Misconceptions, Limitations, and Disappointments: Jadon Sancho and Some Ideas for Breathing Life into the Cadaver of the Red Devils’ Attack
Jadon Sancho has not been the success at Manchester United that he was meant to be. After three years in pursuit of the London-born attacker, the former Dortmund man was meant to be the keystone in the arch that was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s attack.
Instead, Cristiano Ronaldo arrived, and the arch that was promised centered instead on a very different, Portuguese keystone. Sancho, and the side as a whole, did not thrive — and many blamed Ronaldo, despite his generally prolific goalscoring record. As a result, many thought that a new manager, and Ronaldo’s removal from the team would breathe new life into the former Manchester City boy. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. In the words to follow I will endeavor to arrive at a coherent explanation for why this has happened, and what can be done to amend it.
Jadon Sancho’s production in the German Bundesliga was elite. There’s no other way to put it. In a three year period from 2018–2021 (his age 18, 19, and 20 seasons) the winger put up 36 non-penalty goals and 41 assists in about 75 nineties in the league, plus 4 non-penalty goals and 6 assists in 16 nineties in the Champions’ League. His underlying metrics (expected goals [xG] and expected goals assisted [xA]) were significantly lower, but still better than any other teenager in Europe over that period. What’s more, he showed off a wide skillset — playing a variety of creative passes, dribbling in high volume, and showing off incredible composure in front of goal. There were good reasons to be attracted to him, even when applying a skeptic’s lens to the environment he was playing in.
There were also, however, warning signs. Sancho was almost doubling his underlying metrics (xG and xA). This is typically an indication that a player’s production is unsustainable. However, over-performing underlying metrics doesn’t really matter if the underlying metrics in question are still good. Too much should not be made of that. That said, there were holes in his game that could be hidden in Germany that have come to the fore in the Premier League. Perhaps the most stark example: Sancho doesn’t appear to be able to beat top level defenders on the dribble.
Many have posited that this is due to some change in fitness — that Sancho has put on weight and stopped taking care of himself, and thus has lost a skill (1v1 dribbling, to be exact) that he previously had. Whether or not there’s truth in the claims that he’s put on weight I cannot say, but I will say that speculating as to his weight based on videos and pictures — which are famously deceptive — is an unreliable way to assess the situation. I think this is especially so when there were warning signs that Sancho wasn’t actually a particularly talented 1v1 player at Dortmund. Take a look at where Sancho falls on the below graph from the 2019/2020 season.
That y-axis is a mouthful, and the badges and color scheme are a bit hard on the eyes, so if you’re still a bit in the dark let me shed some light on what you’re looking at: essentially, Jadon Sancho was dribbling a lot in Germany. However, he wasn’t actually creating a lot (for himself [shots] or for his teammates [key passes, fouls and pre-assists on key passes]) from the dribbles he was attempting. What this tells us is that Sancho wasn’t winning take ons near the opposition goal — but rather beating players in buildup, far from goal. His dribbling ability wasn’t actually aptitude in 1v1 situations, so much as it was something that allowed him to maintain possession when under pressure and eat up unoccupied space. If you go back and rewatch Dortmund matches from that time, you’ll find the tape corroborates what the numbers tell us — Sancho was prodigiously technical, but lacked the power to truly drive by players to create shots for himself and his teammates off the dribble.
This doesn’t answer all of our questions, however. If Sancho was this supposedly well rounded player, the fact that he wasn’t actually that well rounded doesn’t explain why he’s entirely ineffective now. We must still be missing something. What happened, for instance, to his creative passing ability? Confidence and other mental factors certainly play a part, but there still must be more. For all the (warranted) talk about the Bundesliga being very open, and in turn facilitating inflated goal contribution numbers, Sancho still demonstrated an elite eye for, and weight of, pass in the final third. There must be some explanation for why we’ve not seen that on display for United.
To come to some explanation of what’s gone wrong, let’s look at some tape of Sancho at Dortmund:
Full youtube video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgMAdrrY2ys
You can see in these clips that Sancho made his impact against settled defensive lines not through his 1v1 ability, but through his combination play. Note, also, how many options he has in these scenarios to work through opposing defences. In contrast, take a look at some of the situations he found himself in against Omonia this past week:
He’s generally isolated out on the left. Malacia makes a handful of overlapping runs, but they’re generally non dynamic and poorly timed, such that he becomes easier to track. In midfield, Sancho is supported by Bruno and Eriksen, both ball dominant and right footed, such that they are more inclined to either get into early crossing positions on the left or make far post runs for crosses than they are to offer for the ball in positions to combine with Sancho. Ronaldo is the same, minus the inclination to cross. The profiles that Sancho is surrounded with are leaving him in situations he was never suited to. Take, in contrast, the frequent and varied overlapping and underlapping of Shaw:
Martial’s inclination to come short in order to combine:
and even Fred’s ability to hit the left half space:
It doesn’t explain all of his struggles — his touch and his decision making have betrayed him in particular of late, which can’t be written up to his teammates’ support. However, the players Sancho is surrounded by on the left wing, at present, don’t allow him to play to his strengths. It’s not realistic to expect to drop Bruno, Eriksen, and to a lesser extent Malacia. However — make no mistake in recognizing that Sancho’s struggles are arguably as much down to external failures as they are internal.
