EPL

Sancho's 2020-21 struggles suggest slow Man Utd start just part of the journey

By Sports Desk September 17, 2021

Jadon Sancho's arrival at Manchester United was initially heralded as something of a game changer for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, their right-wing problems set to be a thing of the past with the England international seemingly guaranteeing goals and creativity. 

But, as it did with most other stories in football, Cristiano Ronaldo's signing took the spotlight away and it seems everyone has been focused on the Portugal talisman. 

That might actually be a helpful thing for Sancho, given his start to life at United has been about as explosive as a candle. He is there, in the background, but unless you look at him it is very easy to forget his existence. 

Sancho thus far appears to have largely escaped full-scale criticism, with Ronaldo's goalscoring return and then United's embarrassing loss to Young Boys somewhat eclipsing the winger's muted introduction. 

That is not to say his ineffectiveness has gone unnoticed, certainly not by supporters. But should they be concerned even this early in his United career? 

'Every player has slow periods'

Digging into Sancho's form after just four Premier League appearances probably seems a little premature. Maybe it is, but his slow start is certainly a talking point from United's perspective. 

There could be any number of reasons for Sancho taking a little longer to get up to speed than hoped, such as a shortened pre-season after Euro 2020, adapting to a new system and team-mates, or even a loss of confidence following his spot-kick woes in the European Championship final. 

But it is worth pointing out Sancho had a similarly tricky start to 2020-21, something his Borussia Dortmund coach at the time partly put down to United's interest. 

"Every player has slow periods. There was a lot of talk about Jadon during the summer – something like that can be a factor," Lucien Favre said in October last year. "No player is consistently in top form for an entire year, that's impossible. You have to accept that." 

Sancho's patchy form continued all the way up to Germany's mid-season break – at that point, he had not scored in 11 Bundesliga games and only laid on three assists. It was a far cry from his breakout season the previous campaign when he netted 17 and set up another 16 – that was the standard he set. 

Though that in itself should have been seen as unmatchable given how much he outperformed his expected goals (xG) and expected assists (xA). In total, he was involved in 14.9 more goals than the average player would have ordinarily expected given the quality of the chances, which was the most across the top five European leagues (Ciro Immobile was second with 13.5). 

It was surely unsustainable form and that was what his struggles in the first half of 2020-21 lent further credence to. But how does his form back then compare to his first steps in the Premier League? 

Lacking cohesion in new surroundings

It must be highlighted again that Sancho's first four Premier League matches represent a small sample size, so you obviously have to be a little cautious when it comes to drawing conclusions – after all, he could potentially score a hat-trick against West Ham and his record of three goals from five games would look pretty handy. 

Nevertheless, Sancho's early-season numbers certainly reflect the idea he is not offering a great deal to United. In fact, in terms of productivity, he's significantly down even on that difficult first few months of 2020-21. 

For starters, he has managed just two shots in 184 minutes on the pitch, which is obviously poor for someone brought in to be an attacking threat, particularly given he averaged 2.4 every 90 minutes pre-Christmas last season. Though there is a positive spin – some players may take hopeful snapshots in an attempt to dig themselves out of a rut, but Sancho at least is not panicking in that sense. 

His stunted productivity does extend to creativity, however. Creating one chance from open play every 90 minutes, he's down on both the pre- (1.6) and post-Christmas (2.5) periods from 2020-21, and the combined quality of the openings he has crafted have not been especially threatening with an average xA of 0.11 per 90 minutes. 

Even when deemed to be struggling last season, Sancho's xA value per key pass was almost three times as high (0.32). Of course, Sancho was in surroundings that were familiar to him and linking with players whose habits and characteristics he was more comfortable with, and there's a lot to be said for the value of cohesion, especially when things aren't going your way. 

That is presumably something Sancho will have to work on even harder at United, given he has limited experience of playing with his new team-mates. 

Lacking confidence, playing it safe

Building a natural familiarity can only be even more of a challenge when you appear devoid of confidence. We can only speculate as to why that may be the case, but it is a reasonable assumption to make that he is lacking in self-belief. 

His ordeal at Euro 2020 – when he played just 96 minutes before being specifically sent on in the last seconds of extra time in the final and missed his spot-kick – and the subsequent racist abuse he suffered on social media must have had an impact on his mental state. It would be shocking if it had not, though who is to say if that is the sole cause? 

