Jadon Sancho can revive career in Dortmund but Manchester United face greater cost

The Sancho-United relationship has been a costly mismatch but Erik ten Hag and his team may suffer most

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Thursday 11 January 2024 08:57 GMT
The relationship between Jadon Sancho and Erik ten Hag broke down
The relationship between Jadon Sancho and Erik ten Hag broke down (PA Archive)

It is tempting to wonder if Jadon Sancho considers the fate of his two immediate successors. Borussia Dortmund tend to have one big summer sale, an annual scramble among the elite to take the prized asset from football’s premier finishing school. In 2023, Jude Bellingham was the deluxe departure, in 2022 Erling Haaland, in 2021 Sancho himself. Bellingham and Haaland can be bracketed together in a trio again: along with Kylian Mbappe, they may be the finest players on the planet.

Sancho? He has spent four months training with Manchester United’s Under-18s, eating packed lunches as he has been exiled from the canteen at Carrington. An imminent return to Dortmund on loan is the best-case scenario to try and salvage his season; perhaps his career. Haaland and Bellingham have reached new heights since leaving Signal Iduna Park: for Sancho, a 2019-20 Bundesliga season that yielded 17 goals and 16 assists looked similarly auspicious but remains an ever more distant peak. It nevertheless showed a level of potential and production that Antony has never emulated.

Yet the unravelling of his United career leaves Sancho with questions to answer about his attitude that extend beyond his timekeeping or his allegedly poor performances in training that led Erik ten Hag to omit him from the squad for September’s defeat at Arsenal. The issue has gone beyond whether or not Sancho had right on his side when he responded with a social media post seeming to call the manager’s explanation “completely untrue” and himself “a scapegoat for a long time”; there are those at Old Trafford who believe it was far from his first misdemeanour but also those who watch United who felt Antony received preferential treatment when it came to selection.

Yet if Sancho may argue his refusal to apologise to Ten Hag was a principled stance, there were pragmatic reasons to back down, as several teammates urged him to: he has lost half a season and gained nothing.

Sancho and Ten Hag has been football’s least successful stand-off, where everyone has willingly been a loser, where it seems to have gone too far for anyone to back down and the strategy is simply to outlast each other. The winger may feel that five months in Germany will finish off the manager.

The Dutchman’s argument that banishing Sancho was necessary to improve the culture and build standards is yet to be justified by results but he has done too little to allay the impression the punishment is far greater than the crime. Certainly, after enjoying the backing of the old regime, he could do with a compelling explanation for Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Sir Dave Brailsford why a £73m signing has been unused by a failing team, why millions are being paid to a man who isn’t being picked.

Ten Hag will need to convince Jim Ratcliffe and Dave Brailsford he is the right man for the job
Ten Hag will need to convince Jim Ratcliffe and Dave Brailsford he is the right man for the job (Manchester United via Getty Imag)

And with United set to still be liable for the majority of his wages during Sancho’s time in Germany, the beneficiaries of the relationship breakdown will be Dortmund. They will pick up an elite talent and a player who has previously prospered under Edin Terzic for a cut-price sum. The fact that, of the German’s sides various wingers and attacking midfielders, only Julian Brandt and Donyell Malen have more than three goals and only Brandt more than three assists this season, indicates a vacancy if Sancho can recapture his past form. None of which means Dortmund have nothing to lose: not when, with his side fifth in the Bundesliga, Terzic’s position has become precarious. Should a reunion with Sancho backfire, it may dent his standing.

And yet, as ever, United have suffered the most. They have two players signed as right-wingers in the 2020s who have contributed no goals and no assists this season: Sancho has barely played and Antony has barely delivered.

It is remarkable that, according to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a September interview, United’s scouts recommended Sancho as their top target on the right and, after buying him, they discovered the Englishman preferred playing on the left. United also seemingly did not realise that Sancho only truly excelled on the right for Dortmund when he had Achraf Hakimi to overlap outside him. They somehow contrived to buy the player for the wrong position; or, at the very least, when he had the wrong teammates.

Sancho’s Man Utd tenure has been disastrous for a number of reasons
Sancho’s Man Utd tenure has been disastrous for a number of reasons (Getty)

It is a costly lack of joined-up thinking at a club where too much potential goes unrealised. If a chunk of United’s money in the last decade has been spent on ageing Galacticos, still more has been forked out for the supposed superstars of tomorrow. Sancho belongs in a group with Anthony Martial, Antony, Memphis Depay and Donny van de Beek; each was signed for a premium price at a relatively early age, designed to offer excitement, to be a cornerstone of their attacking efforts for years.

It is damning that Martial is far and away the most successful; his 90 United goals is 78 more than Sancho’s tally. The Frenchman could leave United on a free transfer this year. Sancho’s contract lasts longer but maybe he will suffer the same fate. And if he hopes he could resurrect his fortunes at United if and when Ten Hag goes, if playing football at a place where he is appreciated is better than training with teenagers, it feels some way off. It will take quite something now for Sancho and United to be anything other than a costly mismatch.

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