Manchester United’s 2021/22 season was less than ideal (putting it lightly) for a number of reasons. Among those reasons is the disappointing debut season of the club’s long sought-after target, Jadon Sancho, who never really found his stride.
Back in 2020, the dream was to have Sancho slot in on the right, completing an XI that looked like this:
How young and stupid were we? Project Restart should be tried for fraud.
Anyway. Even then it seemed Matic’s revival was temporary, probably needed an upgrade on Lindelof, and even if the rest worked out you can’t just have one reliable XI to win nowadays. There are no quick fixes in football, lingering midfield issues persisted, yada yada yada, we’re now looking at another rebuild.
Fortunately for the Manchester United faithful, and indeed Erik ten Hag, there is still some talent to work with in the squad. Sancho in particular is an exciting prospect for implementing the Dutchman’s system. He can play on either wing, he’s an excellent chance creator, and he’s still young. There are plenty of reasons to expect Sancho to dust himself off and get back up after last season, and there are also reasons to expect he’s part of the long haul to get back to the top. However, there are also reasons that require patience, and while the 2022/23 season could, and should, be more enjoyable than its predecessor, there’s a lot to address throughout the team before winning silverware becomes an antidote in our dreaded reality.
The drop off
Jadon Sancho was a major contributor at Borussia Dortmund, and the transfer fee and saga he demanded was certainly worth it given his production in black and yellow.
Sancho’s numbers indicate he’s a top creator and attacking asset. He was never a top goalscorer, but his goals helped round out the rest of his contributions.
As shown from his time at Dortmund, one area where Sancho was elite was dribbling, 96th and 99th percentile in successful dribbles in 19/20 and 20/21 respectively, and overall his production in the final third was remarkable. Last season that changed.
That wasn’t the case in his first season at Manchester United, but must be understood within the context of the club’s disastrous 2021/22. The team collapsed after a dreadful start under Solskjaer, who had never really figured out what he wanted to do with Sancho, and never found footing under Ralf Rangnick, who used Sancho more but not always in effective ways.
The drop off in goals and assists is worrying in its own right (5 goals and 3 assists in all competitions), but looking deeper it’s evident that Sancho’s inability to perform in one of his most comfortable and reputable areas had a big impact on the rest of his game as well. His passing totals have dropped, his direct influence on goals have dropped, and his long passing game was more than halved compared to his yearly output at Dortmund.
His game was essentially isolated to his own immediate positional area. A player who stood out by taking advantage of freedom was no longer able to roam effectively. He received the ball in deeper areas more often and got into deeper areas less often and less effectively. He also just generally received the ball less. He was not as significant a target in buildup as he was at Dortmund, which can explain his lower output but could also be evidence of the general dysfunction and lack of direction.
There wasn’t much direction past playing Ronaldo-ball for much of the season, and considering how calamitous United were last season Sancho’s poor play isn’t alarming enough to scream “bust” altogether. As of now his drop off from his Bundesliga production could be part of an ongoing trend where players coming from Germany need some time to adjust to the level of play. Until proven otherwise though, we’re going to operate under the assumption that the drop in high impact play is more of an indicator of how much the problems with the team as a whole impacted Sancho’s abilities to contribute in year one than it is an indictment of Sancho himself. When considering where some of United’s problems came from it’s easy to see why he might have struggled.
When Sancho plays ahead of Alex Telles he loses the value of an extra runner and creative threat on the wing, which adds pressure to him as a dribbler. Cristiano Ronaldo also hindered Sancho’s game at times, making the attack more about himself rather than becoming part of a fluid unit that gives and takes. On the right, he fared better with Diogo Dalot, but Ralf Rangnick and Solskjaer both preferred him on the left in place of an injured, out of form, or sometimes both Marcus Rashford.
Playing on the left with either of Luke Shaw or Tyrell Malacia should boost Sancho’s game. They’re safer dribblers and more reliable on overlapping runs than Telles, and the attention they draw from the opposition defense will open more space for Sancho to do his thing, get to the byline, and make dangerous passes into the goal area.
The System and the options
Sancho best fits an attack that keeps the ball forward and allows him to operate with other forwards who check lots of boxes as chance creators and finishers. Selfless players in a fluid system sounds pretty good. The problem is even with those qualities there are hardly enough top players to fill out a team sheet let alone an entire first team. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have given us some hope that they can revive their respective careers based on their offseason work and preseason, but as of now, there’s no tangible evidence that they’re capable of ascending and maintaining the level of play that would be required for them to make Manchester United serious title contenders. In fact, the reason they are being given the opportunity to realize the 2020 dream of forming a front three with Sancho is because the club haven’t been able to successfully upgrade on them.