What we can say is that Sancho's apparent dip in confidence seems to have manifested in a greater reluctance to take players on. He almost looks sheepish when faced up by defenders – it should be the other way round – and as such he is attempting significantly fewer dribbles. 

He tried to beat his man 5.7 times per 90 minutes in the first part of 2020-21, and that rose to 6.9 after the mid-season break – he is attempting 3.9 dribbles and completing 1.5 each game in the Premier League for United. 

He is touching the ball far less often (64.1 touches per 90 minutes compared to 84.8 in the first half of last season), though 64 touches hardly suggests he is being ignored by team-mates. 

But there is always a chance that United players may end up looking to others if Sancho is not deemed enough of a threat – after all, his average of 4.9 shot-ending sequence involvements per game is 1.6 fewer than he managed across all of last season. 

This in itself is interesting because it suggests that, although Sancho was not as much of a creator or finisher in the first part of 2020-21, his influence in the build-up remained constant over the two periods of the campaign. 

Linked to that is the frequency with which he played passes (including crosses) into the box, averaging 9.4 each game pre-Christmas and 9.5 after the mid-season break. But during these early weeks with United, he is producing just 3.4 such passes every 90 minutes. 

Obviously, Sancho's reasoning for this could quite possibly be that he has not seen team-mates in enough space, given most teams United face will have fairly packed defences. But fans would argue he is the sort of player who should be unlocking deep backlines either through his creativity or ability on the ball, and so far he has largely been unable to. 

Nevertheless, it is still far too early for anyone to start suggesting Sancho is enduring something of a crisis. He should be afforded patience and time to build meaningful on-pitch relationships with others in the United squad. 

But when it comes to attaining some confidence, Sancho might just need to take the odd leap of faith – he is playing it safe and that is not what United bought him for. 

Related items

  • Johnnie Jackson: AFC Wimbledon’s last-gasp win is up there with my best moments Johnnie Jackson: AFC Wimbledon’s last-gasp win is up there with my best moments

    Johnnie Jackson hailed AFC Wimbledon’s sensational stoppage-time winner against bitter rivals MK Dons as one of his finest moments as a manager.

    The match appeared to be heading towards a 0-0 draw after Jack Currie’s delightful looping header hit the woodwork and Stephen Wearne missed an open goal.

    However, Ronan Curtis gave the home fans a moment to remember as he finished off a delightful move in the dying seconds to secure all three points.

    The defeat is a major blow to MK Dons’ automatic promotion push, leaving them fifth, but Jackson believes the last-minute win can inspire his side as they push to make the play-offs.

    “Honestly, it is the highest I have been as a manager and up there with my best moments in football,” he said.

    “It is up there. I was a player for a long time and I had some really good moments, but it is up there with anything.

    “You’ve got a personal pride when you are a player, but as a manager you can become a bit of a slave to the result.

    “To see my team play the way they played and perform the way they did on an occasion like this and get the win makes it really special.

    “We were disappointed with the result in January. You can lose a game of football but we realise the importance of it as a football club.

    “We just got the away game wrong on a lot of levels, so we were keen to put that right.

    “That is the beauty of football in a league season, we were all sat in that changing room after that game wishing that we could have it back.

    “Well here was our chance to get it back and we took it.”

    MK Dons manager Mike Williamson believes his side need to be humble in defeat.

    “I am gutted for the boys and gutted for the fans,” he said.

    “I’m not going to be critical of the players, our in-possession stuff was not as good as it could have been but they had to stand up to a lot of balls into the box so we had to defend with strength and depth.

    “We needed to put our bodies on the line and we did that, but football can come down to moments.

    “We missed a chance and they went up the other end and scored, that’s how brutal the game can be.

    “I feel as though dusting ourselves down and removing the emotion, we’ve got to soak it all in.

    “It’s hard to be humble in defeat but that’s what we are going to be, we accept it and the fact that we weren’t good enough to come here on the day and convincingly feel that we should have won the game.”

  • Cardiff boss Erol Bulut praises influence of Liverpool loanee Nat Phillips Cardiff boss Erol Bulut praises influence of Liverpool loanee Nat Phillips

    Erol Bulut hailed the impact of Liverpool loanee Nat Phillips after Cardiff completed a Severnside derby double over Bristol City.

