Jadon Sancho has lost confidence at Manchester United - Ralf Rangnick must find a way to restore it

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Jadon Sancho of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford on January 3, 2022 in Manchester, England. - GETTY IMAGES
Jadon Sancho of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford on January 3, 2022 in Manchester, England. - GETTY IMAGES

Ralf Rangnick will not be the only one who is worried. Gareth Southgate must look at the collapse in form of so many of Manchester United’s England players with a degree of concern. There are another 10 months before the World Cup finals kick-off in Qatar but, if Southgate had to pick his squad for the tournament now, most of United’s England contingent would be lucky to make the cut.

Marcus Rashford and Harry Maguire are in the worst form of their careers, Luke Shaw has picked up a little of late but is still nowhere near the levels of last season, Mason Greenwood is struggling with the best of them and goalkeeper Dean Henderson never plays. As for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, he would face a battle to make a list of the country’s top 10 right backs at the moment.

And then there is Jadon Sancho, who became the fourth most expensive signing in United’s history when he arrived for Borussia Dortmund for £73 million amid huge excitement last summer, but whose current plight was encapsulated last weekend when he was overlooked against Aston Villa for a teenager with 134 minutes of Premier League football to his name.

Anthony Elanga, let’s be clear, more than justified only the second league start of his Old Trafford career but his inclusion at Sancho’s expense, not least as Rashford and Cristiano Ronaldo were missing, underlined just what a torrid first six months it has been at Old Trafford for the former Manchester City winger.

Having scored 50 goals and claimed 64 assists in 137 appearances for Dortmund, Sancho has yet to set up a goal for United and found the net just twice across 23 games in all competitions. He has started only half of United’s 20 league matches and could be on the bench again against Brentford on Wednesday.

Rangnick has had about seven weeks now to survey Sancho at close quarters and it was interesting to hear United’s interim manager suggest on Tuesday that he felt the player’s struggles to take his high training standards into matches were mental as much as anything.

“I think it’s got a do with a lot of things up here in his head,” Rangnick said as he pointed a finger to each temple. “Whenever I see him train, he’s one of the best players in the sessions. Now it’s about the transfer to when he’s playing, showing the same kind of level and performance on the pitch.”

Rangnick pulled Sancho aside to convey that message in person at training on Sunday. Like the rest of United’s squad, Sancho also access to the sports psychologist Sascha Lense that Rangnick drafted in to try to help improve players’ state of mind. But, ultimately, the manager feels there is only so much talking one can do and that, as Ronaldo suggested last week amid his criticism of United’s mentality problem, the rest has to come from within the player. Sancho, Rangnick said, must find a way of coping with the pressure and scrutiny of playing for United.

Ralf Rangnick and Jadon Sancho. - PA
Ralf Rangnick and Jadon Sancho. - PA

“It’s a difference if you come as an [17-year-old], unknown talented English boy to Borussia Dortmund. From then on you can only improve, you can only make a success out of that,” Rangnick said. “The level of expectation was a lot lower compared to situation where you come at the age of [21] to a club like Manchester United for a high transfer fee, with a high level of expectation.

“Everyone expected from him that he would be one of the best players in the team. This is psychologically, emotionally a more challenging situation than the one at Dortmund and these are exactly the kind of steps that he has to make to become a top player for the next 10 years at this club.

“We can give guidelines, we can give him a helping hand and show him we are trying to accompany him on this way and give him all the necessary assistance that he needs but, in the end, it’s up to him to take the next steps.”

Of all the players he inherited at Old Trafford, Sancho is one to whom the German Rangnick has had greater visibility due to the 21-year-old’s four seasons in the Bundesliga with Dortmund. Yet, across almost every metric, Sancho is a shadow of his former self, not only in terms of his goals and assists output, which have fallen off a cliff.

Jadon Sancho. - GETTY IMAGES
Jadon Sancho. - GETTY IMAGES

Whereas he was attempting an average of 6.45 dribbles per game in the Bundesliga - the hallmark of his game - that is down to an average of four per match at United. He is creating far fewer chances and attempting far fewer shots, winning back possession far less in the final third and averaging over 12 fewer touches per game.

He alone is not to blame for that. Whereas Dortmund had a highly structured way of playing, United’s frequent changes of formation and personnel and dismal form have had a destabilising effect on a young player trying to find his feet in a highly competitive and physical new league.

When United signed Sancho principally to solve their long-standing issues on the right wing, despite his preference for the left, it was certainly not with a back three that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer briefly employed in mind or the 4-2-2-2 system that his replacement Rangnick introduced and has since appeared to abandon. Sancho is neither a wing back nor a No. 10. Add to that the dressing room unrest, low morale and uncertainty over the identity of the next manager and it has not been the environment Sancho would have hoped for. All the while, his confidence has plummeted.

“It’s clear in a 4-3-3 that he’s a player for either of the wing positions, left or right, he can play both,” Rangnick said. “I think he would prefer a little bit the left side, because then he can switch inside and shoot on goal with his strong right foot but, for me, there’s no questions about his position. He’s a winger, someone who can dribble fast with the ball.

“With those kind of players, with creative, offensive players, it’s all about confidence, being aware of how good they can be then showing it in front of 75,000 [at Old Trafford] or 45,000 at Villa Park. In the end, he has to do that, he has to take that step again.

“In most training sessions, he is training at a very high level and now it’s about letting that transfer onto the pitch. He has the ability to do that, there is no doubt about that. But we have to develop him into that kind of player.”

Analysis: Why can't Man Utd get the best out of Sancho?

By Daniel Zeqiri

Declining productivity

You only need to use your eyes to see Sancho's Manchester United career is stuck in the first gear, but the numbers also tell the story. Sancho was one of the most productive attackers in Europe at Borussia Dortmund, admittedly in the Bundesliga's second-best offensive force, but his output has trailed off.

Sancho has zero goals and one assist in 939 Premier League minutes. Comparing last season's league campaign with this, dribbles completed per 90 minutes are down from 3.3 to two; chances created per 90 are down from 2.9 to two while his expected goals per 90 has declined from 0.3 to 0.1

Lack of touches costing him

From match to match and within matches, Sancho has been an inconsistent presence for United. At Dortmund, the team was built around his and Erling Haaland's talents with Sancho fed the ball as much as possible.

In the Bundesliga last season, Sancho averaged 82.8 touches per 90 but just 62.7 for United this season. Risk-takers like Sancho need enough touches to make the inevitable failed dribbles, shots or passes an irrelevance with a decisive contribution. Unfortunately, it tends to be Bruno Fernandes who is granted this privilege at Old Trafford.

Did United know what they were buying?

The plan appeared to be for Sancho to fill the void on United's right flank. He certainly has the speed and dribbling capacity to play this role, but his time at Dortmund suggests using Sancho as a chalk-on-boots winger might be rather limiting.

As his touch map from last season shows, Sancho popped up across the final third for Dortmund, including in the areas you might expect a No 10 to operate. In 2019-20 when Sancho scored 17 league goals and provided 16 assists, Dortmund frequently used a 3-4-3 to maximise attacking wing-backs Raphael Guerreiro and Achraf Hakimi on the flanks. Sancho was much more of an inside forward than a winger, playing in the pockets of space we see Mason Mount or Kai Havertz occupying for Chelsea.

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