We’re only four gameweeks into the Premier League season but it’s already taking a familiar shape. The four clubs that have made the top four in the last two seasons are already in the top five. Everton and Rafa Benitez are delaying the inevitable ‘Big Four are in a Super League of their own’ headline.
The four clubs are also being backed by their own narrative for why they can win the 2021/22 Premier League title — touted earlier in the week by Gary Neville as the most competitive Premier League in its short history.
Manchester City are the reigning champions and have the most decorated coach in the league. Chelsea are the reigning European champions and with the signing of Romelu Lukaku have possibly got the most complete squad. Liverpool’s arguably got the best XI in the league.
And then there’s the rumbling red juggernaut of Manchester United, who probably have more star power than any other side, especially in the forward areas.
Manchester United are also expected to finish fourth according to most bookmakers and the FiveThirtyEight Premier League predictor despite all that star power. There are reasons that go beyond the ‘unproven’ manager label. Those who are hot on United’s chances of winning it might be falling prey to star counting and Jadon Sancho’s the first casualty.
What is star counting and why good players don’t always play well together
NBA analyst and creator of the Thinking Basketball YouTube channel Ben Taylor has provided his readers with this term in his book – also titled Thinking Basketball – and a definition for the same.
This brings us to one of United’s newest stars: Jadon Sancho.
If Cristiano Ronaldo’s the Daisy Buchanan to United’s Jay Gatsby and Raphael Varane the Rachel to United’ Ross, then Jadon Sancho and Manchester United feel a bit like Benjamin and Elaine from The Graduate. There’s no need to court each other anymore. All the obstacles are out of the way. They’re finally together but it’s an awkward start to their uncertain future.
It all seemed too perfect for this slow start. Sancho is English, can play on both wings, can score, create, play on the counter, open up a sturdy defence, and has mates in the camp.
Why’s it not clicked into gear yet?
Taylor might have the answers to this as well. Much of Taylor’s work deals with what brings the best out of the team’s collective offence and defence. Good players don’t always play well together. Yes, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney humbled many over a decade ago but Juan Sebastian Veron and Diego Forlan are also part of United’s fabled history.
There’s only one football and United have a lot of stars in the forward areas but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can’t throw in all of them. As Taylor puts it, the best offences are those that are evenly distributed and there’s a good chance that United will struggle with this all season.
United, despite a few concerning performances, lead the Premier League table at this early stage. There’s no immediate need to switch things to accommodate Sancho unless the need for a new solution arises.
And despite his versatility, creating the conditions for him have been a bit of a challenge so far.
But can he do it in the Premier League?
There are always going to be some obvious hurdles when transitioning to a new league. In a now-deleted tweet, data and football analyst Michael Caley had drawn up a study that gave credence to the doubts many observers have had about the German Bundesliga and how its favourable conditions for forwards might make it a little difficult for them to scale to the same heights in the Premier League.
Another data analyst and United fan Kees van Hemmen had drawn up a prescient visualization that highlighted that Sancho hasn’t always been the most effective dribbler despite his cage football upbringings.
Go ahead and ratio me the people need to know the truth pic.twitter.com/t6WHVYBplT— Kees van Hemmen (@HemmenKees) July 27, 2020
There are a few reasons for this since Sancho isn’t the most physically imposing player. He’s not going to be shrug off strong challenges using his strength. This is something that is demanded of Premier League players and Donny van de Beek recently admitted to facing similar teething problems.
It’s also worth pointing that Sancho’s not the sort of player that Manchester United historically signed under Sir Alex. Solskjaer’s been quite vocal about recreating a United side that perhaps isn’t a replica of the sides he played in but carries the spirit of those great teams.
Sancho’s not going to maraud down the wing. He’s a nifty playmaker from wider areas who grew up wriggling out of trouble and is now being asked to paint on this mighty canvas. There is no historical precedent that Solskjaer and his staff can look for as a reference.
There are also some tactical questions that need resolving.
Paralyzed on the left and right
It’s only a small sample size but Sancho currently ranks highest among the United players for the short creating actions (SCA) metric with 4.89 actions per 90. This metric is a good tool to measure the creativity of a player. That’s a good sign but it doesn’t look like he’s going to build instinctual cohesion with some of the players on either flank.
On the right, he has Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who struggles to attract players towards him when playing wide. This was most visible in the Europa League final, where Villarreal had set up their tactics to allow Wan-Bissaka to have a lot of the ball.
Wan-Bissaka did improve parts of his forward play last season but that had more to do with back-post runs as seen in the goal he scored against Southampton in the 9-0 victory from last season. These runs were also coming by moving inwards, which is the area Sancho prefers operating from.
This visualization from Analytics FC’s Maram AlBaharna is evidence of that.
AWB’s offensive proficiency has improved over the season — involved well in #MUFC’s creation phase.— Maram (@maramperninety) April 26, 2021
He occupies good positions in the penalty box but:
(A) #MUFC need to find him wide much more frequently.
(B) He needs to distribute his positioning out wide better. pic.twitter.com/81mEolyh8N
This naturally means that Sancho will have all the attention and there’ll be little room for him to get his creative passing going. Sancho isn’t an old-fashioned winger who hugs the touchline. He wants to move centrally, combine with players, and play passes that can unlock a tight defence. United’s right-hand side is less ball-dominant for him to have such exchanges.
This might force Diogo Dalot’s inclusion.
On the left, it’s better since Luke Shaw seems perfectly suited to dovetailing with Sancho. However, Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival has made things a little tricky.
This was Ronaldo’s touch map from last season.
We’ve discussed in a previous piece how Ronaldo’s probably better off if he simply stuck to poaching but old habits die hard. Ronaldo took around 47.8 touches per 90 last season.
Similar issues are likely going to surface with the likes of Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood. Sancho wants to be the one creating for these players and won’t be in the optimal situation to do that if they try to facilitate him, which isn’t their strongest suit, anyway.
Sancho would probably benefit most from working with Edinson Cavani. Cavani sticks on the last line.
Here’s Cavani’s touch map.
He takes minimal touches and affords space for the creative players to wave their magic wands.
Can Solskjaer keep everyone happy?
Sancho will eventually showcase his bag of tricks but there’s a good chance someone else will pay the price for it. What works in favour of Sancho might not work as well for another star name.
The fear is that it ends up like Paul Pogba’s time at United, where there’s a highly versatile player who has very clear strengths but is asked to do many jobs that aren’t his forte and not put in the best conditions to do them.
We’re into Season 6 of Unlocking Pogba and Season 2 of Free Donny. We really don’t want to hand Manchester United the keys to a cinematic universe with Save Sancho.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will face some big challenges this season. He has to field the best team and that might not always include the best player(s). In a squad full of superstars, it’s hard to nail down who is the best player and what’s the best team.