Home » Jadon Sancho: From Skilful Superstar to Sleepy Sulker

Jadon Sancho: From Skilful Superstar to Sleepy Sulker

by Darragh Fox

Jadon Sancho arrived at Manchester United in triumphant fashion.

The talented youngster relocated from the Bundesliga to the Premier League in a deal worth an eye-watering £73 million. He arrival came after a protacted two year pursuit by Old Trafford officials and was considered by Ole Gunnar Solskjær to be a “pivotal” player in United’s future. He immediately became one of the club’s top earners.

In 104 league games for Borussia Dortmund, Sancho scored 38 goals and provided 51 assists. His 2019/20 season for the German club put Sancho in an exclusive list of only seventeen players in this century to have reached the twenty goal and twenty assist mark; aptly, Sancho had just turned twenty as he achieved this milestone.

Put simply, expectations were high at his new club.

Which is what has made the Sancho’s experience at Old Trafford so disappointing.

From Hero to (almost) Zero

Statistically, the English forward has fallen off a cliff productivity wise. 9 goals and 6 assists in 58 league games is a rate of return which would take him over seven full seasons of Premier League football to match his record at Dortmund.

His general performance levels have been even more of a cause for concern however.

Sancho has too often cut a figure of timidity if a United shirt. Looking overwhelmed by the pressure of one of the world’s biggest clubs, the winger has been unable to impose himself in games where Old Trafford officials would have been envisioning him dominating.

Problems with work rate and intensity have also plagued Sancho’s time at United thus far.

The Athletic have now released a detailed explanation of the winger’s first two years at Old Trafford, describing a number of issues off the field which offer insight to Sancho’s struggles on it.

Teething Problems

Life under Solskjær began well.

Sancho was described as having a “good attitude” in this early period. He was receptive to improvements the coaching staff believed he could make and worked hard to achieve a “high level of fitness.”

The deterioration that occured elsewhere at the club, however, would begin to unravel this positive start for Sancho.

United endured a dreadful opening to the 2021/22 season under their Norwegian manager. A series of untenable results, culminating in an abysmal 4-1 loss away to Watford, ultimately led to Solskjær’s sacking in November.

Sancho was seen as an important player by interim-replacement, Ralf Rangnick. Yet Cristiano Ronaldo, who arrived at the end of the same transfer window as Sancho, was adamant the German should employ a different system; one which suited the Portuguese more.

In a private meeting with a few of the more experienced members of the squad, Ronaldo lobbied for a two-man striker formation, which would relegate Sancho to the bench. Rangnick pushed back, arguing Sancho’s improved form (two goals in threee games) should not be stymied.

A recent interview with Mike Phelan, who remained a coach during Rangnick’s time at United, revealed Ronaldo often clashed with certain team-mates over their standards and professionalism. Phelan contends:

“…[Ronaldo] wanted other people’s standards to come up. And sometimes you lose a few people along the way when that happens. I remember certain times when he pushed and pushed hard, and he didn’t get much reaction or much response. And there was frustration.”

It’s easy to see why a player with the long-standing attitude questions of Sancho would land themselves squarely in the crosshairs of Ronaldo.

Even at his brilliant best in Dortmund, Sancho’s behaviour off the pitch was questioned. A source close to the German club asserts Sancho was “quite childish and unprofessional with little things” with time keeping a major issue.

Sancho was often late to training and team meetings due to oversleeping. It reached a point where Dortmund’s assistant manager – Edin Terzic – would have to personally knock for the winger to get him out of bed in time.

Terzic would be promoted to manager in December 2020, following Lucien Favre’s departure. He instructed the coaching staff to pay “special attention” to Sancho with a sharp increase in the winger’s fitness and form the result.

Terzic also placed the Englishman as close to new signing, Erling Haaland, as possible, both on and off the pitch. The coach wished for Haaland’s professionalism and intensity for the game to rub off on his less-mature team-mate.

Another source at Dortmund reveals the trade off which comes with a player like Sancho:

“Jadon would go through some really good spells and some really bad spells, There’s a world-class player there. But he takes a lot of work.”

‘A lot of work’ which a player like Ronaldo seemed unwilling to put in if he felt the effort was not being rewarded. Given the Portuguese’s preeminent role within the United dressing room at this point, particularly with a manager with the lack of authority of Rangnick, it’s easy to envision Ronaldo’s opinion having significant sway.

Ten Hag’s Cultural Reset

The remainder of the 2021/22 season was an abject disaster.

The club acted quickly to move on from Rangnick’s disastrous tenure with Erik ten Hag announced as the new manager in April 2022, taking the helm at Old Trafford once the season had ended.

During his first few days in Manchester, the Dutchman was quick to stress every player would begin with a fresh slate under his stewardship, the ills of last season forgotten.

This should have constituted music to the ears of Sancho. A new manager armed with an attacking style football, who employs a dual-winger system and values skill and technique in his forward line. Ten Hag’s demands of exemplary work-ethic and work-rate should also have been warning signs to a player who fallen foul of these standards in the past however.

Sancho began life under his new manager brightly.

A regular in the starting eleven, the winger returned 3 goals in 8 games and appeared to be an important component of Ten Hag’s new-look United.

