Why Jadon Sancho will become England's key player
With more assists than the likes of Lionel Messi, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard since the start of 2018/19 and still a good seven or eight years from hitting peak age for a footballer, Borussia Dortmund teenager Jadon Sancho could star for England for an entire generation.
Taking into account the average age of all 21 FIFA World Cup-winning teams from 1930 through to 2018, 27 years and five months is prime time for a player at the finals.
Born in March 2000, Sancho will be 26 at the 2026 World Cup to be co-hosted by the USA, Canada and Mexico. Prior to that, he will - barring the usual caveats - be part of Gareth Southgate’s squad at the UEFA Euro 2020 finals and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Post-2026, the Londoner could conceivably play in at least another two major international tournaments.
John Barnes, England’s last great conjuror, was 22 when he got his first taste of top-level international competition at the 1986 World Cup.
He was 27 when Bobby Robson’s side reached the semi-finals at Italia 90; 29 during his country’s ill-fated 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign; and earned his valedictory 79th senior international cap at 31.
Barnes made his England debut at 19; Sancho won his first cap at 18 in the October 2018 UEFA Nations League qualifier against Croatia, and went into the November 2019 international break with 10 under his belt. It took Barnes almost 18 months to reach the same figure. Wayne Rooney needed a full calendar year.
Barnes opened his England account at the ninth time of asking; Rooney on his sixth appearance. Sancho scored his first England goal on his eighth senior international outing, but did so by grabbing a brace and chiming in with his third assist - the first of which had fallen in his second game, and first start, in a friendly win over the USA.
Needless to say, the precedent is there for a long and prosperous international career.
"Provided he doesn't become restricted, he could be our Neymar-type player – in terms of being unpredictable, playing [out wide]," Sancho's England U15 and U16 coach Dan Micciche told The Guardian during the early part of the 2018/19 Bundesliga campaign.
"He's flamboyant, entertaining to watch. But like Neymar he's effective with it. In most games he'll create something – it's not a beauty contest. He's not on the pitch flicking it over someone's head for the sake of it."
All style and even more substance, Sancho’s ball-juggling skills befitting a role in the Cirque du Soleil are indeed a means to an emphatic end. The former Watford and Manchester City youth player has made 71 first-team appearances since joining Dortmund in summer 2017, registering 18 goals and 27 assists.
Watch: All of Jadon Sancho's Bundesliga goals and assists in 2018/19!
The signs were then when he tore Bayer Leverkusen asunder with a goal and two assists on Matchday 31 of 2017/18 campaign, but those numbers were blown out of the water the following year as Sancho tallied 12 goals and a Bundesliga-leading 14 assists.
Only Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski had a direct hand in more goals league-wide (22 goals, 10 assists); Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t hit double figures for goals and assists until his fourth season of English Premier League football with Manchester United, aged 21.
Twenty-three Bundesliga appearances into 2019/20, Sancho still leads the way across Europe’s top five leagues in terms of raw provision over the past one-and-a-half seasons.
He’s the leading teenaged assist provider this term alone and - after coming off the bench to tee up Achraf Hakimi's winner against Borussia Mönchengladbach on Bundesliga Matchday 25 - the first Englishman to lay on 15 goals or more in one of the continent's foremost divisions since Frank Lampard tallied 18 in a Chelsea shirt in 2004/05.
The Londoner has also scored a career-best 14 times, including 11 in his last 14 Bundesliga outings. No player has had a direct hand in more Bundesliga goals this season. And to think that sections of the media were proclaiming a sophomore slump following his 36th-minute withdrawal in Dortmund’s chastening 4-0 defeat to title rivals Bayern Munich in Der Klassiker in early November 2019.
"Any young player is going to have ups and down," said England coach Southgate, after revealing how Sancho sought him out for "a 25-minute talk over his form" ahead of the Three Lions’ Euro 2020 qualifying clincher with Montenegro later that month.
"He's played a lot of football - physically he's a little bit fatigued. His club have kept playing him because he is a highly important player for them. It's an enormous challenge he's taken on to go to another country. There's the football, he's adapting to life and the language. He's done incredibly well."
And how! Sancho’s mushrooming talent has taken him from the wrong side of the grass ceiling at Manchester City to the pinnacle of the world game with Dortmund and England in under three years.
Football is no stranger to chewing up and spitting out mercurial young wide players, but the self-styled Marco Reus acolyte is a different breed. He has the head to match the feet, and take him over the threshold.
"Marco Reus keeps telling me that I need to keep working hard in training because someone can take your place at any time,' Sancho said of the career-guiding counsel he receives from Dortmund’s club captain.
"I really listen to that because I believe what he says. There’s always someone below you who wants to take your position. If you work hard week in and week out it makes it hard for them to get picked instead of you. Football’s very competitive and you can’t afford to slacken off."
As long as Sancho continues to read from the Reus book of Football for World-Beaters in Waiting, Dortmund and England will be onto a winner.
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