    Perry Ng’s second-half header gave Cardiff a 1-0 success at Ashton Gate and back-to-back wins for the first time since October.

    The Robins’ best moments were snuffed out by centre-back Phillips, who has proved a key player since arriving from Anfield in January.

    “Nat is a big add to us, he gives confidence in the defence and organises the defence,” said Cardiff manager Bulut after his side had leapfrogged their opponents in the Championship standings.

    “Other players next to him are acting on it and that’s important.

    “He has played for Liverpool and Celtic, big teams, and he knows when you get pressure how to stay calm.

    “He gives this to the other players too and with (goalkeeper) Ethan (Horvath) there now we can also play better from the back.”

    Cardiff’s 66th-minute winner was their 17th goal from a set-piece this season – a Championship high.

    Ng rose highest from a David Turnbull corner for his sixth goal of the season and second against Bristol City after scoring in Cardiff’s 2-0 home win over the Robins in October.

    Bulut said: “I think the game was 50-50 over the 90 minutes, but congratulations to my players because they worked really hard and the luck was on our side.

    “We are one of the best teams in the league from set-pieces.

    “We always work on it and, if you analyse my previous clubs, it’s something we did there too.

    “We kept our concentration and closing down the spaces, so I am happy.

    “We are getting a little confidence back, which is good, and we have to stay together.”

    Bristol City have now lost three in a row since winning at Middlesbrough and beating promotion-chasing Southampton at home.

    A chorus of boos from home fans greeted the final whistle and boss Liam Manning said he would “take it on the chin”.

    Manning said: “I’ve got thick skin. Of course I don’t want to hear it.

    “I want the team to perform and succeed, I’ve had to fight and scrap in my career to get where I am.

    “I’ll take it on the chin, be calm and get ready to go again on Tuesday.”

    Asked what the Robins were short on in defeat, Manning replied: “Quality in the final third.

    “We need people to step up and take responsibility in high-pressure moments and deliver.

    “On the goal, set-pieces are probably Cardiff’s biggest threat – and most of their goals come from first contacts as well – and it’s hugely annoying.

    “I didn’t think there was a huge amount of quality from both sides, so you’ve got to make sure you don’t lose and it finishes 0-0.”

  • Nothing has changed: Xavi plays down reports he may stay on at Barcelona Nothing has changed: Xavi plays down reports he may stay on at Barcelona

    Barcelona boss Xavi insists “nothing has changed” regarding his future following rumours he could reverse his decision to depart the club in the summer.

    The former Barca and Spain midfielder, who is preparing for Sunday’s LaLiga game at fifth-placed Athletic Bilbao, announced in late January he would leave his role at the end of the season.

    Barcelona have picked up form since then, taking 13 points from a possible 15 to boost their faint hopes of overhauling leaders Real Madrid in the title race.

    “As of today, nothing has changed,” Xavi told a press conference.

    “There is no more story than that. It all remains the same and we focus on the next game.

    “It’s true we’ve done well recently; I see the team training great every day and the group of players is less tense than in the past.

    “But tomorrow is a whole new story, here at Barcelona you have a challenge every day.

    “The moment of the truth this season is coming, and we feel we have been good over the last weeks.”

    Third-placed Barcelona thrashed Getafe 4-0 last weekend to build on recent wins over Osasuna, Alaves and Celta Vigo and a 3-3 draw with Granada.

    The Catalan club will return to San Mames just over five weeks after suffering a 4-2 extra-time loss to Bilbao in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals.

    Xavi is braced for another tough test as his side seek to maintain momentum.

    “Athletic is the most intense team in the league,” he said. “And they are confident.

    “If we win, it will be a big step forward.

    “It’s the perfect game to match them in intensity and rhythm. Against Getafe, we rediscovered our game. Against Athletic, we have to do the same.”

    Barcelona remain without injured quartet Marcos Alonso, Alejandro Balde, Gavi and Ferran Torres for the visit to the Basque country.

    Xavi also hailed his former team-mate Andres Iniesta during his pre-match press conference.

    Iniesta, who scored Spain’s winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final, made the 1,000th senior appearance of his career on Friday, playing for UAE-based side Emirates Club against Ajman.

    “Iniesta is the greatest talent I’ve ever seen in Spanish football,” said Xavi. “A thousand games is many.

    “I admire him and I love him very much, he is a great friend.”

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.