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Jadon Sancho: Overload instigator

Erik ten Hag's experiment with former Borussia Dortmund star could be huge for Manchester United

by David O'Neill

Erik ten Hag chose an incredibly adventurous midfield against Southampton yesterday and, while his experiment was upstaged by a curious refereeing performance, his use of Jadon Sancho in particular showed some encouraging signs for Manchester United’s future. Casemiro – sent off 34 minutes in – started at the base of a midfield that saw Bruno Fernandes play as an eight, with Sancho ahead of them in the ten role.

“I think he did quite well as a number ten,” said Ten Hag of the former Borussia Dortmund star’s performance.

“Like he did against Barcelona and Leicester. He was really decisive against Leicester and also today with some really good actions. One time, he was really close to the goal with a run at the defending line and a cross to Bruno almost came there. He did a good job.”

Before the resumption of domestic football after the Qatar World Cup, The Peoples Person argued that Sancho would be a good fit for a central role, citing some of his most memorable pieces of work from early in the season:

“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.”

It therefore came as no surprise to us that Erik ten Hag opted to field him in the middle – although doing so alongside Bruno Fernandes still raised a few eyebrows.

Perhaps too adventurous for some matches, it is a midfield setup that could give United a vital edge against certain teams, as alluded to by Ten Hag after the Southampton match.

“I think he can make the difference when we play three against two in the midfield,” he said. “And that is not bad when you have Casemiro and Bruno and you have Jadon Sancho.”

The Brazilian’s suspension will obviously make that trio an impossibility in United’s next four domestic matches and, despite him putting in a fine performance yesterday, Scott McTominay is unlikely to be relied upon to hold together so attacking a midfield on his own.

In the long run, however, it could well become a commonly used option by The Red Devils. In Casemiro, you have the destroyer, in Fernandes, the creative passer, and in Sancho, the ball carrier – it looks quite a lot like an archetypal Ten Hag midfield. It is not a million miles away from his last Ajax midfield, with Edson Alvarez, Ryan Gravenberch, and former winger Steven Berghuis, after all.

And in the first half, Sancho proved himself to be no passenger in defence, winning three tackles and making a total of eight ball recoveries – more than any player on the pitch over the opening 45 minutes. He also completed more dribbles and final third passes than any other player in that time.

By the time he was withdrawn in the 73rd minute, Sancho had doubled his tally for successful dribbles, won seven duels, created a big chance, and achieved a 94% passing accuracy (SofaScore). Not bad at all when half his minutes came as a lone frontman against a side with a man advantage.

Sancho has often come in for criticism since signing for Manchester United, with many believing that he simply does not have the pace to survive in the Premier League. But there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the type of player he is and always has been.

He is closer to Juan Mata than Wilfred Zaha, closer to Bernardo Silva than Leroy Sane, closer to Martin Odegaard than Bukayo Saka. All six of those players have played out wide in England’s top division, but half of them achieved their greatest successes when playing centrally.

Yesterday’s first half performance saw Sancho regularly drift into wide positions to support Antony, leading to some good build up and chance creation on that flank. Having a player with the intelligence to know when his winger needs support and when he can threaten through the middle is a valuable asset.

And given the manager’s preference to have his wide men stretch the play by hugging the touchline in possession, it is clear that United’s No. 25 is better suited to a role that allows him to operate in the half spaces where he is most effective. The number ten role affords him exactly the right amount of freedom to become an overload instigator.

Jadon Sancho may yet become a key player under Erik ten Hag.

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