Manchester United’s pursuit of Jadon Sancho has been among the most drawn-out transfer sagas of this or any transfer window. Some, such as Gary Neville, have suggested that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is better off looking elsewhere to resolve his right-wing dilemmas. To many, this would seem reasonable. There is a seemingly endless list of talented, tricky, pacy wide players who look like world-beaters. Is Sancho worth the hassle and hefty fee? Or are United better off signing a different promising wide player?
In Manchester United’s 4-2-3-1, the right-sided berth has been fulfilled either by Daniel James or Mason Greenwood, players with vastly different profiles. James, who was predominantly used on the left when at Swansea, likes to hug the touchline and beat players with his searing pace, but lacks the cutting edge to be a reliable creative presence. Greenwood, nominally a striker, contributes minimally to build-up but has been lethal in front of goal whilst cutting inside from the right.
With Marcus Rashford playing a similar role to Greenwood on the left, Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s deficiencies as an offensive threat, and United’s general difficulty in breaking down deep defensive blocks, they would do best with a player who can fulfil the James role with greater efficiency: someone who can hold the width, carry the ball effectively, and provide consistent creativity from the right flank. Could Sancho fulfil this role?
The numbers suggest that he could. He racked up 16 Bundesliga assists during the previous campaign, 14 during the one before that, averaged 0.28 expected assists per 90, and made 3.97 open-play shot-creating actions per 90 over the past two seasons. For the latter two metrics, the Englishman ranks in the 93rd and 91st percentile respectively among attacking midfielders or wingers with ten or more starts in Europe’s top-five leagues.
In terms of his dribbling, he makes 3.92 successful dribbles per 90 and averages 424 yards of progressive distance (the distance, in yards, that the ball was moved towards the opposition’s goal with passes and carries), placing him in the 96th and 93rd percentile respectively when compared to the above-mentioned group.
Clearly, Sancho is a uniquely productive creative threat both through his ball-carrying and passing. From the 20-year-old’s playing style, it’s easy to see why. Similar to how Leroy Sane played when at Manchester City, Sancho likes to position himself high and wide before driving infield or on the outside.
In any case, such a starting position allows him to isolate his opposite man. In these situations, the Dortmund winger is lethal. His dribbling style relies on sensational close control that sees him take several touches of the ball even when moving forwards at full pace, allowing him to twist and turn with sudden changes of direction, baffling opposition makers, and creating space to find teammates with smart passes. In contrast to James, he relies less on his raw pace and ability to beat players in a foot race and tries to confuse his marker to create space.
However, what makes Sancho such an extraordinary talent is his ability to be both a consistent creative and goal-scoring force. He scored 17 times in the Bundesliga last season, averaging 0.49 non-penalty goals per 90 and 0.181 non-penalty xg per shot per 90 (the average expected goal value of shots taken excluding penalties), placing him in the 95th and 98th percentile compared to the aforementioned group.
Sancho’s intelligence and timing of his runs allows him to profit from driven crosses, cutbacks, and attacks in transition. He also likes to play neat one-twos around the 18-yard-box where he can then arrive in a shooting position. Despite being something of an old fashioned winger in that he is a right-footed player playing on the right, this does little to hamper his goal output.
Sancho is a uniquely excellent player in his position and, at 20 years of age, has a uniquely high ceiling as well. It’s perhaps why Manchester United have, at least thus far, not pursued alternative options for the right-wing berth. His playing style would also suit United superbly. Playing on the right, he would stretch opposition defences by holding the width and not have to worry as much about his defensive duties with Wan-Bissaka behind him.
He’s a creative player who could give United added dynamism and thrust when trying to construct attacks against deep defences, and has excelled in the sort of pressing, energetic, and counter-attacking style that Solskjaer seems to favour. From Ed Woodward’s perspective, he also has the notoriety to be a profitable marketing manoeuvre.
With the window drawing to a close, only time will tell if Sancho will be playing in the red of Man United during the upcoming season. If they do sign him, though, and potentially miss out on other targets in other positions, it will still be worth it. Sancho is a generational talent who will have a phenomenal career wherever he plays. Whether that will be at Old Trafford remains to be seen.