Jadon Sancho is expected to return to Borussia Dortmund on loan from Manchester United after falling out with manager Erik ten Hag, with his career at Old Trafford looking doomed.
Or is it?
Once the setting of Jadon Sancho’s spectacular breakthrough, Borussia Dortmund and the Bundesliga look set to stage his attempted renaissance after a thoroughly underwhelming two and a half years at Manchester United.
Sancho’s time at Old Trafford has been mired by accusations of off-field unprofessionalism, inconsistent form on the pitch, a mysterious prolonged absence and a public falling out with manager Erik ten Hag, who banished him from the first-team picture earlier this season.
This exile imposed by Ten Hag is essentially the reason Sancho appears to be heading back to Germany, with the pair’s relationship seemingly broken beyond repair. The winger, a product of Manchester City’s academy, will return to Dortmund on loan until the end of the season, when there will likely be more questions asked of his future.
Sancho was excluded from Ten Hag’s squad in September and has not featured for the club since. The manager criticised his player’s training performances after leaving him out for the 3-1 defeat at Arsenal, but Sancho responded on social media, calling the comments “completely untrue” and claiming he had “been a scapegoat for a long time” in a post that was subsequently deleted.
United announced Sancho wouldn’t be training with the first team “pending resolution of a squad discipline issue”, with media reports at the time suggesting Ten Hag sought an apology before the player would be welcomed back – no such resolution was found.
Of course, Sancho returning to Dortmund will no doubt bring happier memories rushing back. It was with BVB that he developed into one of the world’s best young players over a four-year period after leaving City, taking the Bundesliga by storm.
It was his third campaign (2019-20) at Signal Iduna Park that lives longest in the memory, when he recorded 33 Bundesliga goal involvements (17 goals, 16 assists). That remains the only season in Opta records (2004-05 onwards) in which a player has recorded at least 15 goals and assists in Germany’s top tier.
Sancho was an often-dazzling presence in the Bundesliga. Part of some vibrant, youthful Dortmund sides, his ball-carrying ability coupled with excellent finishing and creative talents made him virtually the complete package in attack. Across the three seasons from August 2018 until June 2021, Sancho’s 77 non-penalty goal involvements saw him rank fifth across the top five European leagues, only behind Lionel Messi (122), Robert Lewandowski (99), Kylian Mbappé (90) and Karim Benzema (79).
Such productivity by the age of 21 meant Sancho’s potential looked frightening and United eventually succeeded in luring him back to Manchester in 2021 after chasing him for over two years, paying a reported £73 million for a player they hoped would help transform their fortunes after eight years of underachieving.
Since then, United have passed a whole decade without winning the title and this season look about as far away from challenging as ever before in the Premier League era.
Obviously this isn’t just down to Sancho, but his disappointing contribution feeds into the wider narrative of United’s underachievement and poor recruitment record in recent times. The fact is he’s not got close to expectations, managing only 15 non-penalty goal involvements in the Premier League for the club. For context, that’s the same as former United player Anthony Elanga, who’s played 680 fewer minutes than Sancho over the same period.
But it hasn’t all been bad. There were actually some positive signs in the second half of last season when Sancho returned from several months away from United to overcome “physical and mental” problems; he was back on the pitch at the start of February 2023, and between then and the end of the 2022-23 season, Sancho made some decent strides even if he wasn’t spectacular.
His 50 chances created in open play across all competitions in that time was second only to Bruno Fernandes (75) at United and 21 more than any other player (Casemiro, 29). Similarly, his 4.8 xG assisted – the xG value of shots set up by Sancho – in open play for the Premier League season was the second highest in the squad behind Fernandes (14.1) despite him missing a chunk of games. Admittedly, this point highlights how largely disappointing most of United’s creators were last term, but Sancho’s xG assisted figure saw him rank 24th in the entire league and the 23 ahead of him averaged 1,116 more minutes over the campaign.
There was still some frustration directed at him; there remained a perception he slowed play down too much, took too many touches and wasn’t direct enough, but considering his situation had been drastic enough that he and the club felt training in a separate environment for a few months was necessary earlier in the same season, it was a decent foundation to build on going into 2023-24.
Pre-season also brought with it some eye-catching moments, none more so than his emphatic finish during a 2-0 win over Arsenal, a game in which he generally looked sharp as the focal point in United’s attack. But he was then exclusively a substitute when the season started, and his outlook quickly became bleak with that reaction to Ten Hag’s comments.
But have we seen the last of Sancho in a Manchester United shirt? At this point, it’s difficult to jump to conclusions regarding almost anything at the club because of the upheaval they’re currently going through with Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS in the process of taking ownership of football operations after purchasing a 25% stake in the club.
There are likely to be many changes over the coming months once the Premier League approves the deal, which is expected to happen in February. Those will be personnel and structural changes, with the hiring of a bona fide sporting director likely to be a priority – and that could bring the future of Ten Hag into question.
United lost 14 games in all competitions this season before the turn of the year, their worst such record since the 1930-31 campaign. Ten Hag may have enjoyed a promising first term at the helm, but any credit from that has all but evaporated now and it’s by no means implausible to suggest he might not be in charge beyond the summer.
Given there appears to be a snowball’s chance in hell of Sancho playing again under Ten Hag, a change of manager looks to be the only realistic chance of reviving his United career – if he even wants to.
But just because he’s going back to familiar surroundings doesn’t necessarily mean Sancho will suddenly rediscover the kind of form he enjoyed in his first spell at Dortmund. His output at United has been well off what he produced beforehand in Germany; even if you account for the Bundesliga representing a slight drop-off in general quality, there’s no guarantee Sancho is anywhere near as fruitful as before.
At Dortmund, Sancho’s worst expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes over a full season (all competitions) was 0.29 and his worst xG (excluding penalties) per 90 over a full season was 0.25. Both figures are better than Sancho’s best records in the same metrics for United (0.23 xA and 0.22 xG, both in 2022-23).
He also averaged significantly more dribble attempts in Germany, and his 2.2 and 2.3 shots per 90 across his last two seasons at BVB are considerably higher than the 1.4 (2021-22) and 1.3 (2022-23) he’s registered at United.
As to the why Sancho’s never got near his Dortmund standards at United, that’s obviously difficult to conclusively pinpoint. Of course, his debut campaign was a turbulent one for the club; the manager who wanted him, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, was sacked after a few months and he was adapting to an entirely new league. The drop-off in his output might have been far greater than anyone expected, but there he was always likely to find the Premier League a little more difficult, particularly in a team that disappointed for most of the campaign.
It’s also worth noting that at Dortmund he spent the final year and a half playing in an attack with Erling Haaland, who not only possesses brilliant hold-up abilities that help bring his supporting cast into play, but his finishing talents turn half-chances into goals. Some might argue he can make creators look better than they are. Sure, Sancho played alongside Cristiano Ronaldo in 2021-22, but the Portugal great was nothing like Haaland and offered little to the wider team beyond his goals. Dortmund were a cohesive, fluid attacking unit while Sancho was there; United certainly weren’t that in 2021-22.
There won’t be a single specific reason behind Sancho’s struggles at United, though. It’ll be a myriad of issues that combined to create the perfect storm. He’ll hope the chance for a fresh start back at Dortmund clears the gloom, and if he does still want to be a success at Manchester United, he just needs to outlast Ten Hag.
But even if he does survive the United manager, Sancho has a long road ahead of him if he’s to fulfil the remarkable potential that’s become a mere flicker over the past two and a half years.