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The drills to unlock a genius
Something's gone wrong for Jadon Sancho. Let's fix it on the training pitch.
Editor’s Note: This piece was written well before recent news concerning Jadon Sancho’s off-the-pitch tribulations surfaced this week.
We believe speculation over Sancho’s character to be deeply unfair and unprofessional - so about par for the British tabloid press. This piece discusses strictly on-the-pitch issues.
Jadon Sancho is good at football. After two hapless years at Manchester United, that can be hard to remember. The falloff between being the most exhilarating young winger in Europe and warming the bench at United is steep, but the man is still only 23.
As with all stories in football, the reality of Sancho’s decline is far more complex than it first appears. And as a coach, I’m interested in peeling back the layers of narrative to reach the truth - and using my own experience to suggest how to fix it.
So let’s diagnose Sancho’s struggles on the pitch at Old Trafford and suggest some personal coaching touches to get him back to his best - including some drills I use to unlock the potential of wingers in my day job.
What’s going wrong?
The difference between Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho and the iteration we’ve seen in Manchester is that the former was able to use his skillset in transitions more effectively because the team around him catered to it.
At Manchester United, Sancho receives the ball and tends to stop, killing his momentum to draw in a defender before accelerating away. This “stop-start” style of dribbling is not what he does best, nor is it what made him so successful for Dortmund.
Sancho does not have the pace or explosiveness to beat people with speed. Instead, his strength in transitions is best exhibited in his decision-making. At Dortmund, he was running onto passes and taking advantage of his excellent close control as the ball settled into his feet, rather than stopping to control it.
If I was coaching Sancho, this is what I’d encourage: he should frequently be allowed to carry the ball in moments of chaos, rather than stopping and standing up his defender. He’s at his best when he doesn’t have to sacrifice momentum - this maintains his unpredictability and allows him to breeze past defenders. During moments of uncertainty, an at-speed Sancho tears teams apart.
These moments can be forced by an attacking team in the form of artificial transitions: attempting to draw a press before exploding into the space left behind. United are very effective counter-attackers, but they’ve struggled to draw the press onto them for two reasons: David De Gea was not good enough to circulate possession in their half of the pitch; and many teams in the Premier League defer the ball to them and choose to sit in a low block instead.
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Therefore, Sancho is rarely receiving the ball at speed in Manchester. The data supports this:
In the last 365 days, Jadon Sancho has averaged 4.92 progressive carries and 9.26 progressive passes received per 90, as per FBRef.
His last season at Dortmund saw him average 4.97 progressive carries and 12 progressive passes received per 90. While the progressive carries are nearly identical, the progressive passes received are not, as per my maths.
This indicates that Sancho is not getting on the end of passes enough before being asked to carry the ball. To unlock the genius we saw at Dortmund, Sancho’s team needs to create these situations for him. So - how do we do that on the training pitch?
How to get Sancho into more space
Lure to one side, switch to the other.
When Sancho is asked to hold up the ball and wait for a half-space runner, he’s at the mercy of whoever is playing on his side. If the expected half-space runner is un-athletic and lacks creative or technical ability, it makes for wasted time on the ball.
Creating half-space or overlapping runners at Manchester United is a conversation for a different day. (It’s notable, though, that Dortmund had Hakimi and Bellingham running beyond him).
Instead, we should take advantage of what Sancho is already good at. Put simply, we need to get Sancho wide and in space so that he can receive and carry the ball forward.
When Sancho is carrying the ball in transition-like environments, his creativity takes control. With clever body faints and close touches, he’s able to bait pressures from defenders which creates passing lanes and space. This helps him make up for his lack of pace and feeds into his creative, almost playmaker-like style.
Below is an exercise designed to get Manchester United looking for the fastest possible switch to the flanks. This is designed to take advantage of either flank, so Sancho, Rashford or any wide player will benefit.
For a more match-realistic scenario, the defending team can leave one defender in the opposite half of the play area.
This progression allows for the attacking team to combine with whoever they leave in the opposite half, creating those half-space or overlapping runners we saw at Dortmund.
Key points not mentioned in the graphic are that Sancho, or any wide player for that matter, should take a heavy first touch into the direction they want to attack if they have the space for it.
By scanning, receiving and then breaking into a sprint followed by more heavy touches to lure defenders in, the attacking player has created an element of uncertainty - and the kind of chaos Sancho thrives in.
How to create an ‘artificial transition’
Play back to Onana, have him carry until pressed, find Sancho in behind.
This next exercise is made to prepare Manchester United for high-pressing opposition. Erik ten Hag has said he wants Manchester United to be one of the best transition teams in the world but current evidence suggests United are most effective when stealing the ball from their opponents, rather than crafting a transition themselves. This exercise does an excellent job of creating an artificial transition.
As discussed, getting a player like Jadon Sancho in a transitional situation is essential. By forcing the defending team to press high, United will look to take advantage of the space left behind.
The space behind the defending fullbacks is where Manchester United should target passes after the goalkeeper starts the move. A player like Sancho can take advantage of the space behind the dotted line, not because of his athleticism - which has been the subject of criticism since joining United - but due to his ability to carry during moments of chaos.
And in football, chaos can be crafted…
I’ve used this exercise myself with academy players, semi-professional players, and youth national team players. I can honestly say that it’s one of the most effective means of developing an instinctive reaction to breaking the first line of the press after a goal kick.
With the technical floor or his side ever improving, United players can and should be challenged to create these artificial transitions often in order to play to their strengths. Ten Hag is clearly trying to develop such instincts: against Arsenal last weekend, United circulated possession between Andre Onana and his centre-backs almost endlessly, looking for their opponents to crack and jump forward. But Mikel Arteta would not be baited, and United lacked the technical ability to play through the ensuing block.
As an aside, this drill is an excellent tool for training youth players at every level. Succeeding in chaos is a skill that will never go out of fashion. We’re living in an era of coaches obsessed with control - but when that control inevitably breaks, players like Sancho are invaluable.
Jadon Sancho should not be written off.
In fact, the Sancho we all adored at Dortmund is the kind of player who would perform well in the best transitional team in the world. Which, funnily enough, is exactly what Manchester United are aiming to be.
With the global technical floor rising every year, teams and their coaches are looking to create transitions on their terms, and United certainly need to if they want to claim the title of best in the world. What’s tragic about Sancho’s situation is that United now have the personnel to craft the kind of transitions he’d thrive in regularly, just as it seems to have fallen apart for him.
Many argue that total control or total chaos are the best strategies for success in football, with very little space for grey. But players are so good today you can comfortably have both. Regardless, it all starts on the training pitch - as it always has.