Jadon Sancho’s current situation at Manchester United is shrouded in mystery, with the winger not included in the Red Devils’ squad for their friendly fixtures in Spain, having been left out of England’s World Cup squad by Gareth Southgate.
That last line makes for slightly concerning reading – why would the club feel the need to clarify their full support regarding as simple a matter as a player’s form? It suggests that there are personal issues behind the scenes, a theory backed up by Sancho’s social media blackout following the announcement of Southgate’s squad.
Manchester Evening News reported that the player is using the World Cup break as an opportunity to focus on his family life and returning to peak condition ahead of the resumption of United’s Premier League campaign.
Sancho was one of three England players to receive disgusting abuse after a penalty miss in the Euro 2020 final against Italy, and fans will remember all too well the impact that had on Marcus Rashford last season. While the United academy graduate and Bukayo Saka have both won over their critics after impressing for club and country, Sancho is yet to do so. It may simply be a case of too many problems hitting the 22-year-old at once.
And while supporters will have every hope that the player can get himself into the right headspace, there is also curiosity as to how best to deploy Sancho in order to help him maximise is undoubted potential.
The interesting thing is that only a couple of months ago it appeared that Erik ten Hag was set to do just that. The former Borussia Dortmund trickster enjoyed a fantastic preseason under the new manager, scoring three goals on tour. More than that, he looked to be genuinely enjoying himself.
Once the dust had settled after United’s two shock defeats at the beginning of the Premier League season, that form looked set to continue as he netted a beautifully composed goal against Liverpool after some clever play in a packed penalty area. He was lively against Southampton, constantly taking players on as the Red Devils secured a 1-0 win, and was decisive at the King Power Stadium, where he scored the only goal of the game to beat Leicester City. Sancho was in with a shout of being Man United’s Player of the Month in August, and September hadn’t started too badly either.
United’s league campaign was put on hold for four weeks following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, but Sancho continued to perform okay – if unspectacularly, and with mistakes – in the Europa League. The congested schedule in the run up to the World Cup made October and November difficult months for many in the squad, but it was here that Sancho’s form slipped away alarmingly.
He did provide an assist against Tottenham Hotspur and was arguably United’s most creative player from open play in a drab 0-0 draw with Newcastle, but overall it was a massive drop-off from a player who had looked ready to enjoy a breakout campaign in English football.
Reports of Ten Hag’s unhappiness with Sancho’s lack of “commitment” began to emerge as the winger was forced to sit out United’s last five matches due to illness, making the bench as an unused substitute twice and not in the squad at all in the final three.
Fans’ frustration with Sancho’s indirect approach had already boiled over by that point, with the young dribbler repeatedly facing up to defenders only to turn his back on good one-on-one opportunities that would have seen his eyes light up at the start of the season.
There is clearly a confidence issue at play but, looking back over Sancho’s best and worst performances in a United shirt, there may also be a couple of tactical ones, the most obvious of which left the club just over a week ago.
No attacker at Old Trafford has enjoyed much productivity playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portugal captain made his way onto the team sheet more often than not during a six-week period in which Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Antony, and Sancho himself were all ruled out at various stages. Without the gravitational pull that Ronaldo’s ego exerts on his teammates, there is every chance that United’s more dynamic attackers will start posting better numbers as a natural result, as has been argued elsewhere.
But every bit as much as Ronaldo’s presence was an impact, so too was Martial’s absence. The Frenchman is obviously Ten Hag’s favoured option up front – he is his only option up front, after all – and has started just two Premier League games so far under him. Martial may have been sent to Sevilla on loan under Ralf Rangnick but under the Dutchman he is a vital piece of United’s attacking puzzle, at least until he can find a better fit.
His ability to work the channels and link play supports his wide teammates and gives them more passing options, while simultaneously opening up space for them to exploit.
When Ronaldo has not been up front, Rashford has and, while his numbers early in the season may fool you into thinking he has adapted to the centre-forward position, his goals have mostly come after switching to his favoured left flank. More importantly – certainly where Sancho is concerned – Rashford does not offer much by way of hold up play or passing combination. As a player who wants to run onto the ball and face the opposition goal as often as he possibly can, it just isn’t his game.
With the striker market as it is, United will likely need to fix this problem from within the squad for now. The likes of Victor Osimhen, Dusan Vlahovic, and Harry Kane will simply not be changing clubs midseason.
And looking at Sancho’s best moments this season, what is immediately apparent is that they mostly happen in central areas. His delightful shimmy in a crowded Liverpool penalty area, his clever pass out to the flank in the build up to Bruno Fernandes’ winner over Southampton, his line-breaking run to slot home against Leicester – these moments all showcased the Englishman’s agility in finding space in crowded central areas.
Erik ten Hag’s system relies on having two players holding width on opposite flanks at all times, and it is perhaps no surprise that once injuries and selection issues made Sancho the only player capable of holding width on the left, his freedom to roam into the centre was curtailed. That has had the knock-on effect of less moments of magic from Sancho, who lacks the acceleration to set pulses racing against a Premier League fullback, but is blessed with the balance to sit down most centre halves in world football.
Playing Sancho and Rashford together allows the pair to rotate the responsibilities that Ten Hag’s system demands, which has worked well enough for United in a number of games this season. But given that Rashford is clearly more effective coming in from the wing while Sancho is the far more inventive of the pair in central areas, it might be worth reassessing their roles in the team.
Sancho’s ability to retain possession in tight areas, along with his creative passing, could make him an ideal false nine for the rest of the campaign.
In some respects there are similarities to be drawn between the United winger and Sadio Mane’s last campaign with Liverpool. The Senegal star hit a wretched run of form in the run up to the African Cup of Nations during the 2021/2022 season, scoring just one goal in nine matches. Liverpool signed Luis Diaz, shifted Mane from his ‘natural’ position into the middle, and saw their fortunes transform as their soon-to-depart forward enjoyed a series of man-of-the-match displays in both the Premier League and Champions League.
It is perhaps why Cody Gakpo is of such interest to Manchester United. Many fans – quite understandably – would prefer to see a natural number nine signed in the winter. As discussed, that is unlikely to be possible midseason, but Ten Hag has publicly reiterated a desire for more offensive weapons on several occasions. With another player capable of holding width on the left, Sancho’s performances could flourish as a result of the freedom that would afford him.
It would also allow for an invaluable capacity for rotation, a luxury Ten Hag has barely been afforded with regards to his attacking options this season. Where Manchester City are able to flip between Riyaad Mahrez, Jack Grealish, Julian Alvarez, and Phil Foden, the United boss had little option but to play Sancho, Rashford, and Antony all at once until they all got injured – all at once. The importance of freshness when it comes to creative players cannot be understated.
Jadon Sancho certainly has work to do before the domestic season resumes, and it may be that not all of that work has much to do with football.
But it is apparent from the interest that Ten Hag has taken in Sancho that the manager will be doing everything in his power to bring the 22-year-old attacker back to his best.