“We think his qualities will fit right in here.” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s choice of word was probably coincidental but it felt inadvertently revealing. Jadon Sancho feels the right man for Manchester United, because of his capacity to excel on the right.
It is possible to produce a positional map of where the £73 million recruit appeared for Borussia Dortmund, showing he offers an option as a No. 10 or even a centre forward and that he has spent plenty of time on the left. And yet a versatile, multi-dimensional footballer with the skillset to flourish across the forward line is in effect signed for a single role at Old Trafford. There may be the occasional bespoke tactical plan or emergency that takes Sancho elsewhere but in some senses, he is the 21st century Andrei Kanchelskis, the speedster signed to star on the right.
Sancho will be charged with rendering United less lopsided. Their squad is tilted to one side. Marcus Rashford is better on the left than the right. So is Paul Pogba. So is Anthony Martial. So is Daniel James, even though he far more of his time at United has been spent on his less-favoured flank.
So, too, is Jesse Lingard, whose United career may be resuscitated even though Bruno Fernandes is installed as the resident No. 10. None is a touchline-hugging left winger and in several cases, their preferred position is not on either flank, but most might deem the job on the right the graveyard shift.
Only the declining, increasingly irrelevant Juan Mata and the emerging Mason Greenwood have preferred right to left and the teenager’s future may well be as a striker; Sancho’s signing could hasten that move into the middle. Now with Amad Diallo, who has stated his favourite position is on the right wing, United may have two specialists for what was a problem position.
Sancho’s arrival is a belated move to rectify an imbalance in their squad that was accelerated by the signing of Alexis Sanchez. It proved a disastrous decision for many a reason, but one was the composition of the attack. Out when Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who had a Sancho-esque ability to operate on either flank. In came the Chilean, whose distinct preference for the left came at a cost to Rashford and Martial when they found themselves benched or shifted out of position.
The style of play has reflected players’ positional choices. The majority of teams are slanted more to the left when attacking, but United have been more one-sided than most. They last attacked more on the right in 2014-15, when Mata had arguably his finest season at Old Trafford and Antonio Valencia could bomb forward from full-back.
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But last season United were, according to WhoScored statistics, the third most lopsided team in the Premier League. Most of their high-speed breaks were concentrated on one side. Some 42 per cent of their attacks came on the left, only 33 per cent on the right (that the two who were more skewed to the left were Aston Villa and Crystal Palace speaks of the influence of Jack Grealish and Wilfried Zaha respectively). Nor was it a one-off: those figures were 41-35 for 2019-20 and 42-31 for 2018-19. They can be seen as the Solskjaer era, the Pogba-Martial-Rashford years, or the post-Mkhitaryan time.
There is a further factor. Luke Shaw won United’s Players’ Player of the Year in two of those three seasons; perhaps fortunately in 2018-19 but he was outstanding last season. His emergence into a world-class full-back created a more compelling double act on the left, whoever the winger was.
On the right, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a lesser crosser and a player his teammates can feel reluctant to trust with the ball, rendering some of his runs decoy bursts. There has often been the sense that the opposition right-back has had to excel against United, but that this left-sided counterpart is not as thoroughly tested.
No more, perhaps. Sancho may be charged with becoming United’s version of the weight that gives a scale balance. By opening up the full width of the pitch to broaden their threat, he could increase it.
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