Perhaps it was Erik Ten Hag’s plan all along. After all, the preseason is the time to try new things. Or perhaps it was just a product of the circumstances.
Manchester United were scheduled to begin playing preseason games in early July. With no Anthony Martial yet to recover from the injury he sustained at the end of the previous season, Marcus Rashford still on his extended summer break due England participation, and no new signings at center forward, someone had to play down the middle when United took the pitch in Oslo.
In stepped Jadon Sancho, the £77 million winger who signed from Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2021 who hasn’t come close to hitting his potential at Old Trafford.
Sancho was never a beat your man down the touchline type winger. He’s the type of winger that’s better with a fullback making overlapping runs for him. He did some of his best work in Germany while playing more inside as a ‘duel-10’ in BVB’s wingback formation.
Sancho’s struggles are well documented and it’s on Erik Ten Hag to get the best performances out of him. Ten Hag believes Sancho would be better off playing in the middle of the field, probably as a number 10. As a player who thrives in tight spaces, you can see why he holds that belief.
There’s just two problems there: That’s where United captain Bruno Fernandes plays, and this season it seems like Ten Hag is favoring more of a 4-3-3 formation that doesn’t even feature a number 10.
Thus comes Jadon Sancho the false 9. Sancho started as a false 9 in United’s first preseason match against Leeds. He ultimately started three of United’s five preseason matches in the role, playing in teams heavy with academy players, reserves, as well as the consensus first choice players.
Sancho has not looked terrible and scored United’s second against Arsenal. Albeit all of this comes with the caveat that these are preseason matches. In some games you’re playing against reserves, and even when you’re playing “top tier” competition, it’s still the preseason. You’re not learning much.
Ten Hag as always been a fan of the false 9. He was desperate to have a fit Anthony Martial play as a false 9 all year last year. He was slated to start the season as the first choice striker before picking up an injury but walked back into the team whenever he returned. He was even picked when only half fit to start the Manchester Derby, a decision that ultimately did more harm than good. He’s also used wingers as false-9’s during his time at Ajax.
The false 9 isn’t supposed to be your primary goal scorer, rather someone who facilities the attack.
There’s two reasons to use a false 9. The first is to create space for your wingers to run in behind. By dropping your striker into midfield, the hope is one of the centerbacks follow him, opening up space for your winger to attack.
When you have a Marcus Rashford in your team, you can see why this would be useful.
You need someone who can catch the ball with their back to the defenders, turn and fire quick passes to start transitions.
But the false-9 is far more common now than it was 10 years ago. Teams are better prepared to handle it, and when you have a Rashford in your team, they certainly know what you’re looking to do. What happens if the centerbacks just let the striker drop into midfield?
That’s where Sancho’s skillset really comes in handy. If nobody follows Sancho when he drops into midfield, United will now have a four man midfield and outnumber their opponents in the middle of the park. At the top of that midfield is a player who excels in tight spaces. Someone who can easily catch passes and if there’s no one on him turn upfield and start running at defenders.
This is Sancho’s forte. He thrives in tight spaces and is a ball progression machine. Last season only Bruno Fernandes had more total ball progressions per 90 for United, only Sancho’s are split between both progressive passes and carries. There are few other players you’d want running at opposition centerbacks with two teammates flanking him.
At the end of the club’s US Tour, United were able to complete the signing of Danish striker Rasmus Hojlund. Given the 20 year old’s age an inexperience United rightfully plan to ease him into the Premier League slowly (though they reportedly may consider using him on the left wing with Marcus Rashford down the middle which makes no sense) but it’s pretty clear that plan A is at some point in the near future Rasmus Hojlund will be leading United’s line.
That doesn’t mean you don’t need a plan B in case of injury or just for the sake of rotation.
Everything about the idea of Sancho as a false-9 makes all the sense in the world. It’s the practicality of it that may be an issue, raising questions as to whether it’s a viable plan B.
The risks of Sancho as the false-9 are more about everyone else than about Sancho. Playing Sancho as the false-9 would make United wingers - Rashford and Antony - the focal point of the attack, essentially what United had last season. We don’t have to worry about Rashford playing next to a false-9, but Antony was not too potent on the break.
For this to be a dangerous United are going to need not only for Rashford to (at least) replicate his 17 goal season (the best output of his career) but for Antony to take a big step up from the four goals he scored last season. The key to a false-9 is for that striker to then make late arriving runs into the box. Sancho’s more than capable of doing this but his lack of high shot output throughout his career, but certainly since arriving at Old Trafford is a concern.
Another concern would be Rashford himself. Fans will be happy that playing Sancho as a false-9 would put Rashford on the left wing - which is Rashford’s preferred position and the one fans and media consider to be his best position. However Rashford is recently on the record saying he enjoys playing as a striker now too, and the reality is in his most recent two full seasons Rashford’s most productive position has come away from the left wing.
Rashford isn’t a center forward and when he plays there he can have the tendency to disappear from games. He’s not a left winger either, and when there’s no space to attack in behind he can easily become invisible. Rather, Rashford is more of a second forward - sometimes coming from off the left - who relies on space created for him by a teammate. It’s easy to see why he thrives with a false-9, but when centerbacks don’t follow the striker into midfield and leave space for him to attack, he struggles. That’s likely a big reason for the big drop off in form away from Old Trafford last year.
Sancho playing as a false-9 with Rashford on the left against clubs that may pin United deep and leave space in behind would sound ideal, but it’s also not necessary. Playing on the left wing requires a lot more defensive work, and Rashford doesn’t do much of that. That was the main driver behind Ten Hag moving Rashford to striker last season while playing Wout Weghorst as the 10.
In those games Rashford doesn’t need the false-9 to create space for him. If he plays down the middle he can focus his energy more on attacking, which is how he was nearly unplayable in the second half at the Nou Camp.
Once again Rashford is going to be a key player for United this season. If he’s fit, he’s going to play about 80 percent of the available minutes. Minimizing the amount of times he has to work hard defensively can play a crucial role in his longevity.
There’s one other thing to consider, and that’s how Alejandro Garnacho’s continued emergence will factor in.
Last season the 18 year old burst onto the scene and quickly made a case to jump ahead of Sancho in the pecking order on the left wing. This year fans want to see more of him and see him take another step forward.
In order to take that step forward, he needs to play. That’s not particularly ideal when he plays the “same” position as Rashford. If you lock Rashford onto the left wing, you’re essentially blocking Garnacho.
Rasmus Hojlund is not going to start right away. Given Garnacho’s deficiencies defensivel, I’d say Sancho is the more likely starter when Wolves come to Old Trafford. Will that be flanking Rashford as the left wing or as a false-9 with Rashford on the left wing? That remains unclear.
For what it’s worth, we’ve hardly seen Rashford and Sancho play together in the preseason. When Rashford has played he’s lined up as the center forward.
At some point Hojlund is going to be plan A. Unless Antony is making huge steps forward and Garnacho isn’t, plan B should continue to be Rashford playing down the middle.
Despite the newscycle now forcing people to make sweeping predictions usually based on nothing more than the most recent match, football seasons are in fact long. Players are going to have drops in form. They’re going to get injured and be unavailable for a myriad of reasons. No one goes through the season with just plan A and plan B. At some point you’re going to need to dig deep.
Having Jadon Sancho be able to step in as a false-9 is a great new wrinkle for Ten Hag to have in his pocket. It’ll make United a much deeper team. But for now, Ten Hag shouldn’t in a rush to pull it out. If United want to be successful this season they’ll need a better plan B than this.
For a plan C, you could do a lot worse.