Opinion: Cool Sancho can be key in final months

Tuesday 21 March 2023 15:51

It's been a challenging sophomore season at United for Jadon Sancho, with the forward absent from October to the start of February due to fitness struggles.

But Sunday's 3-1 FA Cup win over Fulham was a timeless reminder of some of his outstanding qualities – and perhaps the surest sign yet that the playmaker is slowly finding his mojo again.
Sancho forced the decisive moment of a fractious match against the Cottagers, which led to the dismissal of two Fulham players and their manager, Marco Silva. He then slipped Luke Shaw in to cross for Marcel Sabitzer's maiden Reds goal, putting United ahead in the tie for the first time.
The Londoner is still searching for the blistering consistency he showed in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, but glimpses of his class are never far from the surface, and Marcus Rashford's recent career revival under Erik ten Hag should give Sancho massive encouragement for the remainder of this season and beyond.
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90 in 20: United v Fulham

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Other Reds may feel differently, but when a player turns up at Old Trafford I'm always trying to suss out their character. Many great players have signed for United and struggled to deliver under the pressure and scrutiny; for others, it takes years to get comfortable and find their best form.
But there's a coolness and a composure to Sancho, particularly in and around the penalty area, where others so often panic, that remains really convincing.
You could see it at the weekend, in the way he rounded Bernd Leno, dummied to send Harrison Reed sliding harmlessly away from the goal frame, before sending the ball into the near-open net.
Willian's handball denied Sancho his sixth goal of 2022/23, but arguably turned the game more decisively in United's favour, due to Fulham's over-the-top reaction to Chris Kavanagh's penalty decision.
But Sancho's nerve held, in another big pressure moment, when 70,000-plus were screaming at him to shoot for several seconds.
His brilliant effort against Liverpool last August was another famous example. It was the first goal scored by a United player under Erik ten Hag – our only one before that came courtesy of an own goal from Brighton's Alexis Mac Allister – and, again, was delivered under the highest, most intense pressure.

When the ball fell to him in the area, with Old Trafford pining to see our season get up and running, Sancho didn't blink. He sat James Milner on his backside, sent Alisson searching for a United Pie, and then simply slotted the ball into the empty corner of the net. Brilliant. Audacious.
We all love the blood-and-thunder United types – Nobby Stiles, Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney and many more – but there is also a lane for more rarefied talents. Footballers who have their own unique way of doing things.

Sancho reminds me of someone like Dimitar Berbatov. Occasionally, fans would grow frustrated with his languid, easy style of play. But looks can be deceiving – to both fans and opponents. At his best, Sancho's touches are delicate, his timing immaculate; he's capable of causing immense damage even with the slightest tickle of the ball.
Watch Sancho's six goal contributions in 2023 Video

Watch Sancho's six goal contributions in 2023

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Since his return, he's been involved in six United goals – scoring two (Leeds, Leicester), playing the 'pre-assist' (is that a thing?) pass for Fred's goal against Barcelona and Sabitzer's flick against Fulham, and also effective in the build-up to Fred's tap-in against Nottingham Forest, plus that aforementioned penalty on Sunday.
Still only 22, Sancho has not yet made the explosive impact made by Rashford, for example, this season, but time is on his side. And if the recent output of his fellow England international says anything, it's that world-beating form is never as far away as fans and commentators might think.
After Rashford's match-winning goal in the Manchester derby in January – his eighth strike in seven games – I remember bounding across the Stretford End bridge like thousands of others, grinning from ear to ear. As I got to Railway Road, I struck up a conversation with a friend of a friend, who admitted to me: I wanted Rashford sold last summer.
There were many more like him following the conclusion of that difficult 2021/22 season. Rashford had scored just five times in 32 appearances and dropped out of the England international set-up. But those that know the character of Marcus knew that it was just a blip. And even when he failed to find the net in the first two games under Ten Hag, the manager was unmoved. He knows I love him, is the comment that sticks out from those early-season press conferences.
All 44 Stretford End goals from ’22/23 Video

All 44 Stretford End goals from ’22/23

Ahead of United's return to Old Trafford, enjoy all 44 goals scored at the iconic Stretford End so far in 2022/23...

Ten Hag clearly rates Sancho, too. He is a brilliant footballer, cooed the Dutchman, after Sancho scored the equaliser against Leeds in February. He’s a brilliant footballer and, if he invests, and he is in the right levels, he can perform outstanding.
I think we now have a team who can dictate games and play more in an opponent’s half and he likes that. He can play in tight areas and he can make a difference.
With a potential 19 games remaining in this Herculean season, Sancho will get many more opportunities to show the decisiveness that broke Fulham. Under this manager, and in this team, that prospect should really excite United fans.
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.