Jadon Sancho has scored three goals and two assists in 13 games thus far this season. It represents – by his lofty standards – a subdued start to the 2020/21 season. It has led, for the first time in his career, to some sustained criticism. So what is going on?
Lucien Favre’s system or off-the-field distractions?
Sancho's boss Lucien Favre alluded to his struggles ahead of Dortmund’s Champions League encounter against Zenit Saint Petersburg two weeks ago, but also defended the player.
“You can't be in top shape for a year, no player in the world can do that,” Favre said ahead of the match that Dortmund would go on to win 2-0, adding: “Sometimes you are not at 100 percent for a month. That is normal."
The former Borussia Monchengladbach and Nice manager also referenced the potential impact of Sancho’s failed move to Manchester United over the summer, saying:
There was a lot of talk about Jadon in the summer, something like that can also have an influence.
The lull in performances have been stark, leading to some criticism of the England international. However, the roots of Sancho’s travails have their origin in a tactical tweak.
Small adjustment, big effect
This season Sancho is operating more centrally, with the arrival of marauding full-back Thomas Meunier impacting on the England international’s role within the team.
Dortmund began the season in a 3-4-2-1 shape with Sancho selected as one of the central two creators and Meunier wide. The Westfalenstadion side have since reverted to a 4-2-3-1, with Sancho nominally operating as wide of the attacking three but tucking in to allow space for the Belgian to drive from deep. Regardless of system, Sancho is operating from a more central position this season. It is an area in which he does not have a huge wealth of experience, and the move inside has left the once dynamic Sancho a little reticent.
A period of adjustment
Centrally Sancho is not afforded the time and space he has become accustomed to out wide. The England international excels in one-on-one situations, so a period of adjustment to the more congested areas centrally will be required. Sancho has tried to find solutions; frustrated by those congested areas, he has dropped deep to find space but has found those areas occupied by Favre’s deep-lying midfielders, whether that be Axel Witsel, Mahmoud Dahoud, Jude Bellingham or Thomas Delaney.
Dortmund coach Favre hails Sancho 'importance'
A long term positive?
Sancho’s form has dipped. However, a player of his talent, guile and intelligence will adapt, much the same way Marco Reus has done before him. While a new central role will offer less opportunities to take on opponents in one-on-one situations, Sancho will be more involved in overall play. His performance against Zenit St Petersburg in the Champions League two weeks ago – he was an unused substitute against Club Brugge – hinted at a promising future, where the England international was a consistent threat from central positions.
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Some of Jadon Sancho’s struggles with Dortmund this season have been attributed to off-field issues: a failed move to Manchester United to name one. However, a slight tactical adjustment has had a sizable impact on his performance level. Yet, long term, said tactical tweak could make Sancho a more effective player.