How Sancho overcame Man Utd spell to ignite Dortmund's Champions League push


Jadon Sancho is back and there’s reason to believe it may not be for one night only.  


But what a night it was. On one of the grandest stages in the game, a Champions League semi-final no less, the 24-year-old looked like exactly the sort of player a club would spend £73m to sign. Paris Saint-Germain had no answer to him. 


He completed 13 dribbles, the most of any player in a Champions League match since Lionel Messi against Manchester United in 2008. Sancho could have left the pitch with a hat-trick of assists had his teammates been able to finish off the chances he laid on for them. No Borussia Dortmund player had more touches (99) or played more passes (58). 


The Bundesliga side will be disappointed to have not won the game by a greater margin going into the second leg of their tie away in Paris but if Sancho can put together anything close to a replica of his first leg performance, then a Champions League final will follow. 


After the match, the cliches were rolled out to explain how a player who never looked up to the standard at Manchester United was suddenly dominating one of the biggest matches of any season. It was all down to him rediscovering his confidence, or his hunger, or benefiting from the supposedly lower standard and less physical play of the Bundesliga compared to the Premier League - never mind that this was the Champions League against a side that had swatted aside Barcelona in the previous round. 


Rather than just pass this remarkable return to form off as the result of such nebulous forces, there were other reasons that can be pointed to as to why the on-loan United creator was able to thrive once again. 


It could be said that the stats behind Sancho’s outing against PSG didn’t really tell us the full story about him as a player, even if they explained exactly why he was such a menace during the match. Left-back Nuno Mendes was caught in a total mismatch with Sancho, who was played down the right wing by Dortmund. Again and again the Englishman was able to beat the full-back and cause mayhem between the lines of the Ligue 1 side. 


Sancho attempted 18 dribbles (no other player on the pitch even attempted more than seven, and that was Kylian Mbappe) and completed 13. Mendes, meanwhile, was dribbled past six times, five times by Sancho. It turned out to be a total mismatch against a defender well-regarded for what is usually his explosively dynamic style of play up and down his flank. 


The thing is, even when he’s at his best, Sancho isn’t actually a very explosive player. He isn’t especially quick and while he can carry the ball up the pitch and get past players, as evidenced by the high number of dribbles throughout his career so far, these situations aren’t the one-on-one battles decided by raw speed or athleticism usually expected of a winger.  


How Sancho overcame Man Utd spell to ignite Dortmund's Champions League push


Sancho is a footballer with more subtle qualities. Timing, clever positioning and passing combinations have been his stock in trade rather than straight-line pace or a powerful physique. He is able to hurt teams through his superior awareness of space and how to exploit it, showing a keen intelligence off the ball and a sharpness when in possession. That is, in part, why he has struggled at Manchester United, even before his rocky relationship with Erik Ten Hag. 


Comparisons with Paul Pogba are inevitable; he was another wonderkid who arrived at United hyped up as the answer to their problems in a key position, and seemingly had the track record of delivering for a major European club. Yet both Pogba and Sancho looked lost in a United shirt due to deficiencies in the processes behind why they were signed and how they were used, even if their inabilities to perform consistently were also partly down to their own choices too. 


They also share some similarities in the deeper value they offer to their teams beyond just goals and assists, combined or otherwise, even if their best seasons have coincided with impressive returns when it comes to getting the ball over the goal line. After all, Sancho didn’t struggle in that department during his first stint with Dortmund. His masterclass against PSG wasn’t the first time his stats have drawn comparisons with Messi. In 2022, ahead of his move to Old Trafford, Sancho was the only other player besides Messi across Europe’s top five leagues to amass more than 30 goals and 30 assists since the 2018/19 season. 


But so much of the best work of Sancho, like Pogba, can also come in the moments before the passes that lead to shots and are therefore counted as chances created. He is more of a playmaker than a traditional winger, and is thriving again in a Dortmund team that is prepared to let him get on the ball and pick his passes rather than rush into attacking the box. Not for the first time the question must be asked over whether United really understood the player they were signing. That has long been part of the belief in what went wrong with Pogba, a floating playmaker in his own right who was instead treated as if he was to be the ultimate all-rounder capable of combining the qualities of Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard and Yaya Toure all at once. Sancho too hasn’t been helped at times by grand expectations that he would be a player he never was. 