Yet, by October, Sancho’s campaign had ground to a halt. Within a month, the 23-year old had deleted all of his social media and been removed from the United squad.

The Midseason Break

Under the direction of Ten Hag, Sancho went to Holland to work under coaches recommended by the Dutchman. The winger was left out of United’s warm-weather training camp in Spain during the World Cup break to allow him to continue this individual programme.

United’s official statement on this choice read as follows: “Jadon Sancho is continuing his individual training programme as part of a process to get back to his highest level. The club is fully supporting him in this.”

Ten Hag, however, revealed with typical Dutch honesty, Sancho was working on “mental fitness” in Holland.

He did not have the player’s blessing to reveal this reportedly, with figures at United believing it a potentially inappropriate way to talk about a player in public. It would have been problematic to invent a physical problem to explain the winger’s absence, however, while offering no explanation would only have caused speculation to grow.

Sancho returned to the first-team squad at the beginning of February, three months after his last inclusion. He came off the bench in a 2-0 win against Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup, before scoring a crucial equaliser as a subtitute against Leeds in the league a week later.

Ten Hag was effusive in his praise for his returnee:

“He’s all the way back. We know he’s a magnificent player. I think consistently he can have a big impact. But he has to work hard. He is a brilliant footballer and if he can invest in the right levels he can be outstanding.”

Falling Out of Favour

Sancho would make 25 appearances after his return, suggesting the midseason reset had worked.

His reintegration into the team included the starting berth in the FA Cup Final against bitter rivals, Manchester City; a match which held significant importance for United given City’s advances in other competitions.

The Athletic describes Ten Hag as “disappointed” with Sancho’s performance however.

During United’s American pre-season tour a few months later, the Dutchman was again asked about his winger’s position within his squad. “…he has to get more consistency in his performance but he has to do it at a higher level,” Ten Hag revealed.

This marked the beginning of a new standard of expectation upon Sancho from his manager.

The previous year, Ten Hag and his coaching staff would set his schedule an entire hour earlier for the winger than the rest of the squad, in a bid to get Sancho to arrive on time. This worked for a while before Sancho “fell into similar patterns.” Patters which would not be allowed to continue in the Dutchman’s second year.

Ten Hag reportedly feels he has gone above and beyond in his duty of care to the winger. He recognises Sancho’s prodigious talents and has made every effort he can to help the 23-year old apply them on the pitch. There is a sense the Dutchman feels it is up to the Englishman to do his part now.

Which is why Sancho’s actions in the immediate aftermath of the disappointing 3-1 loss to Arsenal would have been so hurtful to his manager.

Public Petulance

Sancho has begun life this season on the bench.

He was deployed as a false-nine during United’s pre-season and performed well, suggesting he was a potential option up front for United at the beginning of the season. Both Rasmus Højlund and Anthony Martial were ruled out with injury, necessitating a deputy centre-forward in their place.

Ten Hag opted for Marcus Rashford up top, with Alejandro Garnacho on the left however. The 19-year-old Argentine trusted ahead of his 23-year-old team mate.

Sancho did come on in United’s first three games from the bench and offered his usual glimpses of talent interspersed with large periods of anonymity.

He was not even included on the bench, however, for the trip to the Emirates.

When reporters enquired about Sancho’s conspicuous absence after the match, Ten Hag gave a terse reply. He was omitted from the squad to “his performances in training,” the manager revealed.

Not an injury. Not an issue with mental health. Not even a tactical choice. Sancho simply hadn’t trained well enough in Ten Hag’s eyes to be included.

The Athletic’s report indicates this was par for the course at present. Ten Hag has reportedly become “exasperated” with Sancho’s punctuality and approach to training. It’s a pattern of behaviour many of his team-mates have become equally frustrated with, sharing the concerns of their manager.

Rather than allow for a moment of personal reflection, however, Sancho immediately responded on X (formerly known as Twitter) with a combative message:

“Please don’t believe everything you read! I will not allow people saying things that is completely untrue, I have conducted myself in training very well this week. I believe there are other reasons for this matter that I won’t go into, I’ve been a scapegoat for a long time which isn’t fair!”

Ten Hag is said to have been left “bitterly disappointed” by Sancho’s public outburst.

The Aftermath

Old Trafford officials moved quickly to support their manager’s assessment, with United prepared to sell Sancho should a suitable offer arrive from the Saudi Arabia or Turkey – two countries whose transfer windows were still open. A fee of £65 million was considered adequate to secure his services.

The Saudi Pro League expressed tangible interest, although this was immediately refuted by Sancho’s representatives. The Athletic believes the winger gave zero indication of being “open to a move.”

The pair had a meeting on Monday to discuss the situation. Reports suggest it was not successful with no resolution being reached. Sancho did delete his infamous tweet on Tuesday, however, which may function as the slimmest of olive branches.

Given the confluence of off-the-field allegations levelled at United’s two best options on the right wing – Mason Greenwood and Antony – there is a significant gap in that position at present. A gap Sancho should be positioning himself to fill and solidify as his own.

Instead, the winger whose talent is only surpassed by his inability to apply it, is too busy flying to New York to party with basketballers and checking social media, rather than knuckling down and fulfilling his potential at Old Trafford.

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