Sancho at Man Utd: Right or left winger? Or a liberator for Fernandes?

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July 24, 2021
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    Sancho, Cavani, Rashford & MartialWhere will Sancho fit in among Manchester United's attacking options?

    One of Europe's longest-running transfer sagas has finally reached its conclusion, with Jadon Sancho completing a £73m move from Borussia Dortmund to Manchester United.

    After the German side rebuffed their attempts to sign him last summer, United's gaze did not shift.

    Instead of signing an alternative, they chose to wait another 12 months to complete the deal and United clearly view Sancho as the ideal fit to improve their squad.

    So where exactly could he slot into this United team? The 21-year-old's time at Dortmund, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's approach at Old Trafford, could offer some clues.

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    Fast progress at Dortmund

    It was evident from Sancho's first season at Dortmund – after arriving from Manchester City in 2017 – that his incredibly-mature decision-making in the final third separated him from other teenage attacking talents.

    A combination of injuries and the Bundesliga outfit drip-feeding him minutes, meant he only started seven games in his first campaign, but his figures have flourished since then, averaging a goal or assist every 83 minutes last season.

    Sancho at Dortmund
    Season Minutes Goals Assists Minutes per goal or assist
    2017-18 1,400 5 7 117
    2018-19 2,967 13 20 90
    2019-20 3,274 20 20 82
    2020-21 2,974 16 20 83
    Stats from all competitions

    Moving in from the right and left

    Sancho has been successfully deployed in both wide right and left roles – predominantly in a 4-2-3-1 system – during the four seasons at Dortmund.

    Interestingly, his scoring rate is significantly higher when playing on the left wing, often owing to the fact he can cut inside onto his stronger right foot.

    Sancho may not be lightning quick, but the intelligence of his movement infield and runs in behind defences from wide left areas, combined with his excellent close-control dribbling, regularly gets him into goalscoring positions.

    Sancho – goals on left wing v right wing
    Starting position Minutes Goals Minutes per goal xG per 90 minutes
    Right wing 5,265 24 219 0.26
    Left wing 3,099 20 155 0.43
    Stats from all competitions, aside from xG per 90 which is league only. xG = expected goals from quality of chances presented.

    Sancho's game as a right winger is naturally more focused towards functioning as a creator, by playing on the flank of his stronger foot.

    The England international generally makes more vertical runs in wider areas than when he's playing on the left.

    Once again, his well-timed movement allows him to exploit gaps in behind opposition left-backs and his dribbling ability means he can escape covering centre-backs who subsequently get dragged out wide.

    Rather than simply whipping crosses into areas, Sancho is more likely to try to pick out team-mates with cut-backs or balls into the box.

    An increasing creativity

    Ex-Dortmund manager Lucien Favre's use of a 3-4-3 formation, coupled with Erling Braut Haaland's arrival at Dortmund in January 2020, has also helped develop Sancho's playmaking abilities.

    With the wing-backs providing the width in the system, he has learnt to drift into more central zones to create chances, particularly to utilise the blistering speed of Haaland's runs in behind defences.

    Sancho made 82 passes into the penalty area in the Bundesliga last season – the highest in the division and 13 clear of anyone else, despite only starting 24 games because of injury.

    A delicate chipped assist to find Haaland's burst in last season's Champions League last-16 first-leg against Sevilla showed he can create against deeper defences – and not just the higher lines often seen in Germany's domestic competitions.

    Solskjaer's balancing act

    So, how can United make the most of Sancho's strengths?

    A problem area in Solskjaer's 4-2-3-1 system has been the identity of their right winger.

    Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Daniel James, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba have all played in that role, with none nailing down a regular spot there.

    Often, there is an imbalance with the location of United's forays forward. Last season they constructed the joint second-lowest percentage of attacks down the right side, while having the third highest percentage down the left.

    Graphic showing: In November's loss to Istanbul Basaksehir, Anthony Martial (9) and Marcus Rashford (10) had an almost identical average position in a left-central area, with Juan Mata (8) deeper and narrower on the right - 45% of United's attacks went down the left side and just 27% down the right sideIn November's loss to Istanbul Basaksehir, Anthony Martial (9) and Marcus Rashford (10) had an almost identical average position in a left-central area, with Juan Mata (8) deeper and narrower on the right – 45% of United's attacks went down the left side and just 27% down the right side

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    Rashford, Martial and even Pogba are all players who prefer attacking from the left side.

    Sancho's ability to function effectively on the right wing will prove invaluable.

    United's forwards and Bruno Fernandes, with his runs into the box from a number 10 role, are likely to benefit from the quality crosses and cut-backs that Sancho will provide from that side.

    Deploying him there should also free up Greenwood to gain more experience in his natural position as a central striker, especially given the 34-year-old Edinson Cavani's playing load could need careful management – after he only started 13 Premier League games last season.

    Graphic showing how United could line up with Cavani/Greenwood up front with Rashford/Martial on the left, Sancho on the right and Fernandes behindCould this be Solskjaer's best forward combination?

    However, with Rashford possibly ruled out for about 12 weeks if he undergoes surgery for a shoulder problem, Sancho could deputise on the left wing at the start of the campaign.

    With Luke Shaw overlapping down that side, it could enhance Sancho's scoring threat by creating more space for him to cut inside.

    And the former Watford youngster has displayed an ability to dovetail with fast-raiding full-backs, linking well with Achraf Hakimi and Raphael Guerreiro for 18 goals during his Dortmund career.

    xA (expected assists) – Sancho v Fernandes
    2019-20 2020-21
    Fernandes 0.20 0.33
    Sancho 0.45 0.36
    Stats from league only – xA = number of chances created that would expect to lead to goals

    Sancho's assists record could also relieve the burden on Fernandes to act as United's primary creator and allow the Portuguese to occupy more advanced areas – and perhaps score more than his nine non-penalty league goals last season.

    The average positions in the 2021 Europa League final against Villareal show how Fernandes (18) is often asked to play in deeper areas to act as United's creatorThe average positions in the 2021 Europa League final against Villareal show how Fernandes (18) is often asked to play in deeper areas to act as United's creator

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    Sancho's arrival provides an immediate solution to United's right-wing dilemma, allows Solskjaer more flexibility in how to best use his other attacking players and, at 21, the club could have secured a player who will be a key fixture in their frontline for many years to come.

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