Discover more from Grace on Football
Jadon Sancho is struggling, but he can still transform Man Utd
There's plenty more to come.
Jadon Sancho is very good at football.
I want to state that upfront. We can argue all day about the so-called “Bundesliga tax”, but even his biggest sceptics would surely agree he’s better than what we’ve seen so far this season. This is someone who should be doing more than he’s done so far. How much more is the more interesting part, but he clearly hasn’t played to his level in a Manchester United shirt yet.
How good is he, really?
We’ll start with the best possible case for how good he is in the data, then see how much air we can take out of those numbers.
Over the last three seasons in the Bundesliga, Sancho managed 77 non-penalty goals and assists in the Bundesliga. He played 6810 minutes, so that works out at 1.02 per 90 mins. Literally worth a goal a game. It seems pretty good, and it is. Over the same period, Sancho’s new teammate Cristiano Ronaldo only managed 0.78 non-penalty goals and assists per 90 mins.
As in, when both were on the pitch, penalties removed, Jadon Sancho was about 30% more likely to score or assist a goal than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Seems pretty good.
Now for the downside case.
Sancho was running pretty hot in this period. He scored 36 non-penalty goals from an xG of 23.4. A case can be made that he’s a genuinely above-average finisher, but for the sake of argument, let’s say he’s not. Let’s say he really “should” have scored 23.4 goals. Similarly, he bagged 41 assists from an expected total of 22.7. Let’s just say these figures are exactly correct.
Now let’s address the so-called “Bundesliga tax”. It’s a pretty hard thing to calculate, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have some estimates. Michael Caley put the number at around 12%, while Tony ElHabr had it at 17%. We’re asking for a level of precision here that just doesn’t exist in the data, but again, let’s just say it’s 17% for this argument.
So when we account for xG overperformance and league difficulty like this, the 1.02 non-penalty goals and assists per 90 becomes 0.52. I don’t need to click on the calculator app to tell you that’s about half the original number.
Now, that’s just the low estimate. 0.52 expected goals and assists per 90 is a shade better than Marcus Rashford (0.49) over the past three seasons. And the high estimate is double that. So what we know about Sancho is that he’s somewhere between Rashford and one of the very best players on the planet in terms of quality. That’s a lot of uncertainty, but I think we can be confident that he’s at least good enough to offer plenty to Man Utd. And this is just using goals and assists as the easiest example. The data is much murkier, but the same arguments could all be made about his passing and dribbling threat.
This season we haven’t seen close to that. Zero goals and assists, 0.31 expected goals and assist per 90, not coming close to looking the real deal to the eye.
So what’s changed?
I should say that this is tactics-focused, but I’m aware it’s not the only issue. Maybe there are other issues, but we simply have no information on that. And to be honest, I’d expect everything else to work itself out in the long run. There’s no reason to think Sancho doesn’t have a good attitude, and he’s lived in the North West before so that shouldn’t be a problem. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a good track record of helping players improve over time. So with that, let’s think about the tactical fit.
We can argue until the cows come home about the quality of the Bundesliga, but it’s certainly different to the Premier League. Of the 18 managers in that league at the end of last season, 11 were from Germany. Of the seven foreigners, four experienced their primary tactical education in German football. And while Adi Hutter might have learned the trade in his native Austria, he did so in the Red Bull system under Ralf Rangnick, the godfather of modern German tactics.
The Bundesliga is a tactically homogenous league. The overwhelming majority of sides play a German-style mid-block counter-pressing setup. It’s a league where there’s space on the break for fast transition sides, something everyone exploits because they pretty much all play in broadly the same way. The Rangnick tactical ideas have almost completely won out.
Premier League sides, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different. Only six managers of 20 are from the UK, and none quite have a single tactical influence the way the German cohort do. Two of those managers – Brendan Rodgers and Graham Potter – don’t really play a British style at all. You have high, mid and low blocks. You have patient possession and rapid transitions. The Premier League’s taste for the international has led to a group of managers with a wide range of backgrounds implementing their own ideas irrespective of what the prevailing trend in England is. Diversity is strength.
To reach the summit of the Premier League, you have to be good in every possible situation. Jurgen Klopp found this out the hard way. He brought his version of the German counter-pressing model to Liverpool and it never quite worked the same way it did in the Bundesliga. It was hugely effective against a lot of opponents, but certain sides decided to sit deep and let Liverpool play the game in front of them. His style of hitting sides quickly through the half-spaces had no answer to that.