This brings us to our next question: what to do about all this? Marcus Rashford has been United’s best attacker this season. His best position is almost certainly left wing, at least in matches in which United can expect to dominate opposition. As limited as Rashford may be in certain aspects — and make no mistake, those limitations are real — it’s almost impossible to argue Sancho should start over him right now given how United are set up. Rashford fairs better when isolated due to significantly stronger physical abilities, and his aptitude for getting off strong shots in traffic far outstrips Sancho’s less frantic, more composure reliant approach that allows him to finish big chances reliably in central areas. The easiest, and most obvious option is to just bench Sancho.
Option 1: Reorder the personnel around Sancho to support him
There are other options, however, and I think they’re worth exploring. The first: reordering the personnel around Sancho to get the best out of him. In short this means reintroducing Anthony Martial at centre forward (which will almost certainly happen), bringing Luke Shaw back into the fold as the first choice left back (this seems likely as well, though less certain), and perhaps even allowing Fred to take on more playing time in advanced areas. The logic behind this is as follows: Rashford suits United’s current attack better than Sancho right now. But United’s attack, to put it elegantly, sucks. The Manchester giants are tenth in the Premier League in goals scored, and ninth in xG. The big chances they’ve created have come about almost exclusively in transition situations — Marcus Rashford’s 3 goals against Arsenal and Liverpool make up almost 15% of the xG United have accumulated this season across 7 matches. Being good on the counter attack is by no means a negative, but it’s a problem when the matches where you pose the most threat are the ones where the opposition has to give you space to run into. Clearly something is not working against the smaller sides. As complementary as Bruno and Rashford may be to one another, the results they’re generating aren’t good enough to preclude breaking up the band.
A lineup like the one above would give Sancho players in every direction that are suited to combining with him. Tyrell Malacia is a promising talent, and has performed admirably in the place of Luke Shaw. He’s brought much needed intensity and defensive nous to a position that perhaps Shaw had gotten complacent in occupying. However, Shaw, at this point in his career, is a far superior creator, progressor, and off-ball presence in the final third. These are all qualities whose introduction would benefit Sancho, if only because he could lure opposition defenders in and spring Shaw on the overlap far more often than Malacia makes possible. Marcus Rashford has done his best at centre forward, but I think most would agree he is a left winger at this point in his career, and that Anthony Martial has far better back to goal and combination play at the position. Martial’s inclusion would give Sancho, just generally, a better centre forward to play with and off of. Finally, Fred is nowhere near the creator Fernandes is. But, he is much more willing to attack the unoccupied half spaces in the opposition box and create cut back opportunities. This would benefit Sancho massively, while also making up for whatever lost defensive intensity the exclusion of Malacia and Fernandes might cause.
Obviously you wouldn’t want to use this in every match, but it may actually be more suited to generating big chances against settled blocks than what we’ve seen thus far. The issue with this is option, however, is obvious: I’ve dropped United’s two most productive attackers to get the best out of someone in woeful form. That seems like highly assailable logic, at best. If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have told you it was worth it because the ceiling of United’s attack when centered around Sancho was far higher. However, having seen certain inalienable limitations to his game, I think that argument is far harder to defend. Let us instead take a look at our second option.
Option 2: 10cho
It’s pretty difficult to see dropping Marcus Rashford right now. None of United’s other attacking options look as bright, or as threatening, as he does. The same might be said of Anthony Martial. Let’s not reinvent the wheel then:
Where Rashford is in excellent form, Bruno Fernandes is not. Though he’s had his moments, he’s still been his generally erratic self. While he’s without a doubt United’s most consistent goal threat, both as a creator and a goalscorer, he’s also extremely limited. In particular, he’s extremely wasteful. This wastefulness stems directly from his limitations: for a player as productive as he is, he can neither carry the ball nor dribble. This is different from Sancho: where Sancho struggles to beat his man, he’s actually an excellent and willing ball carrier. Sancho will receive the ball and then drive into uncontested space. In the same scenarios, Bruno will turn on the ball in place and choose the first passing option available, regardless of whether it’s an easy pass to play. This is a major cause for his wastefulness, and a serious limitation in a Ten Hag side that wants to create chances more patiently while working through tight spaces in the final third.
Ironically, one of Bruno’s best moments this season saw him attempt to work against this natural inclination: in creating the opening goal against Arsenal Bruno took an uncharacteristically heavy touch into space. Replacing him with Sancho would make this a more natural part of United’s #10’s game, while also making ball retention easier, and putting Sancho in a role where he isn’t forced to stay isolated on the touchline. As the attacking midfielder, Sancho would have the freedom to seek players to combine with, rather than waiting for them. This would all be without sacrificing a great deal of quality in terms of final ball, as Sancho is one of the only players at United who measures up to Bruno in that capacity.
Ultimately, it’s most likely that Sancho is just benched. And this makes sense: he was poor against Omonia. However, given the level he showed at Dortmund (not just in the Bundesliga, but in the Champions’ League as well) and the other profiles in this side, I can’t help but feel more must be done to help him succeed. This side will get nowhere settling for the output they’re getting from their forwards right now. It seems prudent, if nothing else, to explore every avenue United have available for creating goals.