No longer a prospect, now a game-changer. Borussia Dortmund’s No.7 has the world at his feet.
Joe. H. Harman writes about England‘s assist machine, his rise in the Bundesliga and where his future may lie.
Jadon Sancho is currently the only player to feature in the top 75 assist makers in the history of the Bundesliga, who only has four digits next to his total minutes. You are not supposed to make 45 assists in 7472 minutes, especially when those minutes come in the early years of a career, in a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language, and you’re still a teenager.
It is possible that the mercurial, fleet-footed, wide forward will move this summer. Perhaps back to England where his journey began. If he does, then the Premier League will have another assist king to rival the hegemony of current top dog, Kevin de Bruyne.
Four years ago, all the talk was of a young Manchester City protege who shunned the prospect of remaining on the fringes of the City squad despite having Pep Guardiola at the helm, to join Borussia Dortmund. Aged 17, Jadon Sancho would very quickly be promoted to the 1st team and finish the 2017/18 season with one goal and four assists from 690 minutes. In that maiden season, he averaged 5.00 shot creating actions and 0.79 goal creating actions. With this small sample size, arguments could be made that this wasn’t a true measure for Sancho’s ability and further proof would be needed.
It now appears that Sancho thrives when having to prove himself. Moving to a boarding school aged 11 so he could continue his training with Watford, Sancho’s sole thought during these formative years was to excel in the thing he loved. So much so, that aged 14 he would tell a coach at Watford that he’d one day play for England.
As word spread, Manchester CIty were able to flex their academy muscle utilising the EPPP set-up paying £172,000 to secure one of the hottest talents in England. And that should have been the story. Sancho moves to City to play alongside a lad from Stockport called Phil and together they would rule the world under the tutelage of their jedi master, Pep Guardiola. Only Sancho was a player that had no desire to wait on the sidelines for his time. When assurances regarding playing time left Sancho unconvinced about his prospects at CIty, he was bold enough to take a huge leap of faith.
The world of football knows there are a clutch of clubs who have their finger firmly on the pulse when it comes to nurturing talent; Ajax of The Netherlands, Lille of France, Leicester of England are just a few who understand and value the complexities of working with young footballers. Borussia Dortmund sit in this category and when Michael Zorc (Dortmund’s famed Sporting Director) tabled an £8 million bid for the City youngster, minds were quickly made up.
Sancho’s arrival at Dortmund sent shockwaves across British football, as never before had our youth players been so coveted by European clubs. Sancho’s transfer, arguably, set the template for all players that have come after him and signalled for the first time that young, English footballers were being viewed through a different, more positive prism.
There are perhaps few places better for young players to thrive than Borussia Dortmund. Just ask Jude Bellingham, who seems to have taken the leap from Birmingham to the Ruhr Valley in his stride. While most players take time to bed in, Sancho’s playing style and approach didn’t seem to fit with that premise. Neither did his figures, with his first full season yielding 12 goals and 14 assists. Even more impressive is to think he actually under-performed, with his G+A per90 at 0.65 and his expected figures being at 0.70.
The 18/19 season saw Sancho not start for Dortmund till week 7 and in spite of this had already notched up five assists and one goal. To give a wider context to Sancho’s brilliance, in that season across Europe the standout performers for assists and goal creating actions (GCA) were Leo Messi, Hakim Ziyech, Neymar, Eden Hazard and Jadon Sancho, with the former Watford youth sitting nicely between Messi and Neymar for GCA per 90 (1.21). Put simply, Sancho would ensure a over a single goal-scoring opportunity each match.
Sancho’s achievements should also be considered alongside the ever changing makeup of the Dortmund squad, as the very nature of the club is to discover talent, improve it and sell it on. Often this isn’t optional with the behemoth of Bayern Munich plucking the most prized gems such as Lewandowski, Goetze and Hummels, at a whim. Alongside this, the churn of personnel has not been restricted to players with Peter Bosz, Peter Stoger, Lucien Favre and Edin Terzic all taking the reins at some point during Sancho’s time at the club.
From an attacking perspective, only Marco Reus remains from the initial squad that Sancho joined four years ago, with the likes of Schurrle, Alacer, Pulisic, Goetze, Kagawa and Batshuayi all passing through the Westfalenstadion.
The fact that Sancho has been able to maintain double figures for both goals and assists without the certainty and continuity that often exists in the most successful teams, is another feather in his cap.
In the January of 2020, amid a backdrop of Covid-19, everything changed for Borussia Dortmund as they benefitted from their strong relationship with RB Salzburg to secure the signing of Erling Braut Haaland, arguably the most formidable, young forward in world football. The Norweign’s arrival also gave Sancho the focal point for his attacking prowess like never before, as their combination play and intuition made it appear that they had played together for seasons. Despite Haaland joining midway through the season, his overall effect on the team and on Sancho is swiftly becoming stuff of legend. Between them, since Sancho assisted Haaland’s first Bundesliga goal, collectively they have amassed 63 goals and 35 assists in the Bundesliga, with Sancho acting provider for around 30% of Haaland’s goals this season.
Sancho’s unique talent is that he is a combination of elite technical skill and selflessness. His decision-making is the reason he has consistently proven his assist capabilities and is evident in his in-game actions. Whilst many players can find themselves consumed by skill, Sancho wields it like a wizened sushi chef. The intent with every 1v1 duel is to ensure a gainful outcome for his team. His confidence in his abilities with the ball at his feet are confirmed in the fact that he hasn’t been outside the top 10 for dribbles attempted in the top five leagues in Europe since he start his first full season at Dortmund.
Often starting on the left of a three man attack, Sancho excels in the fluid approach of Dortmund’s attack where often the positions are interchangeable. As Marco Reus has returned to the fold, a front three of Sancho, Haaland and Reus is arguably the most potent combination with the likes of Gio Reyna, Thorgan Hazard and more recently Ansgar Knauff providing backup. He also has the benefit of the inexhaustible Rafael Gurrero forever providing both cover and overr-laps in defensive and attacking transitions, with the likes of Mamoud Dahoud (a seriously underrated player) adding overloads through midfield. This allows Sancho to have the dynamic support needed for Dortmund’s attack to function and something that Haaland thrives on, knowing that his teammate is usually within 10 metres and has already perceived the space where Haaland might run into.
The Next Step
If Jadon Sancho remains in the Bundesliga he’ll break the assist record by the time he is 28 years old. Bold statement, but Thomas Muller took 13 season to reach his total of 135A and there’s a few sub-ten seasons in there, and two seasons of 19A and 20A, so it wouldn’t necessarily be plain sailing but Sancho’s rate of 0.54 assists per 90 is now evident over four seasons at Dortmund. Nothing is going to change. This is Sancho.
The question mark over Sancho hangs only in the form of silverware. With the DFB Pokal Cup being secured against RB Leipzig earlier this month, Sancho proved himself capable of big moments, scoring two and assisting as Dortmund ran out 4-1 winners. But this and the DFL Suprcup are Sancho’s only club silverware to date, whilst in another realm, that lad from Stockport has bagged a fair haul so far and stands at the precipice of ultimate club success in the shape of the Champions League FInal. This is what Sancho must aim for to cement his position as a front-runner in this new-wave of hyper skilled footballers. If he is to move, there will be a flurry of clubs fighting to secure his signature and one thing is for sure;
That no matter what the occasion,what shirt or team; Sancho will bring grace, skill and quiet ruthlessness, and end the season with a double double.