Even under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United’s wing play was more frenetic than what Sancho had been used to at Dortmund. The Norwegian was criticised for appearing to lack the coaching acumen to coach a pattern of play into his team when they had possession. It so often came down to individuals stepping up to provide a moment, rather than the culmination of a team-wide effort to execute a plan with the ball. 


Ten Hag was supposedly brought in from Ajax to fill in those blanks and turn United into a team with a coherent identity all the way down to how they would build and develop attacks. Instead, the Dutchman has dismissed the very notion that he could bring an Ajax style of play to United, or if he’d even want to try. His vision for United is to make them into the ultimate transition team, and to that end it has been clear what he wants from his wide players, and it’s not what Sancho offers. 


Looking at how his wingers have played, especially the individuals who have continued to be picked even after failing to pass to Rasmus Hojlund when the striker was in better positions earlier this season, they are in some ways now even more direct than under Solskjaer. 


Compared to Alejandro Garnacho and Marcus Rashford, who have been criticised for an apparent lack of effort when it comes to creating chances for others or tracking back this season, Sancho just isn’t that sort of player. He isn’t really an outlet which is the role that Rashford has played for Ten Hag, who has required him to stay high and wide, which has contributed to the aforementioned complaints over his lack of impact. If he was playing in a way that fell outside of what the Dutchman wants, as evidenced by his readiness to cut adrift players that don’t fall in line, he wouldn’t be starting. There is the distinct possibility that Rashford’s critics mistake a player fulfilling the instructions given to him as an individual refusing to play the way he should. 


Sancho cannot do what Rashford does. Neither is he another Garnacho, who is a far more pacy and direct presence on the wing; another player to attack the ball rather than dictate play. Antony is probably the closest player in comparison to Sancho but he is Ten Hag’s man, having worked together at Ajax before being reunited at United at great expense. 


What Sancho can offer a team has been effectively skipped over by United under the two permanent managers he has played under. Perhaps that’s why much of the scrutiny over his game has focused on what he lacks in terms of physicality given the desire to play with wide runners rather than more considered creative players. If Ten Hag is moved on in the summer, another new boss could offer him the chance to start afresh, but Sancho would also do well to consider looking beyond Old Trafford to rebuild his career. 


Another parallel of sorts can be drawn with Jack Grealish here. Despite having played his part in winning the treble at Manchester City last season the debate still rages on over whether the winger can play his best football within the strict confines of a Pep Guardiola system.  


For Aston Villa he was free to roam wherever he felt he could make the biggest difference. City on the other hand require their players to hold position and maintain the shape to let the ball roam instead. If Grealish is said to be shackled by the detailed demands of City’s tactics, Sancho has almost endured the inverse of sorts to have his game muddled by the lack of clarity or direction attackers get at United.  


Ironically he shined against PSG in exactly the sort of role he was supposed to fill back in Manchester, playing out on the right wing and feeding a striker like Hojlund. He was sensational during his original spell at Dortmund playing off and setting up the likes of Michy Batshuayi, Paco Alcacer and Erling Haaland, and dovetailing with another roaming creator in Marco Reus. When he actually arrived at United, that sort of clarity of purpose was lacking. He was played on the left, competing with Rashford for minutes, while the team remained short out on the right; a confusing mess that wasn’t helped by an injury and the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo to further complicate matters. 


Even before facing PSG, Sancho was showing signs of rediscovering himself in Germany playing for a team that may have fallen away from challenging for the title but one that is at least giving him the coherency he needs to show his class. Only Julian Brandt has created more chances for Dortmund per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga among the current Dortmund. He is second for dribbles attempted and completed too behind Jamie Bynoe-Gittens. 


The joke ahead of his Champions League semi-final showcase was that the highlight compilations of Sancho at Dortmund this season only ever included clips that ended right before he lost the ball or failed to do anything with a good position. While he has taken time to find his edge again, it’s clear that the slower build up play and greater certainty over what to expect from the players around him are helping the world to see the real Sancho once more. 


Unless United can transform themselves into becoming a club that can offer him the role and the rigour that can give him a platform to shine, why would he not be looking to use his next Champions League outing to find a suitor better placed to offer those guarantees?

How Sancho overcame Man Utd spell to ignite Dortmund's Champions League push