Why have England called up Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho?
Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho became the first player born this millennium to represent England when he featured in the Three Lions' UEFA Nations League match in Croatia. But what will the Dortmund prodigy bring to the team?
England boss Gareth Southgate joked his assistant, Steve Holland, had been to the Signal Iduna Park in disguise to see Sancho for himself, but the precocious 18-year-old is largely a mystery to football fans and opponents.
Let bundesliga.com unravel the riddle for you.
A big personality
"These are players that if you ask Pep [Guardiola] today he will tell you they can and will be first-team players at Manchester City," the English Premier League champions' chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak told The Guardian in May 2017. There were three players in question — Phil Foden, Brahim Diaz and, naturally, Sancho.
It did not take the razor-sharp perceptive eye of the former Bayern Munich coach to spot Sancho's talent — you don't play for City, Dortmund and potentially England without that immediately standing out from a young age — but the London-born youngster's attitude has also shone through from the off.
If you can get on the good side of the Yellow Wall by turning Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League games for your club at just 18, you have those precious footballing commodities of talent and character that mean you can also potentially do it on a rainy October night in Rijeka or Seville (if it ever rains anywhere but on the plain in Spain).
Peter Stoger was not convinced. "Always making mistakes and not enough end-product," was the Austrian's succinct and damning appraisal of Sancho last season. Lucien Favre, whose faith in youth dates back to his successful FC Zürich reign, has tweaked his young charge to put him on the right track.
"Sometimes the coach says: 'Let the ball go earlier," explained Sancho, while Favre also admits, "I like it when they take a risk with the ball at their feet." The combination of the pupil heeding the master's words and bolstered by his mentor's faith in him has been explosively successful. When you have provided more assists than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, you must be doing something right.
Sancho's stats this season are nothing short of sensational for an experienced performer, never mind a youngster who is — in theory — still learning his trade. His six assists have come from just 10 appearances. Highlight the fact there has just been four starts among those games, and the jaw drops lower still.
"When our opponents ease off a little and Jadon comes into the game, he's a weapon for us every single time," Dortmund captain Marco Reus said after the 7-0 thrashing of Nuremberg, in which Sancho scored one and set up another for Julian Weigl in a devastating Matchday 5 cameo. "We're happy to have him up our sleeve and he always gives us a boost."
Favre's intelligent, protective use of Sancho this season has been matched by the cleverness his English trump card has demonstrated in his play, showing a marked progression on last season, notably in delivering the end-product Herr Stöger was lacking.
While his pass completion is up from 84 percent to nearly 86 — an impressive rise in itself when you consider he operates in the suffocating climate of the final third — his ratio of teeing up one shot every 11 minutes, rather than one every 31 last season, is a dramatic improvement. According to Favre, there are "still some details to be corrected." Hear that? It's the sound of Dortmund fans rubbing their hands with glee.
A viable alternative
"Provided he doesn't become restricted, he could be our Neymar-type player – in terms of being unpredictable, playing on that left-hand side," said Dan Micciche, who coached Sancho at U15 and U16 level for England.
"Of course we have certain solutions that we also work on in training, but in games you decide instinctively," added Reus after seeing Sancho and Jacob Bruun Larsen — aged a relatively senior 20 — bring Bayer Leverkusen to their knees on Matchday 6. "If you have street footballers like Jadon and Jacob then it's really fun."
"I didn't know where he was playing because he would pick the ball up from the goalkeeper and dribble past four or five players," said former City, Newcastle United, Liverpool and Wales forward Craig Bellamy after seeing Sancho play for City's youth teams. "He was that good."
Watch: Jadon Sancho was the catalyst for a stunning comeback win at Leverkusen
Sancho's place in the Dortmund is more defined now — an out-and-out defender, he is not — but he has not lost the ability to be effective across the pitch, featuring on either flank and even through the middle in Favre's preferred 4-2-3-1.
Southgate's favours lie with a 3-5-2 formation, which he used to such positive effect in reaching the FIFA World Cup semi-finals. With the width provided by full-backs such as Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier, Sancho is unlikely to be given a game in that position.
But for one of the creative roles behind Harry Kane, Sancho is a genuine challenger. Current occupants Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard will surely be watching their new teammate's progress in training with the national team. And when he's on the ball, keeping their legs firmly shut.
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