Friday, December 9, 2022

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Sancho has a point to prove amid fresh questions about Man United’s form

Around this time last year, the very first questions were asked about Jadon Sancho. Sancho, who was pursued by Manchester United for almost three years, the subject of two summer transfer sagas and undoubtedly one of the most exciting young players in European football, was set to take on an attacking role from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and was long in the works. But even after that he didn’t really play.

At least not as much as he should. Sancho started just seven of Solskjaer’s 17 games in charge early last season, including the devilish 4-1 defeat at Watford that ultimately sealed his manager’s fate. That was Sancho’s first start in more than a month after losing his place following an equally dreadful 4-2 defeat at Leicester City. His just 90 minutes under Solskjaer came in the third round of the EFL Cup.

A year later, missing opportunities are no longer the problem. Sancho has started in all of Ten Hag’s first six competitive games and nine of his first ten. Those nine starts yielded three goals and ahead of the international break in September there was at least some surprise that this quietly promising start under a new manager had not materialized in an international recall as part of an expanded 28-man England squad.

Sancho has since started two of the three games, in a derby where no United player has appeared and at Omonia Nicosia last week. However, he was substituted at half-time in that 3-2 win in the Cypriot capital, leaving United from a goal deficit. Omonia’s breakthrough came in part from his decision to play back to Tyrell Malacia from a United corner. Malacia was also substituted at half-time but Ten Hag said neither change was due to the goal.

“[That] wasn’t what I was dissatisfied with. It was the movement with our ball, the width on the left side wasn’t a good first half for me. The movement behind the defensive line,” stressed Ten Hag. Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford were the substitutes. “I was hoping that we could have more impact with Luke and Marcus and I think that’s what happened.” Shaw now appears to have reclaimed his place from Malacia after starting in Sunday’s 2-1 win at Everton .

Sancho, on the other hand, appears to have lost his spot after being eliminated entirely from Ten Hag’s line-up at Goodison Park. Anthony Martial was also overlooked for the otherwise disgraced Cristiano Ronaldo when he was substituted through injury in the first half. A year after being relegated to the United bench, Sancho found himself back there. The difference this time is that he was given a chance and arguably didn’t take it.

If dropping a winger with three goals in nine starts feels a bit harsh, a closer look at Sancho’s performances helps justify Ten Hag’s decision. The 22-year-old has never been a good marksman but three goals in all competitions have come from just seven shots. Amazingly, Sancho is in the bottom 1 percent of Premier League players this season, averaging 0.74 shots per 90 minutes.

This lack of consistent goal threat was not compensated by consistent creativity. Sancho’s expected assists of 0.08 per 90 minutes in all competitions are lower than those of Fred, Diogo Dalot and even Ronaldo. It’s all a far cry from his time at Borussia Dortmund, when a teenager honing his skills in the Camberwell cages posted double-digit goals and assists in back-to-back campaigns.

However, it’s not just the raw output. Other aspects of his game also fell away at Old Trafford. During his time in the Bundesliga, Sancho consistently dribbled three or four players every 90 minutes. That number fell to 2.37 last season and sits at a league average of 1.67 this season. It all fits the familiar image of Sancho in the United shirt, blocked by an opposing full-back and forced to pass backwards or sideways rather than do anything penetrating.

That was the essence of Ten Hag’s remarks in Nicosia last week – that nothing happens ‘behind the defensive line’ on United’s left flank – and it was echoed by Paul Scholes. “He was right about the wingers being static. Sancho never really runs behind,” said the former United midfielder. “He really needs a quick left-back or a center forward to connect with and he doesn’t really have that at the moment.”

As Scholes suggests, minutes may not be all Sancho needs to show his undoubted talent. His abilities right now are more suited to a more adventurous full-back than Malacia and a more complicated center forward than any of United’s current options. He wouldn’t be the first player United have signed at great expense in recent years, but without a coherent idea of ​​how he fits in with the rest of the squad.

At least Ten Hag believes in his abilities. Before they were dropped at Goodison Park, Dalot and Christian Eriksen were the only outfield players to start more times than Sancho this season. “I think he can [be a prolific goalscorer]’ said Ten Hag after his win at Leicester last month. “With its potential, there is still a lot of room for improvement. It can be even more important.”

This “meaning” that Ten Hag speaks of has taken a hit in the past week. It’s up to Sancho – perhaps from tonight in the second leg against Omonia at Old Trafford – to prove it’s only temporary.

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