign one of the best players in the league and they won’t have to pay a penny in transfer fees to get him – but why let facts get in the way of six hundred thousand good stories, eh?