The lightbulb moment came around 2018, with the much more aggressive use of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson from the full-back positions. Suddenly, Liverpool were attacking with five (and had security at the back, with both better defenders and a more compact midfield), meaning you couldn’t just bunker in. Liverpool were manipulating the entire space across the pitch, and that makes it a million times harder to find an Achilles heel. If you want to win the Premier League, you have to do it all. This is the environment Sancho has moved into.
The winger isn’t the most naturally physically imposing player. He doesn’t have a lightning turn of pace like Jamie Vardy. He doesn’t have the low centre of gravity to draw fouls like Jack Grealish, though he still has plenty of time at age 21 to add more muscle mass. Despite his background in cage football, he doesn’t really have the frame to dominate in tight spaces the way someone like Grealish can.
What he does have is great technique, outstanding close control, and consistently strong decision making in the final third. He was the ideal transition attacker in a fast-paced Borussia Dortmund team, but English football doesn’t quite work like that. That doesn’t mean he can’t have the same impact at all. I really believe he has a lot to offer in the Premier League. But it does mean something of a rethink.
Is there an answer?
Solskjaer’s side tends to take a game by game approach to finding and manipulating space. “Teams give you spaces, that’s just a natural thing because the pitch is as big as it is and there are 11 players on each team”, he explained. “Some teams give you space behind, some teams give you in between. Sometimes teams press high, press low and we have to learn to adapt to every single game. It’s about learning, from every game.”
As Carl Anka has discussed, Solskjaer likes his team to look for space available in a game rather than force it. Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea all have repeatable patterns they employ to make the opponent open up the space as they would like. It’s different to what we’re used to seeing in the modern game, but it can be very effective at times.
Everyone knows Solskjaer’s primary influence as a manager is Sir Alex Ferguson. The years he spent as a player at Old Trafford shape everything he does today. Ferguson, in my book, produced two truly great sides: the treble winners of 1998-99, and the Champions League winners in 2007/08. There was a lot of success across his time, but those two were complete sides in a way the others weren’t.
The latter side is the one he seems most interested in. That team was about the rapid counter-attack of Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, hitting teams straight down the gut. As he explained, “I think you can see, the forwards we’ve got into the team with Mason [Greenwood], Jadon [Sancho], Marcus [Rashford], Anthony [Martial] — they can play multiple positions. Edinson [Cavani] is probably the only one who is fixed in one position. So the rest of them I think we should just leave them to enjoy developing in their careers.
“I remember Wayne [Rooney], Carlos Tevez and Ronaldo playing together. Good players can always play together. And we need movement, and that is what we have today.”
I personally believe that side to be the stronger of Ferguson’s two most complete teams. There are certainly a lot of ways to emulate it right now, but there are also important ways in which football has changed since the late 2000s. The space in behind just isn’t there for a counter-attacking model, and to win the league now, you need to have at least some structure in possession.
It’s here where Solskjaer might want to look to that ‘99 team a little more. No, I don’t think they should go for a gung-ho 4-4-2 in 2021. But that team had a clearer structure. Whereas the 2008 side had the interchanging forwards and midfielders, there was a more natural discipline to the spine of the 1999 core. Paul Scholes and Roy Keane were, in their different ways, classic box-to-box midfielders, breaking forward and sitting in at the right times. Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were a natural strike partnership, with Cole as more of a finisher next to Yorke’s hold up play. Most importantly, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs stretched the play as genuine wingers. It was never described in those terms, but it was certainly a clear structure in possession aimed at exploiting the spaces across the whole pitch.
This is where Sancho can help. He needs a little more space than he’s getting as another interchanging wide forward, and staying wide on the right will help him find it. When he’s out there, with his quality passing and dribbling threat, he can drag defenders over to that side and create space for others elsewhere. Once you get into the final third, he can start to come inside and have more freedom, but just starting high and wide opens up different opportunities. Solskjaer can maintain his more improvisational structure elsewhere, but just having Sancho as a fixed point can really change this team.
If Sancho can get a little more space, we might start to see those same qualities he showed in the Bundesliga. When he starts doing that, he can open up the pitch for others on the opposite side. Once that happens, Man Utd have a way of breaking down almost any opponent.
All the pieces are there for this transfer to kick into a higher gear. We just need to see it happen.