For an already blossomed star of the European game at a tender age, with a nine figure transfer having seemed inevitable for the last few years, it is curious how relatively unheralded Jadon Sancho is in his homeland.
That might all be about to change this summer. For so long Sancho has been viewed through the prism of an impending return to the Premier League, which he left in 2017 when Borussia Dortmund offered a clearer pathway to first-team football than Manchester City. It is as though only by returning to England, likely with Manchester United, can his development truly be assessed.
Such a move appears to be drawing nearer. Dialogue is underway between United and Dortmund and the fee is likely to be lower than the $150 million the German side demanded last summer, more a reflection of the changing financial realities of football in the coronavirus era than any reflection on the talent of a player who only turned 21 in March. The experience of last season’s tortuous negotiations suggests this deal may well drag into and beyond the European Championships yet that would certainly not be in United’s interests. There is every reason to believe that Sancho will show the sort of quality over the coming weeks that will have numerous other suitors emerging for his signature even though they will probably be too late.
That there is almost a one-horse race for Sancho is of course in no small part down to the current state of finances across many of Europe’s big clubs but it also appears to point to a certain sense that he might have something to prove to the English audience. None of broadcaster ITV’s pundits made the case for the Dortmund man starting the Euro 2020 opener on Saturday, the same has been true across numerous predicted and best XIs across the media in recent days. It is nothing if not baffling that the England manager should talk about a key cog in a perennial Champions League team as in any way overlooked.
“Maybe he is under the radar but then I think the real hardcore of football fans know what he is capable of, what his performances have been like for Dortmund in particular,” Gareth Southgate said last week. “He has finished the season well, I think it has been a difficult year for him.
“He obviously looked as though he might be on the move last summer. For a young player to go through that experience is quite tough. He had to cope with that and then got into a good rhythm of form around Christmas and just after the break and then picked up the injuries. His season has been disrupted but the finished it well.”
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If last season was viewed as something of a down year by Sancho’s standards — and indeed by Dortmund’s in a year where they sacked their manager midseason — it is worth quantifying just what that means. The player who registered 16 assists and 17 goals in the 2019-20 Bundesliga was down to 11 and eight the following campaign, hardly the sort of numbers to be sniffed at in the slightest.
Indeed the goal return from 2019-20 was always likely to be hard to replicate, those 17 goals coming as they did from shots worth 10.1 expected goals (xG). Per 90 minutes there was a drop off in xG in the 2020-21 season but his return of 0.29xG per 90 was still better than the 2018-19 campaign, the real breakout year for him in the Bundesliga.
Comparing England’s wide options
Per 90 stats for European and domestic league fixtures in past two seasons
Over the course of those three seasons he has put together a resume perhaps more impressive than any other player at Southgate’s disposal. Among English players to have played in Europe’s top five leagues and/or European competitions over the past two seasons Sancho ranks first in the following per 90 categories: big chances created, assists, expected assists, take-ons attempted, passes made in the final third and involvement in sequences that end in goals.
He also ranks in the top five in the following: possession won in the attacking third, chances created, goals scored, minutes per goal and shooting goals added (a metric by Opta that subtracts xG from expected goals on target, reflecting how much more effective a player is at testing goalkeepers). He is no slouch with corners as well. In purely statistical terms he ought to be a nailed-on starter for England.
That he is not assured of his place against Croatia on Saturday reflects the remarkable depth Southgate has in options to support Kane but also the fact that Sancho is yet to translate his form in Germany to the England shirt. Such a factor should not be underplayed — for instance there have long been doubts about Trent Alexander-Arnold’s ability to translate his Liverpool form to a different system at an international level — though it is worth noting that the sample size for international football is far smaller. His 19 caps have brought three goals, two of which came in as many minutes in a barmy 5-3 win over Kosovo in a September 2019 World Cup qualifier, but he has still played just over 900 minutes and made only 10 starts.
Sancho appeared to have established himself as a certain starter in the first games after international football’s resumption last autumn but his breaking of the government’s coronavirus rules in October set his case back before injury in March ruled him out of the World Cup qualifiers. Sunday’s win over Romania was the first time he had started in England’s last 11 fixtures. In that time the likes of Phil Foden and Jack Grealish have made convincing cases both for the Three Lions and at club level. Should Sancho not start, his place will go to a player who has excelled on a consistent basis in the Premier League. It is a great dilemma for Southgate to have.
And yet it is hard to shake the sense that this could be the summer that Sancho goes from beloved by the “real hardcore” to mainstream glory. He has been one of Europe’s finest forwards for several years. Now he can show the English public what they have been missing.