The midst of an international break is perhaps when the sad reality of Jadon Sancho’s career stasis is most profound.
During his four-year spell will Borussia Dortmund, Sancho looked every bit a player capable of leading one of England’s most exciting generations of players in many a year. But after a public falling out with Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag, everything, not just his international career, is seemingly on hold.
Initially he was the brightest spark, a trailblazer that helped English football generally broaden its horizons. His move to Germany as a 17-year-old from Manchester City six years ago broke new ground; even at such a tender age, while training under Pep Guardiola, he wasn’t settling for the slow path. He wanted to hasten his development and was willing to look further afield than the perceived boundaries that previously existed.
The manner of his adaptation to the Bundesliga only served to vindicate his decision to dive into unknown. Dortmund are known the world over for nurturing the best young talents to fulfil their potential. Sancho’s first season as a regular in the team, after a year in the youth system with former Huddersfield Town boss Jan Siewert before his move to England, yielded 12 goals and 14 assists in 34 league matches. Things only got better a year later when he scored 17 goals and created a further 18. It was then that Manchester United first made their interest known and the beginning of a year-long chase.
By the time he left, Jude Bellingham had arrived from Birmingham City and followed in his lead. Erling Haaland, too, had joined; both have since departed for Real Madrid and Manchester City respectively and are unequivocally among the best players on the planet. Bellingham is the main man for England now, the talisman man thought Sancho would be. So why haven’t things gone so well for him?
There are two sides to this story. Manchester United may take a similar line to Ten Hag, who publicly called Sancho out for his poor attitude to training after defeat to Arsenal in August. Sancho, in turn, took to social media to refute that claim. Public fallouts between players and managers are not uncommon, and the lesson here has to be, regardless of which side you fall on, that airing dirty laundry in public is never a good idea.
Predictably, the pundit discourse has lacked nuance. Sancho should be made to apologise, say a good number of former professionals. If Sir Alex Ferguson were still in charge, Sancho would be long gone, is another hot take. But he is a player who has spoken about mental health problems in the past, and he is far from the only big name, big money signing who has regressed in what has become an ingrained culture of failure at Old Trafford.
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brought him to the club in 2021 for £73m, it was assumed he would break the mould. Manchester United’s recruitment was a consistent thorn in the side of any progress the team made; they were obsessed with buying superstars who had their best days behind them. But Sancho fit the profile of Ferguson’s era; youth, energy, talent and all the opportunity to improve.
But that played into what has been a difficult time at the 20-time English champions. Frustrations with their performances, stemming from a desire for a change of ownership, have resulted in patience wearing thin. He may not have covered himself in glory, but eyes were on him from the start and nobody has been particularly forgiving of his inability to recreate his form from Germany in the Premier League.
With that being said, his England career hasn’t got off the ground at all. Even at the height of his Dortmund days, Gareth Southgate didn’t fully trust him; while Southgate has been consistently criticised for selections, there could be an argument that he was ahead of the curve regarding Sancho. Again, though, he was front and centre in a negative sense after missing a penalty in the Euro 2020 final against Italy. That should be remembered when deciding whether he needs backing or discarding.
However Sancho is viewed, there can be no denying the shame that he is currently not shining on the pitch. Manchester United have had all sorts of problems with creating and scoring goals, with other forward players out of form or unavailable. England are without both Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka; they need someone with pace and trickery to unlock defences. This was an ideal time for Sancho to find his feet again.
The retirement of Eden Hazard this week at the age of 32, just four years after he left Chelsea for Real Madrid expecting to make a huge impact at the Santiago Bernabéu, serves as a reminder that drops in form can be irreversible.
Sancho’s talent is too good to waste. With England in action again, now is a good time to reflect on what is at stake as the narrative continues to swirl around him.