Since his £73m move to Manchester United in the summer of 2021, Jadon Sancho appears to be nothing more than a rotational option under Erik ten Hag this season. The former Manchester City academy man joined the Red Devils after consistently performing in Germany with Borussia Dortmund. Sancho was one of the most productive players in Europe at the time, averaging 1.30 goal contributions per 90 minutes for the club.
Sancho’s 2019/20 season stood out in particular as the then-20-year-old produced 20 goals and 20 assists in all competitions and only Lionel Messi at the time had more goal contributions. As well as being the most productive teenager in all of Europe, Sancho also became the youngest (and fastest) player to reach 50 Bundesliga assists after just 99 league games for Dortmund in 2020 and proved that he was far more than just a tricky, goal-scoring winger – he was a complete player and a statistically world-class one at that.
So, what has happened to Jadon Sancho? Man United does have the reputation of buying players at a hefty fee and they fall below expectations, although it seems extraordinary that a talent like Sancho could have dropped off as much as it seems as has; not to mention the Englishman is still just 22 years old.
Let’s take a closer look:
For Dortmund, Sancho played on both the left and right-hand side, although it’s clear that for the majority of his career in Germany, he played more often on the right (71 games) than he did on the left (45 games). The modern game will typically place right-footed players on the left to cut inside and, likewise, left-footed on the right as the modern-day winger continues to gain more responsibility for goalscoring. Still a young winger, Jadon Sancho’s technical ability was thoroughly utilised on the right wing by Dortmund and it became instrumental to his development as a creative winger, being able to take on a man, beat him, and put in a cross into the box, whilst still having a unique finishing ability at his disposal.
Towards the later period of his Dortmund stint, Sancho shifted to the left-hand side more often than he usually did and it resulted in him being more productive in games, assembling similar goal contributions to when he played on the right in many fewer games – the arrival of Norwegian superstar, Erling Haaland may have been a key contributing factor to this, but it shouldn’t take anything away from the individual performances of Sancho. Overall, it reflected the versatility of Sancho’s game and the impact he could have against opponents depending on how the team wanted to set up.
From 2020-2021, it was clear that former Manchester United manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, was after the talented Englishman and after over a year of negotiating, finally got his man. Solskjaer’s frontline consisted of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood. The front three of the team were in good form but it was clear that the side needed an out-and-out right-winger to maintain the effective balance of the side to push for a Premier League title.
However, it didn’t quite turn into the bulletproof plan the club imagined. Rashford and Martial both found themselves with relentless injuries and seriously poor veins of form and the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo completely reshaped the plans of the club to the point whereby it had almost become ‘improvised’. Sancho needed to be accommodated to the left-hand side and appeared ill-prepared as no one could see such a drastic change to the United squad.
Adapting to the Premier League
Sancho’s first start came during United’s third league game against Wolves. Surprisingly, Sancho looked to be the worst player on the pitch by having little to no effect on the game. Sancho failed to have a shot, failed to complete a dribble, and lost every duel on the pitch. It was strange to see such a poor performance although, given the change into English football with such a need for pure pace and physicality, Sancho’s confidence took a hit.
In the first few months of Sancho’s fresh start, his performances continued to take a turn for the worst. He failed to achieve a single goal or assist and had even been benched numerous times.
“He’s going to be a top player for England and for Manchester United, but he has to be managed in the right way. It gives us a chance to work on his fitness but also to give him a rest because he has been playing in many, many games at a high intensity”
Those were the words of Solskjaer when asked about the concerning form of Sancho. Unfortunately for the Norwegian, his career didn’t last much longer at United as their poor season continued. As interim manager, Michael Carrick’s first game was against Villareal in the Champions League. In that game, Sancho scored his first goal for the club and, interestingly, he had started on the right side in far more of a ‘free role’ in a sense that his primary responsibility was not always to take the defender on a one-on-one but create space and opportunities for his teammates. In his very next game, Sancho scored again versus Chelsea in the league, playing in a unique split-striker role alongside Rashford. Unfortunately for Sancho, however, his form once again dropped off and sat on the bench for several games.
One of the key factors to look at for Sancho is the general style of play both for his team and the identity of the team within the league itself. Bundesliga is well known for having a high-intensity counter-attacking style of football that perfectly suits a creative fast-thinking player such as Sancho. At club level, Sancho notably had a running in behind striker in Haaland, as well as an overlapping fullback in Hakimi that enhances his play so he can create more space around others with his trickery. At United, Ronaldo and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are far from a similar profile and Sancho has found it difficult to adjust to new teammates. It would be unfair to say that Bundesliga is inferior to the Premier League as exports such as Kevin De Bruyne, Heung-min Son and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang seem to, if anything, have improved within English football.
In England, however, a similar story cannot be said for Sancho. It’s clear that the opponents are more than aware of his quick dribbling and skill and ensure that the ground is held and therefore force Sancho in his role at United to rely on pace or directly cutting inside himself – an ability that is not necessarily a strength for Sancho. Physicality has also been a big change for Sancho. It seems far more difficult for Sancho to attempt to beat a man one-on-one and statistics suggest that Sancho is now attempting fewer dribbles per game than he was at Dortmund.
