For the first time since 2009 Manchester United have signed a right winger. Throughout Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure Manchester United have been extremely left side heavy in their buildup with the lack of a true right winger being a big reason why.
Since 2019 Jadon Sancho has been earmarked as the guy who will fix that problem. A player who can provide width and creativity on that right side to balance out United’s attack.
For a club, and fanbase, that prides itself on a history of creative right wingers whipping in crosses like David Beckham and young Cristiano Ronaldo they’re ready for Sancho to come in and pick up that mantle.
If that’s what you expect you’re going to be disappointed. Jadon Sancho is not that player.
Sancho has the ability to beat his man down the line and whip in a cross but that’s not the kind of player he is. In his career with Borussia Dortmund he attempts about 2.00 crosses per match but completes just 10% of them. That number didn’t jump much even when the big Erling Haaland came to down.
Sancho is a player who grew up playing cage football in London and it shows in his game. Those cages helped him develop his wonderful ability to dribble in very tight spaces. He’s a pacy player but his game is is built more around dynamic movement than running from one spot to another.
Of course Sancho can play that hugging the touchline right wing role, but solely asking him to do that would be like spending £73 million on a player and only asking him to use 10 percent of his ability. He’s effective from the right, but that’s not where he’s most effective.
The discourse around Sancho this season has shown that people in England still don’t pay too much attention to the Bundesliga (looking at you Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher). Given the transfer saga that endured last summer, Sancho had a lot more eyeballs on him when the 2020-21 season started.
He did not live up to expectations.
Sancho didn’t score a goal until the calendar turned to 2021 and notched just three assists in BVB’s first 12 games. There was plenty of speculation that Sancho had become disinterested after not being allowed to leave the previous summer. If you think back to January you’ll remember United fans being glad they didn’t sign him. Many questioned how he was worth £100 million. There were questions over whether United were even going to re-ignite their pursuit of him this summer.
Naturally Sancho reverted to form finishing with eight goals and eight assists over his final 15 Bundesliga matches and helped Borussia Dortmund climb back into the Champions League places.
What changed? He started playing on the left more.
Sancho has always been someone who moves around the pitch but if we compare his heat maps (courtesy of Sam Maguire from Twenty3) from before New Years Day we see a clear distinction in his concentration of touches.
This was not a new tactic by interim manager Edin Terzic as Lucien Favre had been moving Sancho around ever since he arrived in Westphalia. A quick glance at the numbers from the past two seasons suggests exactly why he would do this. Sancho can be so much more dangerous from the left side.
Unlike Marcus Rashford, who last month we saw is a different player depending on what side he’s on - being more of a goal scorer from the right and creator from the right, Sancho becomes more of a goal scorer from the left side but still retains all the creativity that he has when on the right.
It should be noted that these numbers are only based on whether Fbref considered him starting on the LW or RW that match (unlike Rashford where I’ve compiled them down to the minute) and does not include matches where Fbref considered him to be playing both RW and LW. It also doesn’t take into account the location of where his goals/assists came from, but if we look at his assist map per Statsbomb we see that the location skews from the center to the left - and there’s certainly not a lot coming from out wide on the right.
As the assist map shows, Sancho operates more from the half spaces then from out wide, which allows him to be both a creator and a goal scorer.
This was especially true in 2019-20 when Sancho had his 17 goal 16 assist season, often being deployed as a duel number 10 with right wing back Achraf Hakimi providing the width.
That allowed Sancho the freedom to move around where he could provide create from both the right and the left.
Where Sancho really thrives is with dynamic runs. Not just his own but his teammates too. That’s an area where United have struggled as only Edinson Cavani has demonstrated the ability to do this consistently with Mason Greenwood showing more of it during the business end of the season. Sancho is always looking to get through crowded spaces, get the ball into the box, and even then looking to get it to good goal scoring opportunities.
In order for him to be successful his teammates always have to be looking to get in front of goal, and always must be ready for the ball to come.
It’s for that reason that shoe-horning Sancho onto the right wing with Marcus Rashford staying on the left is likely not the complete answer. As we broke down last month, when Rashford plays on the left side he tends to be very stagnant, often hanging out near the top of the box. If you want Sancho to be successful on the right, you need players who are looking to get into good positions to receive his passes.
When playing on the right, Rashford excels at getting in to good goal scoring positions and would benefit even further from having Sancho’s creativity on the left. Whereas when Rashford gets the ball on the left (and frankly when Greenwood gets it at the top of the box) he’s always looking to put it on his right foot and shoot, making it easy for defenses to play him.
When Sancho gets the ball in a similar situation, he gives off the same ‘looking to get a shot away’ vibe but still maintains his creativity.
You also wouldn’t lose Rashford’s ability to run in behind defenders who give you space because guess what, Jadon’s got that in his back of tricks too.
Sancho’s creativity goes beyond just goals, assists, and their advanced counterparts xG and xA. Where Sancho really excels is his ability to play the pass before the pass.
Adam Darowski, of Fbref, has been tracking what Borussia Dortmund’s stats would look like if football used the same scoring system as hockey (IE giving out first and second assists) for the past six seasons. Over the past three seasons Sancho has racked up 13, 15, and five second assists in all competitions giving him totals of 29, 35, and 24 (his “down” year) assists in all competitions.
