Football Features

Make no mistake Man Utd: Jadon Sancho is still essential to becoming an elite side

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 15:47, 11 May 2021

Manchester United spent all of summer 2020 trying to sign Jadon Sancho, well, “trying” anyway. They failed, but will surely be back at it this year.

Despite missing out on the English winger, United have actually had a good season. They will surely finish second in the Premier League having pushed Manchester City most of the way (or at least kept them honest until the very end). Sure, their domestic cup performances weren’t much of an improvement but the quality of their play in general is better and they have a Europa League final to come.

Looking at how United have been playing this season, full of goals shared out between the forwards and Bruno Fernandes (with 14 players scoring at least once in the Premier League), you’d be tempted to say they don’t need Sancho. Certainly there have been rumours amounting to that very thought, that the Red Devils have cooled interest in Sancho.

And you could see why. After all, Mason Greenwood has shown he can play well in that right-wing berth, and when Edinson Cavani starts up front United have a sort of rotating movement in attack whereby everyone from Marcus Rashford to Fernandes can peel out wide into that flank. Moreover, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is becoming a stronger attacking force, so maybe United don’t need Sancho, right?

Wrong.

Yes United score goals, the second most in the Premier League in fact. They’re a very good attacking side, but they’re also a hurly burly frantic menagerie of nonsense. They’ve won 31 points from losing positions this season, which is obviously really impressive but it also requires them to fall behind in matches all the time.

Their powers of recovery are admirable, but how sustainable is it? What worked this season may not work in the next one, and if their comeback mojo slips even just a little, they will really flounder. To be an elite side like Man City this season or Liverpool last year you need sustainable patterns of play and players who can create quality chances consistently.

United have no established system of play beyond a base 4-2-3-1, but in terms of players? They have Bruno Fernandes who can do that (he leads the Premier League with 92 chances created), and Paul Pogba too, but that’s it.

In the wide areas all they have are goalscorers like Greenwood or Rashford (or Daniel James, or Anthony Martial). The closest thing to a wide creator they have is Juan Mata, and he’s barely playing these days due to his age, even if he is lovely.

So while it would be tempting to say that Sancho is a luxury and United should dump all of their money on signing an elite defensive midfielder and a promising centre-back (if they don’t think Axel Tuanzebe or Teden Mengi will work out), that will leave the Red Devils short.

To be clear, United absolutely need an elite defensive midfielder to run their side. Fred is an able deputy, Scott McTominay a very useful blunt instrument, Pogba a glorious weapon even from deep, but none of them are the midfield general needed. And a centre-back to supplant Victor Lindelof would go a long way to helping United defend well without having to commit everyone to a rearguard.

But they need Sancho.

Despite playing under 2,000 minutes due to injury, Sancho has created an impressive 65 chances so far this season. That is more than any United player besides Fernandes and Luke Shaw.

When it comes to per-90 minutes, a better way to gauge output given the difference in minutes player, Sancho’s 2.99 chances created per-90 minutes tops all regular players from both United and Dortmund. The next highest United forward is Rashford with 1.32 – the gap is not so much a gap but a chasm.

Then there’s dribbling, which is the one surefire way to break down an organised defence. United have some talented dribblers, Pogba has 2.2 take-ons completed per-90 minutes this season, with Rashford clocking in at 2.58. Sancho? 3.17. Once again he is clear.

Looking at United’s strikers, Greenwood has scored six goals this season off an Expected Goals rate (xG) of 4.71 and Cavani has scored nine from 7.75. They’re not exactly feeding off scraps, but consider that Erling Haaland’s xG as striker of a team with Sancho in it is a colossal 23. There are levels to this and Sancho is, creatively, well beyond anything United have.

And they definitely need him. Aside from the fact that their forward options are so thin they’ve had to play Rashford through pain for basically two years now, they’ve also reached a state of evolution where their best approach for games against other “Big Six” sides is to hunker down in a rearguard and play for a 0-0.

This season they’ve done that in all of their Big Six matches besides the Tottenham Hotspur ones, and it has resulted in a lot of 0-0s. Sure they also lost to Arsenal 1-0 and beat Man City 0-2; but a massive five matches against big six rivals ended 0-0, all of them winnable if United just had a player capable of adding creativity out wide without having to commit too many men into attack.

A player like Sancho.

United must do whatever it takes to sign Sancho this summer. Even if that means spending the whole transfer budget on one guy and then selling the likes of Martial and David de Gea to fund a defensive midfielder signing, they have to do it.

Sancho is quite simply too talented and too perfect a fit for what United need for this move not to happen. If it doesn’t, you can expect the Red Devils to regress next season. But if Sancho joins alongside a genuine defensive midfielder? Don’t rule out a genuine title tilt from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men. They will become a simply sublime side.

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