Enter Manchester United’s flagship signing, the new winger who could propel them to another level.
No, not that one. Jadon Sancho’s first start for his new club was a curious affair. He was overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo, even when the real Ronaldo was in Portugal and a cardboard version in the Molineux stands, and outshone on the pitch by Adama Traore, the other left winger.
Perhaps Ronaldo’s arrival has already served as a boon to Sancho. With attention focused on the older man, the pressure has been taken off United’s £73 million signing. In a world where Ronaldo was happily ensconced in Turin, maybe Sancho would have been criticised for an ineffectual showing at Wolves on Sunday. There could be other benefits: there should be few better tutors. At 21, Ronaldo began his dash to world domination. Indeed, at 21, Sancho has scored more goals than Ronaldo had at the same age.
As it is, Ronaldo has contrived to camouflage the underwhelming start to Sancho’s life at Old Trafford. A forgettable cameo against Leeds mattered little because United were already 5-1 up. An undistinguished half-hour at Southampton was a little more inauspicious. The most memorable moment of Sancho’s full debut was when his poor touch led to a chance for Joao Moutinho.
But the most notable element may have been his station. Sancho began on the left wing, just as he came on there against Leeds. That would be the same position from which Paul Pogba had conjured five assists in two games, in which Marcus Rashford has produced the best sustained form of his United career and where Anthony Martial can also operate. It is the role Ronaldo long occupied for Real Madrid and, while Solskjaer suggested on Sunday that he sees the veteran more as a centre-forward now, he stressed his versatility and there are hints from Italy that the Portuguese wanted to play on the left for Juventus. It is, in short, the department where United have most strength in depth and greatest competition for places, without even mentioning Daniel James or Jesse Lingard.
And the position – in attack, anyway – where they have fewest compelling options has been on the right. While Sancho’s appearances for Borussia Dortmund were split between either flank, along with a few in the middle, the assumption was that United had bought him to ply his trade largely on the right; to be Ronaldo’s belated successor. Instead, that flank was manned at Molineux, just as it had been against Leeds, by James – a player who has now left.
Perhaps there was a bespoke tactical strategy – certainly the Welshman had flourished in last season’s 6-2 win over Leeds – but it felt odd on Sunday. If Sancho is to be eased into the team, it feels logical to put him in the position where there is a vacancy. It is no secret that each of Pogba, Rashford and Martial is less comfortable on the right than the left. Only Mason Greenwood of the premier players prefers right to left and he may be better still as the striker, even if he might be relegated from that position by Ronaldo.
Maybe Pogba’s deeper berth at Molineux will be a sign of things to come but on form, he is the most compelling choice on the left. Maybe Sancho’s early appearances will be deceptive, both terms of his impact and his position but the reality he was United’s prime target last summer. That suggests there is a long-term plan of how and where to use him.
While first impressions can be famously deceptive – Ronaldo’s 2003 debut against Bolton came on the left and he spent much of the six years on the right – it looked as though Solskjaer long coveted Sancho, and then picked him in a position where he was already overloaded with alternatives. That inauspicious start has made him look United’s third-best left winger, when really he ought to be their outstanding right winger.
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