It was always going to be an uphill struggle for Jadon Sancho to prove his worth to Manchester United in his first season at the club. The England international had been the club’s top transfer target for over 18 months when he eventually signed in the summer transfer window of 2021, with his signature viewed as the missing piece of the jigsaw by many.
United might be hampered by revisionism now, but they had just finished second in the Premier League and strengthened an impressive squad with their £73m right winger, World Cup winner Raphael Varane and the greatest scorer in the history of the men’s game in Cristiano Ronaldo.
With the help of hindsight, it is easy to see why things didn’t work out, though. The previous season had been a false gauge of progress given the training ground environment of most matches. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was limited tactically as a manager, and their impromptu pursuit of Ronaldo saw them ditch months of progress to adopt a style of play that didn’t fit the wider personnel.
Sancho’s slow start wasn’t made any easier when Solskjaer was sacked last November, with the entire environment at the club not exactly conducive to getting the best out of a new signing who was still learning his trade.
That is another key point. As an England international, it was easy to forget Sancho hadn’t ever actually played in the Premier League before, and he needed the same settling-in period as most other wingers from rival European leagues.
“He will be fine,” Roy Keane insisted almost a year ago to the day. “He’s been at the club less than two months. There’s been a lot of changes and new players have come to the club. Give the kid a break. Give him a chance. He is still learning his trade and is still a young player. There are big expectations. He has come to the club and he certainly won’t be the star man; he will be down in the pecking order. He has still got to adapt.”
Sancho had gone from an environment at Dortmund where he was a star player with nothing to lose; each goal and assist was another reminder for those who had ever doubted him in England. But, having moved to United, he was now the star player who was yet to prove himself in the Premier League and one who had to deal with the pressure of a price-tag and the expectation that followed it.
It was the first time the 22-year-old had ever doubted his own abilities, and there were a lot of tough moments when he had to take a step back and think about how he was going to adapt his game to work at an elite level he’d never experienced before.
By the start of this year, Sancho was getting better in a United shirt and was coming to terms with the physicality and different demands of top-flight English football, though plans to utilise him on the right were shelved, with him moved permanently to the left wing role where he had shone at Dortmund.
Two assists in a 4-2 win at Leeds were followed up with a stunning goal in a derby defeat to Man City and an assist in a 3-2 victory over Tottenham the following week, before his and United’s seasons came trudging to a disappointing end in the final weeks as Sancho was sidelined through tonsillitis.
A new season brought with it a new start and, in turn, a fresh slate for Sancho under the watchful eye of Erik ten Hag. It was exactly what he needed to kickstart his Old Trafford career.
Sancho played a key role as part of a fluid forward line in pre-season and has carried that form into the new campaign. He has three goals in eight matches this season. It had taken him 24 games to do that last season.
“He understands now he has to invest in the physical and that is what he did and now he can get the reward and that is what he has to bring. I’m sure it’s the start for him,” Ten Hag said of Sancho earlier in the month.
“With his potential, there’s much more room for improvement. He can be even more important and contribute with his creativity and scoring goals and assists. With the defending part, he can be ev