Manchester United were first linked to Jadon Sancho in 2019, and unlike some other drawn-out transfer sagas in recent years, this one not only made sense but seemed to have the potential to transform the franchise for the better.
After all, Sancho was one of the brightest prospects in English football and had formed an unstoppable one-two punch at Borussia Dortmund with Erling Haaland. In his each of his last three seasons at Dortmund, he averaged 16 goals and 20 assists in all competitions, and in 2019-2020, he became the only player in Bundesliga history to record at least 15 goals and 15 assists in a season since those stats became readily available in 2004-05.
Because of those outstanding years in Germany, his transfer value skyrocketed from the £7 million Man City got for him when he joined Dortmund in 2017 to over £100 million by 2020. When United finally secured him for £73 million in 2021, it seemed like a bargain.
Last week, it emerged that United were locked in negotiations to send Sancho back to Dortmund à la Shinji Kagawa. The deal is expected to be a straight loan with Dortmund paying a reported £3.4 million to cover a loan fee and a percentage of his weekly wages. In essence, it’s like Dortmund sold United a rare, brand new, custom-made Bugatti and then paid the equivalent of a down payment for a used Kia to get it back for a few months.
So what the hell happened?
In retrospect, there are several reasons why Sancho flopped at United.
According to Ole Gunnar Solskjær, United’s scouts had identified Sancho as their top target on the right wing — a problematic area for the club ever since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid. However, at Dortmund, Sancho was more effective on the left or down the middle. It speaks to United’s scouting operation that they either missed this or thought it wouldn’t matter, considering the availability of third-party scouting reports online that have all reported this.
Indeed, United quickly realized he was better on the left — one problem, so is Marcus Rashford. As a result, when Rashford had his run of great form last season, that meant Sancho’s opportunities on the left were limited. One wonders if Sancho missed his opportunity to seize the job during Rashford’s recent slump and benching, although Alejandro Garnacho’s emergence might have made that moot.
Playing him as the full-time #10 was also out of the question since Bruno Fernandes was there. He did get some time down the middle when the captain would shift to the right and, according to Total Football Analysis, showed some aptitude there. However, those opportunities were fairly limited in scope and more about providing a change of pace in attack than anything else.
So he was often stuck on the right, where he became the second option behind Antony (who could very well overtake Sancho as the biggest transfer flop in recent memory). In fact, this became one of the points of contention between Sancho and ten Hag, as the former reportedly complained that Antony got preferential treatment despite putting up worse performances. Given how badly Antony has played this season, it’s hard to argue with Sancho.
On the other hand, it’s not like ten Hag hasn’t already given Sancho plenty of chances. During his initial struggles, ten Hag protected Sancho by sending him to train in the Netherlands during the season in order to improve his fitness and tactical awareness. In retrospect, this should have been a big red flag — when was the last time a top player needed to do something like that? And how important could he be to the team if they were willing to just let him go off on his own in the middle of the season?
Despite that, when he came back he actually showed some promise. As Opta points out, he still ended up as the second best creator on the team after Fernandes last season even though he had all of that time away. Of course, that is more of an indictment of the rest of the team than it is a credit to Sancho, but it showed he could be effective if he got the chance. It also showed that ten Hag was committed to getting the best out of him, so much so that he even tried playing him as a false nine during this past preseason to decent results. But then, Sancho and ten Hag had their blowup and Sancho’s refusal to apologize for publicly challenging his manager means there was really only one way this was going end.
Then again, it’s possible that Sancho was never going to succeed because his game just isn’t suited to the Premier League. In the Bundesliga, Sancho was a feared dribbler whose scary pace meant few defenders could stay with him. However, Coaches’ Voice cautioned that his tendency to take a lot of touches with his dribbles meant faster defenders would be able to catch him over shorter distances.
Unfortunately for him, the Premiership has plenty of quick defenders who have been able to stop him from dribbling. According to WhoScored, Sancho attempted 1.6-3.3 dribbles per game at Dortmund. With United, he’s at 0.9-1.6 per game. Considering how United have been crying out for someone who can dribble at opposing defenses — Dortmund Sancho would have been a welcome and badly needed asset for the club.
There’s also a much simpler explanation as to why he’s been unsuccessful at recreating his Dortmund form at United: United aren’t Dortmund. The pressure at United is exponentially larger than at a club like Dortmund. Additionally, United lack a stable, cohesive tactical system like Dortmund and don’t have world class players like Haaland and Jude Bellingham to make Sancho’s life easier. In the case of the former, it’s certainly possible that Haaland made Sancho look much better than he really was — and seeing how the forward has taken England by storm, it’s hard to argue against that right now.
And, of course, there are also non-tactical reasons why Sancho has failed to make the grade at United. Sources at both Dortmund and United have said Sancho has a problem with punctuality and a knack for late-night gaming.
His heart has also been called into question. When he left Man City, Pep Guardiola seemed strangely sanguine about losing such a talented and well-regarded player. “He didn’t want to take this challenge, this opportunity to discover if he was able to,” Guardiola said in 2019. It could also explain why City seemingly made no move to bring him home — despite reportedly having a buy-back clause in their transfer agreement with Dortmund.
It’s a shame, because it’s hard to recall a player in recent memory that United fans were more excited about signing than Sancho. But maybe all of that external pressure (egged on by the media, who endlessly linked Sancho to United a la Wesley Sneijder) had the effect of forcing United’s hand. Maybe United splashed the cash for Sancho in order to placate the fans as well as show the world they could still attract top players despite having little to show for the last decade, and figured the tactics would work themselves out. As a result, Sancho became our latest Pogba — yet another in a long line of players bought primarily for non-footballing reasons who weren’t able to really show what they could do.
Either way, it’ll be better for everyone if it turns out that Sancho accidentally left his talent back in Dortmund and it’s waiting for him if and when he returns to the Bundesliga. United reportedly do not want to include a buy clause in the loan deal, which means they’ll need Sancho to play well and draw interest from a larger club (maybe Bayern Munich or Barcelona). Even then, the only way United would be able to recoup anything close to his transfer fee would be if he absolutely sets fire to the Bundesliga — and that would just raise even more questions about why United haven’t been able to get the best out of him.
And, of course, there’s the worst case scenario. If his homecoming doesn’t go well, then he’ll just come back and United will be back to square one. They’ll either have to bite the bullet and move him in a cut-rate deal over the summer or find another loan for him next season. There’s also a wild card possibility: Maybe Sir Jim Ratcliffe will sack ten Hag, replace him with Graham Potter and the new boss will give Sancho yet another chance to prove his worth at Old Trafford.
Whether he’ll deserve that chance is another question…