Borussia Dortmund may have missed out on the Bundesliga title in 2018/19 but they still enjoyed a superb campaign, and the Black-and-Yellows couldn't have pushed Bayern Munich so close without their outrageously talented English winger Jadon Sancho.
The days of referring to the 19-year-old as the "next big thing" or "BVB's rising star" are over, with Sancho now earning top billing as one of the Bundesliga's heavyweight performers.
Dortmund coach Lucien Favre appears to agree, having called on the teen wonder in all 34 of his side's Bundesliga assignments this term – more than any other player in the BVB squad. It's easy to forget that Sancho began the first six games on the bench, but it soon became clear that the team couldn't do without him, and he started 26 of their remaining 28 fixtures.
His sizeable contribution of 12 goals and 14 assists kept Dortmund in a rollercoaster title race until the very last day, although they were powerless to stop a free-scoring Bayern conquering their seventh straight Bundesliga crown with a 5-1 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt.
Watch: A tactical overview of Jadon Sancho!
"It's really difficult, we played really well today, obviously winning 2-0," Sancho explained to bundesliga.com, as BVB held up their end of the bargain on Matchday 34 by beating Borussia Mönchengladbach. "We did everything we could. Congrats to Bayern. We were just unlucky this season. Next season we're going to fight harder, and hopefully win it next time."
Fighting words from a player who has delivered more than one knockout blow in the German top flight this campaign. Sancho set the tone with an assist for Marco Reus in Dortmund's league opener, a 4-1 win over fellow UEFA Champions League qualifiers RB Leipzig. After replacing Christian Pulisic late in the second half, he needed just 13 minutes to make a decisive impact.
In a similar way to Paco Alcacer, Sancho began the campaign as a luxury substitute, an ace in the hole who always seemed to find a way to trump opposition defences. He showed great pace and technique to set up Marius Wolf in the 3-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt, before getting on the scoresheet himself in the 7-0 demolition of Nuremberg, even teeing up Julian Weigl for the final goal. Unlike Spanish striker Alcacer, however, the Englishman would soon become one of the first names on Favre's teamsheet.
It was the come-from-behind win at Bayer Leverkusen that tipped the scales definitively in the London native's favour, with Die Werkself feeling the full force of the Sancho effect. Barely a minute after replacing Pulisic, the Englishman raced the length of the pitch before combining with Reus for the equaliser. In stoppage time, he then picked out fellow super-sub Alcacer to put the result beyond all doubt at 4-2.
Watch: Dortmund went top of the pile after their superb comeback in Leverkusen
"I just had a bit more energy, you know," Sancho explained after lighting up the BayArena. "The rest were a bit tired and I came on to help the team. The coach keeps rotating so that's how strong this team is. Obviously, I don't want to be a sub – but if I keep on working hard hopefully I can get in the starting XI."
Sancho's plea did not fall on deaf ears. After those first six league outings of 2018/19, he had scored one goal and set up five more in just 124 minutes on the pitch – that meant he had had a hand in a goal every 21 minutes, and sat top of the Bundesliga and European assists charts. Little wonder Favre handed him a first start in the next outing against Augsburg.
Then still 18, Sancho grabbed the opportunity with both hands, adding another assist in the dramatic 4-3 win over Augsburg, scoring a third-minute opener in a one-sided romp against VfB Stuttgart, and grabbing his first Bundesliga brace in a 2-2 draw with Hertha Berlin.
"Everyone works hard for each other, that's the main thing in this team," he stressed, before giving some insight into his lofty ambitions. "If we keep on doing this then we've got a good chance of winning the league, or bigger things like the Champions League. You never know."
Indeed, in between his goal-scoring appearances against Stuttgart and Hertha, Sancho netted in Europe's elite club competition for the very first time as Dortmund claimed a headline-grabbing 4-0 win over Atletico Madrid. Favre's side ended up topping Champions League Group A ahead of the Spanish giants, but were knocked out by eventual finalists Tottenham in the round of 16. After an emotional return to London against Spurs, Sancho is no doubt relishing the prospect of tackling the competition again in 2019/2020.
Just as he was becoming a fully fledged starter with Dortmund, Sancho also made his first senior appearance for England, coming off the bench in a UEFA Nations League draw with Croatia in mid-October. A month later, he played the full 90 minutes in a friendly win over teammate Pulisic and the USA at Wembley, getting an assist for Trent Alexander-Arnold in the process. After another fine performance against the Czech Republic in UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying in March – and an assist for Raheem Sterling this time – he was recently called up to the Three Lions squad for the inaugural Nations League Finals in Portugal.
Dortmund were unable to hit the same dizzying heights of the Hinrunde during the second half of the campaign, which saw Bayern overturn a six-point deficit to win their seventh straight title by two points. But in spite of his tender years, Sancho demonstrated remarkable consistency throughout the campaign, only once going four games without at least a goal or an assist. By the end of the season, only Bundesliga top scorer Robert Lewandowski had had a hand in more goals for Bayern (29) than his BVB rival (26).
"It hasn't been easy, I've had to work for this," Sancho assured The Guardian. "Everyone around me is keeping me grounded and focused. I'm improving every day and Marco Reus, Mario Götze and Axel Witsel are great role models to me and everyone else in the team. It's really nice to have them around telling me what to do, and what's not good, helping me solve things I wouldn't solve by myself, so I'm happy."
It isn't just Sancho's raw numbers that make him such a valuable asset to Dortmund. The turbo-charged teenager could dribble his way out of a labyrinth blindfolded, and his willingness to take on opponents has added vital thrust to BVB's attacks, opening up space for the likes of Reus, Alcacer and Götze to exploit. He was by far and away the Bundesliga's most ambitious player in that respect this term, getting the better of his man with 108 of his 244 attempted dribbles – Gladbach's Thorgan Hazard was the next best with 81.
Watch: How Sancho is becoming world-class at Dortmund
Boasting remarkable footballing intelligence for his age, Sancho also has a natural sense of positioning and timing. While he usually lined up on the right wing this term, he often popped up in the right place at the right time more centrally to apply the finishing touch to a sweeping Dortmund move. And then there is the quality of his deliveries. Sancho 'only' provided 34 crosses in the Bundesliga this season – a far cry from the 157 whipped in by Frankfurt's Filip Kostic, or Joshua Kimmich's 104 for Bayern – and yet it was the Dortmund man who finished top of the assists charts, with 14 to Kimmich's 13 and Kostic's 10.
It has been a genuine coming-of-age campaign for a player who is now considered one of the very best the Bundesliga has to offer. Sancho's bold decision to join Dortmund instead of accepting a lucrative offer from Manchester City has paid rich dividends, and even before his 20th birthday he is already embracing his newfound status as a role model for youngsters back in his home city.
"For the kids that are in south London I hope I can give a positive message," he explained. "Don't do those bad things. You don't have to be footballers, you could focus on your school work. Education is the most important thing and a lot of kids in south London get distracted from education."
Sancho's own education in the Bundesliga has transformed him from a talented prospect into one of the hottest properties in world football, and the scary thing is that there is still plenty of room for improvement. There aren't too many English players who have prospered abroad, but Dortmund's new superstar is happily rewriting the history books, and there is no telling just how high he can fly.