Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Jadon Sancho’s revival at Borussia Dortmund shows how setting is everything after Manchester United disaster

Twelve dribbles later and the possibilities for Jadon Sancho seem endless. A return to his hometown for the Champions League final? More likely than possible if he and Borussia Dortmund repeat their impressive performance from Wednesday’s first-leg win over Paris Saint-Germain, 1-0. An extended stay in Germany into the summer, encompassing the European Championships? You’re getting 26-man squads now Gareth, time to take a flyer. A fresh start for the young man who was at the vanguard of England’s explosion of talent? It seems more real now than at any stage since he entered the vortex of talent desecration that is Manchester United.

Usually when players return to their old stomping ground looking to kickstart a stalled career it tends to be a move that only heightens the realization that they can’t get back to where they were. Maybe they’ve lost their burst, perhaps the drive to prove themselves is not what it was or they simply don’t fit in the game as it is played anymore. That was what made Sancho’s evisceration of Nuno Mendes so thrilling. It was as if Edin Terzic had popped back through a rip in the space-time continuum at the Westfalenstadion and returned with Sancho Mk.1, 2020 build. 

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PSG had no way of stopping him. You haven’t seen a defense mesmerized like this since, well, since Jalen Brunson cooked the Sixers (Knicks in six! Knicks in six!). Bounding and astounding, the boy from Camberwell was totally unreadable for defenders. Much like Brunson, Sancho doesn’t need to beat you by pushing the ball forward and outsprinting you. Why do that when he has everything needed in his bag to leave you a jibbering wreck instead, trapped with the certainty that you have no idea if he is going left, right, at you, or away?


Jadon Sancho’s carries in Borussia Dortmund’s 1-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals TruMedia

Sancho’s 13 completed take-ons were the most in a Champions League semifinal since Lionel Messi glided through Manchester United in 2008. It was the most anyone has completed in a game in Europe’s top five leagues and the Champions League all season long. Usually when players attempt 18 dribbles in a night the success rate tends to be low, mitigated by the fact they only have to get away once or twice to wreak havoc on a defense. Sancho was better than that. He kept going at PSG and he kept winning. Here at CBS Sports, we have data on every Champions League match since the start of the 2020-21 season. In that time no one has attempted 15-plus take-ons and been as successful as Sancho. Not even Neymar or Messi.

That is the Sancho we know, that the Premier League was salivating for during his first spell at Dortmund. Even just the 75 minutes of this semifinal first leg is enough to dispel the question that Rio Ferdinand was one of many to ask at the final whistle: “I want to know what happened at Man United. Why didn’t it go well there?”

He must surely know the answer. This is Manchester United Football Club we’re talking about. Their ability to stymie young talent whether imported (Donny van de Beek, Memphis Depay, Paul Pogba) or homegrown (Adnan Januzaj, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba) is unparalleled. All that is really left to address is whether the blame for Sancho’s travails lies with the man management of Erik ten Hag or a broader club structure that evidently does not put new signings in a position to shine.

The natural question for Sancho was what might come next but his love for the Yellow Wall — one shared by Jamie Carragher — is such that you can hardly blame him for putting thoughts of going back to Old Trafford far from his mind. Asked by Peter Schmeichel what the future might hold for him, he said: “I really don’t know but I am just focused on impressing right now.”

He must be aware that those he should be focusing on are not at Manchester United. Sancho is among the majority of the first-team squad who his parent club are looking to move on this summer, according to CBS Sports sources. Making back the $90 million transfer fee they paid to Dortmund three years ago will surely not happen but games like Wednesday are a reminder that the Red Devils were not mad to judge Sancho worthy of such an exorbitant price. When he can be this good after so many months in atrophy before his January return, United ought to feel that they have made a cataclysmic error. Luckily for Sancho, it may be his club that bears the brunt of that disaster and not him.

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