A winger in the Premier League does not need to be pacey or a clinical goal scorer to become successful, although Sancho appears to have failed to adapt. The trouble lies in the types of dribbles Sancho attempts within games. At Dortmund, Sancho’s creativity was best showcased when he was dribbling with the ball in transitional moments in the game – at United, Sancho is expected to start the momentum of the attack from scratch, clearly, something that is not his strength and combined with a mixed set of players around him that do not necessarily adhere to his playstyle or his strengths, and his lack of confidence, Sancho appears to have struggled to return to English football.
A change in managers
As previously mentioned, the ‘Jadon Sancho blueprint’ for Man United was very quickly thrown out when the young star arrived at Old Trafford and it almost felt like there was nowhere to play him as United have seen constant changes of system with coaches changing in and out in a short space of time. Sancho’s period under Solskjaer as a traditional ‘modern’ winger was unsuccessful and the team performance, in general, was at a very poor standard in the background for Sancho which certainly wouldn’t have helped.
The interim period under Carrick offered a glimmer of hope for Sancho that he still could perform for United under the correct manager and playstyle and with German footballing expert Ralf Rangnick entering the dugout, it looked like Sancho would finally get his break in Manchester. Known for a renowned high-pressing (or ‘gegenpressing’), counter-attacking and creative style of play, Sancho would be in the perfect set of hands to help finally get his break and begin to propel his United career.
Once again, it was misfortune for Sancho. Man United under Rangnick simply caused more changes in system in a short period, Sancho acted as somewhat of an inverted number ten role in a 4-2-2-2 formation that failed to effectively work in the league. Rangnick then tweaked the system into more of a 4-4-2 to provide greater width although this reverted to the same problem Sancho had beforehand; inability to act as a creative winger out wide. However, Sancho undoubtedly had his best period of football under Rangnick at this time. With the German coach appearing to have finally settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation and Rashford out of form, it paved the way for Sancho to take the left-wing role and make it his own.
For some time, Sancho looked like United’s best player in what was one of the worst seasons in the club’s history. The former Dortmund man has since played more games under Rangnick than any other United coach and even when he did look like the brightest player at times, he was still only able to provide just 3 goals and 3 assists in 21 appearances, a measly return for an expensive signing that could consistently produce more than double figures in goals and assists. United’s seriously poor form will have absolutely taken down the confidence of Sancho and mentally affected him as the young man quickly went from the belief he could take on any player (and beat them) to now struggling to even approach an opposing player.
The constant change to system finally ended for Sancho when Erik ten Hag finally took over the club at the end of the season. This would be the chance for Sancho to assert himself for United and be a crucial part of a new project under the Dutch manager. Preseason was very bright for Sancho. He started on the right-hand side in all of the games and scored 3 goals in 4 games, including one in a 4-1 win against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side. The confidence was finally running through Sancho and it seemed as though Ten Hag had his star right-winger position sorted.
Erik Ten Hag continued to utilise Sancho on the right and, finally, there was no confusion or switching of system. Sancho would be the right-winger for United for as long as he performed there. The main difference in his role to when he last played for United was that Ten Hag played Sancho to his strengths and used him as a ball progressor, rather than being the main man to directly take on opponents. The emergence of attacking fullback, Diogo Dalot, also very much helped Sancho down on the right and offered a reliable support option that helped to get the best out of him.
Ten Hag’s continued faith in Rashford on the left kept Sancho on the right and, for the early parts of the season, Sancho was performing well. The two losses against Brighton and Brentford were certainly a setback although Sancho and the team recovered well as Sancho scored in a 3-1 win versus Liverpool and again versus Leicester not too long afterwards. The performances dipped slightly when Sancho wasn’t scoring or assisting and it’s clear that he very much suffers from a lack of confidence when he isn’t productive. Whilst a hefty price tag may have placed extra pressure on his mind, the evident quality we know he has simply did not turn up.
The final ‘killer blow’ was United forking out £86M to fund the move of Antony, a player Ten Hag worked very closely with at Ajax. The move was something of a desperation pushed by Ten Hag as the price tag could be regarded as an exaggeration. It was more than clear that Antony would be brought in to be the starting player on the right and with Rashford’s form emerging back over on the left side, there simply wasn’t anywhere for Sancho to go – it’s not like he would deserve one in any case.
Sancho’s confidence has been eliminated to this point. After unsurprisingly failing to make the England World Cup squad, Sancho fights to take his career back up again. The Englishman is reportedly training by himself in the Netherlands at this moment in time and there isn’t yet a date to return. Jadon Sancho has also since removed all of his content on Instagram and hasn’t publicly spoken for a while, suggesting he may be going through a difficult time.
There will of course be a large amount of expectation when a player moves to Manchester United and when that player is a young superstar who comes with a big price tag, there are a lot of fragilities to carry – especially in the modern era of football where we can see many internet trolls and media exaggeration of performances.
Jadon Sancho is still just 22 years old, and his career is more than likely possible to be ‘revived’. Whether or not that is at Manchester United, however, is a difficult question to ask.
With rumours currently floating about that Sancho may be allowed to be loaned out, perhaps the young winger needs a fresh start.