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The night Jadon Sancho reminded the world (and Manchester United) of his brilliance



Do you remember when Jadon Sancho was one of the most coveted players in Europe?

When Manchester United finally signed him in 2021 after one of the more tedious transfer sagas in recent memory, it appeared they had their wide attack sorted for a generation.

With the homegrown Marcus Rashford on the left and Jadon Sancho, who had completed his academy education at Manchester City before moving to Borussia Dortmund in 2017, on the right, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United appeared in position to fight for a first Premier League title since 2013.

Fifty-eight league appearances, nine goals, three head coaches, and a public row with Erik ten Hag later, Sancho was sent back to Dortmund on loan in January, with his career at the elite level in question. As United struggled, the once-heralded talent who could have signed for any of Europe’s best clubs became a symbol of their prolonged decline.

But if the Champions League semi-final first leg against Paris Saint-Germain is any indication, Sancho has returned to football’s top table.

(Boris Streubel/Getty Images)

“I could tell from his first few touches that he was confident,” said the former Manchester United and England midfielder Owen Hargreaves on TNT Sports, the British broadcaster of the Champions League. “His body language suggested that he believed. There is a big difference between just running at people and being arrogant. He had a bit of flair about him. This is what makes a flair player really good.”

Over the past three years, “arrogance” has not been used to describe Sancho positively. On Wednesday night, though, Sancho found the on-field confidence that prompted United to spend £73million ($91.5m in today’s rates) on him in 2021.

His first meaningful contribution was in the 12th minute when, after PSG left-back Nuno Mendes cut his initial attempted pass, he won the ball back and set Dortmund away on an attack.

With Mendes trying to dribble past him down the line, Sancho stuck a solid right leg out and, instead of putting the ball out of play, blocked his run and kept the ball live. After completing the tackle, he successfully repeated his intended pass towards Julian Brandt down the right wing. With Marcel Sabitzer darting into the box, Brandt hit a well-weighted pass into the former United loanee’s path, but Gianluigi Donnarumma saved his shot.

From there on in, Sancho’s performance was pure magic.

“He isn’t just a dribbler or someone who runs at people with pace, he’s a footballer,” said the former United defender Rio Ferdinand. “He wants to come in and play one-twos and be part of the game and the tempo of the game. What I saw today, and what all Man United fans and I have been waiting to see, was cage football Sancho. This is the kid who grew up in cages playing with arrogance and swagger.”

Against PSG, Sancho completed 12 dribbles — the most from any individual in a Champions League semi-final since Lionel Messi in 2008 against Manchester United. Within the first 30 minutes, he had completed seven, already the most of any player in a single knockout game this season.

In the first half, he combined with right-back Julian Ryerson and midfielder Brandt, who would frequently come over to Sancho’s side, to create overloads to exploit Mendes. As Sancho is not the quickest, having players with a high technical level available nearby is where he shows signs of that “cage-football” talent that made him look so promising during his first stint in Dortmund.

At United, Sancho struggled to find those combinations with his team-mates. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is an excellent one-on-one defender but can lack consistency in possession, and the transitional style often employed by Ten Hag can isolate Sancho from the midfield. Sancho performs best in a side that controls possession and follows orchestrated attacking patterns, but that does not mean he cannot find joy when isolated against a full-back.

An hour into the game, after receiving a pass from Ryerson, Sancho faced up Mendes on the right wing around 20 yards from the byline. Mendes, who struggled to deal with Sancho’s threat all evening, stuck his leg out early and Sancho skipped past his challenge and sprinted towards goal.

As he neared the byline, Sancho lifted his head and saw striker Niclas Fullkrug alone in the box, six yards away from goal. Sancho lifted a pass towards Fullkrug, who wasted a golden chance to extend Dortmund’s lead.

With quick feet and a burst of pace — something barely seen from Sancho in a United shirt — followed by an intelligent pass into a towering striker, you’d have been forgiven for feeling a sharp sense of deja vu. Except Erling Haaland, in that Dortmund team of a few years ago, would surely have scored.

That should have been the first of a hat-trick of assists, with Sancho creating two big chances within 20 seconds. Sancho threatens as much from central areas as he does out wide and for the first of this duo of chances, he found himself tucked in after receiving a knockdown from Brandt 30 yards from goal.

Brandt spun and headed directly towards the centre of the PSG goal behind defender Lucas Beraldo, who had attempted to pressure the ball. Sancho calmly passed the ball through Beraldo’s legs and into Brandt’s path. But despite being in an excellent goalscoring position, Brandt’s scuffed shot was blocked by the retreating Marquinhos.

Sancho then retrieved the loose ball on the edge of the box and played a cross for Marco Reus, who was unmarked around seven yards from goal.

However, Reus failed to time his jump and headed over the bar — another golden chance missed and another one created by Sancho.

“At United, we didn’t really see him commit people,” Hargreaves said. “Whether that was confidence or he wasn’t as fit. Jadon answered a lot of questions today. We might criticise him and say he’s not as consistent — (but) today, he outplayed every player on that pitch. And that’s against some of the best players in the world. That was really impressive from Jadon.”

Against PSG, Sancho reminded everyone why he is a special talent. While nobody can deny that he did not show the consistency required to succeed at United, inconsistency was equally prevalent there at both the boardroom and managerial levels.

Under Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS, there is a new dawn at Old Trafford. Perhaps Sancho, reinvigorated in an environment where he feels loved and appreciated, has earned a fresh start, too.

(Top photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

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