To put those numbers into perspective, I too have tracked this stat for Manchester United (though Adam is a bit more liberal in giving out second assists than I am). When it comes to second assists last season Bruno Fernandes obviously lead the way with 16 in all competitions. The next highest player on the list was a tie between Luke Shaw and Fred with seven each. The creativity that Sancho will add is simply immense.
That’s the thing about Sancho. United aren’t just adding a good player. They’re adding a bonafide superstar.
A #stat:— Ryan O'Hanlon (@rwohan) June 24, 2021
Since the 2018 World Cup, 499 players have played at least 6000 minutes across Europe's Big Five leagues. Four of them have averaged at least 1.00 non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes:
1) Mbappe: 1.30
2) Messi: 1.27
3) Lewandowski: 1.09
4) Sancho: 1.02
Over the last two seasons Sancho has put up 5.46 (20-21) and 4.92 (19-20) shot-creating actions per 90, eclipsing the 4.40 (19-20) and 4.88 (20-21) that Bruno Fernandes (United’s leader) has put up in that same time. Yes I know it’s ‘only the Bundesliga’ but if the Bundesliga were that easy then there’d be more than two Bundesliga players in the top 20 for shot-creating actions across Europe, and Thomas Muller would have had more than just one season of over 1.00 NpG+A per 90 when playing next to a man who has scored 173 non-penalty goals over the past seven seasons.
Sancho is not someone who comes in to merely fill a hole. He’s the kind of player that you legitimately build your team around. None of United’s attackers besides Bruno Fernandes has consistently performed over the past two years to the point that you’d say they are undroppable and none of them should be.
When picking your team you start with Bruno and Sancho and go from there to pick the best possible team. If that means certain players can’t play in their favorite positions then so be it. It’s about the team. If that competition inspires them to win back their ‘favorite’ spot and keep it via their performances, then that’s going to mean very good things for your football team.
None of this is to say that Sancho should be locked into any particular position. Sancho is at his best when he moves around the pitch and interchanges with players. That’s exactly what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants his front three to be doing, and Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, and Paul Pogba all excel at doing that.
The biggest benefit of Sancho will be the adaptability and depth that he brings to the team. As Carl Anka mentioned on The Busby Babe Podcast, one of the reasons Marcus Rashford played as often as he did was because he didn’t trust that anyone could come in and adequately replace him. When you look at how United looked against West Ham (A) and Fulham (A) with Anthony Martial out there, Rashford had a point.
With Sancho, United now have someone that can come in and do what Rashford does from that LW (and then some). They could also bring in Pogba on the left wing while still having the proper type of right winger to make that work. Suddenly there are much more opportunities to rest Rashford without a drop in quality.
Rashford won’t be the only one to benefit from this. Last season Donny van de Beek proved to be woefully inadequate at replacing Bruno Fernandes in the number 10 role, his style just didn’t suit the other players. But Van de Beek’s find pockets of space to receive the ball and make quick passes and dynamic runs game is a very good match for how Sancho plays. If the two of them gel together, United will be able to give Bruno a lot more rest.
Sancho gives United so many different looks that they can throw at you. Against the City’s and Liverpool’s where you need to be disciplined defensively he can slot right in on the right of Martial and Rashford and play on the counter. Against deeper blocks he can move to the left and use his gravity to open up the goalscoring of Cavani and Greenwood, or Rashford can play on the right where he hunts for those goal scoring areas and give United two goal scorers in the front. They could also put Cavani up top, Sancho on the right, and Pogba on the left, which would give United three creators and finishers providing support underneath for Cavani.
United had depth last season but the difference was there weren’t any like for like subs. Everyone had a different style. That’s not a bad thing but they didn’t have anyone that could merge those styles. Van de Beek couldn’t play between Rashford and Greenwood. Martial couldn’t play off the left of Cavani. They needed someone who can come in and adapt to whoever is playing to make it all work. That’s Sancho.
There’s a belief that Sancho needs to be on the right to help get more out of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but Marcus Rashford can do that as well. We saw last season when Rashford played on the right, his ability to handle the ball progression duties on the right side really benefitted Wan-Bissaka.
Using Sancho’s gravity to play Wan-Bissaka in to the byline won’t be much help if everyone still plays for cutbacks instead of making runs in towards the goal.
At the end of the day you have to remember you’re picking your best team and not just your best 11 players on paper. What configuration works best for the team is more important than ‘can we jam everyone into their preferred position.’
When picking the starting there are four names that you immediately write down: Maguire, Shaw, Bruno, Sancho, and you go from there. You want Marcus Rashford to play? Ok then that means you need a more dynamic interchanging center forward so either Anthony Martial or Mason Greenwood have to start up front. Want Edinson Cavani in the middle? Then you need to provide service for him and have someone crashing the back post, so either Rashford is going to have to slot in on the right with Sancho on the left, or you’d want to bring someone like Paul Pogba onto the left wing.
Sancho is going to help solve United’s right wing issues, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be from playing on the actual right wing. The last thing United should do is marry him to a specific position.
Jadon Sancho is your superstar. You play him where he’s going to make the biggest impact and fill in the rest of the pieces after. Sometimes that’ll be on the right wing, sometimes it won’t be, but he has the talent to make it work regardless.