Ronaldo is looking for a move away after his disappointing return and hasn’t returned to the team. Mason Greenwood is likely to never play for the club again for obvious reasons. Daniel James, Alexis Sanchez, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Memphis Depay were bought with the hopes of being long-term contributors but for various reasons didn’t work out and moved on. The squad is thin and lacking in quality options. If Ronaldo stays away, Martial’s only competition outside of a switch to a False 9 could be youngsters like Charlie McNeil and Alejandro Garnacho. Marcus Rashford’s only real competition is Jadon Sancho, and you’d imagine the two will continue in their interchangeable winger/wide forward roles. Unless there’s a drop in Ajax’s demands over a potential Antony transfer you can expect them to be the regulars with Anthony Elanga and maybe Facundo Pellistri or Tahith Chong in supporting roles.
Simply put, Sancho will likely be an important player for United for a number of reasons, but primarily because he has to be. Sancho’s success will of course also depend on the reliability of his forward partners, the same as it depends on the reliability of the full-backs and whatever the midfield eventually looks like.
Covering the cracks
A point that’s been driven home by many, including especially the writers on this particular site, is that Manchester United’s mess of a midfield needs to be sorted out before any sort of top-level consistency can take effect. Erik ten Hag’s coaching and meticulous planning for who needs to be fulfilling what role in whichever situation will in theory be a good start, but this is a summer where Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic have both departed. They helped paper over persisting issues but never quite solved anything permanently, and proper replacements must be found for them, not to mention alternatives and depth pieces. It’s pretty obvious given the losses and the needs that existed already, but a Frenkie de Jong plus other box-to-box and defensive-minded talent would go a long way in filling the large “ball magically moves from one side of the pitch to the other” gap. Christian Eriksen is so far the only (but hopefully just the first) midfield addition, and should help shoulder some of the burden shared by Bruno and Sancho in creation. More importantly, he can help get the ball to the area of the pitch where Bruno and Sancho are most effective and less risky.
In the meantime, Erik ten Hag has gone about trying to solve these problems in some fairly promising ways. His first transfer, Malacia, has already shown he’s an improvement on Telles in terms of progressing the ball, joining the attack, making decisions, basically everything important to helping Sancho. Dalot looks likely to hold onto the right back job, and has looked alright with Sancho playing mostly on the right in preseason matches so far.
In a wide role under ten Hag, Sancho has benefitted from a second wide threat on both wings in preseason, and has been able to shine in many of the ways he dropped off last season. He’s had nice inter-play options with Martial up top, Bruno Fernandes and Fred in midfield, and Dalot on the overlap. He’s been a key member of a front three that has fans excited and reminiscing on the dream of 2020 XI. Importantly, he’s looked both confident and comfortable, showing decisiveness in seizing opportunities and helping to create some nice football. Fostering that connection is vital for making up for the problems previously discussed such as attacking depth and midfield options.
It’s pretty difficult to know what things will look like until transfers are settled, and unfortunately they might be settled already. There doesn’t seem to be an alternative target to Frenkie de Jong, which makes sense given what he does and how he fits what ten Hag wants, but if all doesn’t end well for United in this scenario there’s a lot of lifting that needs done in midfield without much strength to do so. That will impact the forwards, but...
Jadon Sancho will benefit from consistency in coaching and (hopefully) a system that values buildup and structure and doesn’t revolve around the guy who wears no. 7. It’s probably not going to be a return to his Dortmund production, but there will be more direction and purpose in the way Sancho gets involved. His relationship with Martial and Rashford will at the least be fun to see play out, and will give him a high involvement role as a creator.
The talent is there for Sancho to become possibly Manchester United’s best player of their current options, and he will certainly get the playing time to try and make that happen. There is a lot of excitement and expectation for Sancho to live up to going into year two, and that comes from within the club as well. It’s not just a hope from fans, it’s a necessity for the team to scrape anything together after the catastrophe of last season. That’s the reason you go to a club like Manchester United. He’ll know it comes with the territory, and if he can get going he could be a foundational player for a new manager at the start of his tenure.