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Is Jadon Sancho the missing piece for a Manchester United title challenge?

With United clicking into place, some have said that Sancho the last major piece to take the team up a level

Borussia Moenchengladbach v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

With no live football to report on until at least April 30th, the rumor mill has been churning at double speed as journalists look to remain active during this unique and unprecedented moment in time. As is often the case, Manchester United is the team of choice for writers seeking clicks and engagements on their articles, and Jadon Sancho is the hottest topic.

Sancho has been linked with United for almost two years now by seemingly every media outlet and opinion pundit, and this time the story appears to be gaining serious traction. People all across the United-sphere are getting more and more excited at the idea of seeing Sancho in the famous red shirt with the iconic number 7 on his back, and some are even going as far as touting him the “chosen one” to bring the Premier League title back to Old Trafford, with one correspondent boldly authoring the following tweet:

In this hypothesized XI, Sancho is the only new addition (albeit we haven’t seen a Pogba-Bruno-Rashford trio together yet). It’s hard to argue that Sancho should be anywhere below the very top of United’s transfer wish list, but isn’t it a bit disingenuous to claim that he alone can take United back to the promised land of domestic championship glory? Let’s take a look at Jadon Sancho and where he would fit at United so that we can determine whether or not he really is the missing piece to this puzzle.

Manchester United’s weakness on the right side of attack is one of the worst kept secrets in England. The vast majority of supporters could cherry-pick this issue as the most glaring and longest-lingering problem in the post-Fergie era, arguably going unresolved since Nani’s departure. However, when asked to explain this dilemma in greater detail, those same fans probably won’t offer much support for their points beyond stating the opinion that United doesn’t have a player whose best position is on the right wing — citing left winger Dan James, striker Mason Greenwood, and attacking midfielder Juan Mata as the most recent square pegs being forced into a round hole.

Although not always the case, the reality here is that the stats actually do back up the opinions, too. Breaking down United’s attacks during the 2019/20 season reveals an incredible imbalance and a reliance on the left side. The majority of action takes place on the left wing, which translates into the majority of shots also originating from the left or center:

As a right winger, Jadon Sancho is an obvious option to bolster United’s right side. On paper, Sancho is one of the best attackers in Europe, with 29 goal contributions (14 goals, 15 assists) in just 23 Bundesliga games this season. At 20 years old, Sancho has time well on his side and will only get better.

Taking a closer look at the player and analyzing Sancho’s style adds more fuel to the fire. Sancho is a dual threat, splitting his time driving to the touchline to provide crosses like a typical right-footed right-winger, and operating like an inverted winger cutting inside to shoot or play a deft pass. All 14 of his goals have been scored from inside the box, which demonstrates just how potent he is at reading the game and getting into dangerous positions. His movement centrally should make him equally comfortable playing on the right side of a front three in Solskjaer’s preferred 4-3-3, or as the right forward in the big-game 5-3-2 formation. He would dovetail well with Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s development, too, offering him space and encouragement to continue working on his attacking skill set while taking some of the pressure off his shoulders to be the sole crosser from the right flank. Finally, Sancho’s strong friendships within the team, familiarity with the league, and Salah-and-De Bruyne-esque vendetta against a rival manager cannot be overlooked and add the final touch to his well-rounded profile, making him the perfect footballer and personality to join Solskjaer’s revolution.

However, there is still a long way to go before hailing Sancho as the be-all and end-all solution for United. For starters, research done by football analytics and consulting firm 21st Club indicates that, on average, the maximum influence of a player on his club’s performance is a mere +/- 4 points per season. Granted, there are cases like Robin Van Persie in 2012/13 when he proved to be the difference-maker across a whole campaign, but he is the exception, not the rule. With United 37 points behind leaders Liverpool, it would seem unrealistic to expect Sancho to close that gap on his own.

There are also questions about manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ability to take United to the next level. Solskjaer’s Premier League points haul through 29 games (45) is lower than David Moyes (48), Louis van Gaal ‘14/15 (56), van Gaal ‘15/16 (47), José Mourinho ‘16/17 (54), Mourinho ‘17/18 (62), and Mourinho/Solskjaer ‘18/19 (58). The Norwegian has made countless tactical mistakes throughout his tenure at Old Trafford, with a major gaffe coming as recently as Everton on March 1, and he rarely criticizes his players publicly, leading many to believe he is complacent with mediocrity and lacks the fear factor necessary to be a top manager. No matter how talented he may be, those challenges could prove too large for Sancho to effectively overcome.

Regardless of your stance on the #OleIn, #OleOut debate (I’m firmly #OleIn, but that’s neither here nor there), it must be said that Solskjaer has objectively worked with a thin squad this year, in large part due to his commendable deforestation of the deadwood (Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, Antonio Valencia, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez, Chris Smalling, Matteo Darmian, Ashley Young, and Marcos Rojo have all left under his watch); and he has indicated that he isn’t finished either.

All of Ole’s signings have objectively been successful and have made a positive impact on the squad, even if they haven’t yet reached many fans’ market-inflation-induced sky high expectations in year one. Key players including Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay, and Luke Shaw have all objectively improved under Solskjaer, while the manager has also fostered the growth and integration of the next generation of key players like Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams. And to top it all off, Ole’s Manchester United have beaten Pep’s Manchester City three times — twice without Rashford, twice without Bruno Fernandes, and all three without Paul Pogba.

So, going back to the central premise of this article: is Jadon Sancho the one and only key to Manchester United’s title chances next season? Maybe he is the cog that finally clicks the whole machine into overdrive — he certainly fits the bill. Or, maybe he isn’t, and it’s too much to expect the individual impact of one player to be enough to turn a fifth place challenger into a title contender.

There is no doubt that Sancho would be a great signing and is exactly the type of player United needs, but the exact extent of his impact cannot be calculated — if he even ends up joining at all.

Yet, all hope is not riding on him.

Despite being hit hard with injuries, this United team has still secured some fantastic results. There have been ups and downs, but the spirit around the team is currently very high — evident in the instant bond formed between compatriots Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Dalot, the collective reactions to each of Ighalo’s goals, and even the genuine ear-to-ear smiles on the faces of Andreas Pereira and Victor Lindelöf in their embrace after the former lashed home a fifth against LASK; the center back’s sincere happiness serving as a fantastic show of support in what he clearly recognized to be a much needed confidence booster for one of the most highly criticized players this season.

Most importantly, having been in the midst of an unbeaten run of 11 games before the suspension of the season due to Coronavirus, it’s clear that this team is rapidly improving. With all of its stars healthy, another summer of successful signings (whoever they may be), a more experienced group of youngsters, and a happy camp, this Manchester United team has the potential to be a force in world football again very soon — regardless of whether or not Jadon Sancho signs.