England couldn’t get going against Scotland. There were flashes of quality, but they proved few and far between. This is in many ways a better England side than the past, but we’ve seen this kind of performance before at major tournaments. Think of the draws against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup and Slovakia at Euro 2016, or the unconvincing win over Trinidad and Tobago in 2006. England traditionally have a sluggish group stage game in them.
What’s different is the options available to Gareth Southgate. Against Algeria, Fabio Capello brought on Shaun Wright-Phillips, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch in an attempt to break the deadlock. The big name who couldn’t get on was Joe Cole, long after his best years in a Chelsea shirt. This time, Southgate called upon Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford from the bench. The big name who couldn’t get on against Scotland? South London-born Borussia Dortmund superstar Jadon Sancho.
Since making the move to Germany, Sancho has been a phenomenon. In the past three seasons, he has 77 non-penalty goals and assists in the Bundesliga. To the shock of exactly no one, Robert Lewandowski has the most, with 99. But other than Lewandowski, no one has scored or assisted more often than Sancho. You think Thomas Muller is pretty good, right? He’d surely walk into the England team, yes? Well, Muller has 73 non-penalty goals and assists over the last three seasons. Sancho is outperforming him at club level.
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Sancho is an imaginative footballer. He grew up in housing estates surrounded by concrete, where the way to play football was in tight spaces. ‘Cage football’ was the preferred form of the sport, forcing him to develop skills for tight spaces and hard surfaces. “That boy knows his way around the cages, I can tell you that much”, said Reiss Nelson, Arsenal winger and childhood friend of Sancho. While Sancho is the biggest star to emerge, other graduates of cage football in South London include Crystal Palace’s Ebere Eze as well Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi. Its influence on these players is not unlike that of futsal in Brazil, forcing players to learn close control and improvisation.
That cage football streak of individualism has helped Sancho thrive in a very choreographed Bundesliga. He comfortably has the most successful dribbles in that league from the last three seasons (305) and, audaciously, the most nutmegs (32, per FBRef). Obviously, doing a lot of nutmegs doesn’t make you a great player, but it speaks to the profile of Sancho. He’s very gifted dribbling in close quarters with defenders surrounding him, unfazed by the pressure, and willing to do things others wouldn’t dare. Those goals and assists should tell you that, yes, he also has the end product.
Sancho should arguably be regarded as one of the finest young players England have ever produced. He had scored or assisted 74 non-penalty goals in league football before his 21st birthday. Wayne Rooney, who had the whole nation captivated on his every touch by that age, managed 72. The previous wunderkind, Michael Owen, put up 73. Like Rooney before him, Sancho offers so much in the build-up beyond goals and assists. They recognise this in Germany. Working as a pundit for German TV, Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Christoph Kramer was so bemused by Sancho’s exclusion that he could only imagine “disciplinary reasons” as the cause. They just can’t understand why England would choose not to use someone of his talent.
Playing in Germany, some might argue Sancho has found it harder to receive recognition in his own country. After all, the Premier League receives wall-to-wall coverage on TV, radio and newspapers in England, while one has to seek out talk of the Bundesliga. There’s something parochial about this, but most English observers just don’t watch German sides unless they meet a Premier League club in Europe. When Borussia Dortmund drew Manchester City in the Champions League this season, Sancho was injured. Fate denied him the chance to show a captive English audience what he can do.
He’s not the first person to suffer this. Just look at the way Owen Hargreaves was viewed for years before he was England’s outstanding performer at the 2006 World Cup. Even within this squad, Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Trippier suffers a similar fate. Southgate recognises this perception problem in Trippier’s case. “People are still looking at the player from a few years ago and not at the one who is at Atletico Madrid and playing like a warrior in the last few seasons”, he explained. So why isn’t he doing the same for Sancho?

Erling Haaland (L) and Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund pose with the trophy after winning the DFB Cup final match between RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund at Olympic Stadium on May 13, 2021 in Berlin, Germany.

Image credit: Getty Images

Southgate wasn’t late to the Sancho hype train. He called up the winger for the first time back in October 2018 and has done so consistently ever since. In the qualifiers for Euro 2020, Sancho competed with Marcus Rashford for the third attacking spot next to Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, as England scored more goals per game than any other nation with an attacking and fluid 4-3-3. Sancho looked lively in this system as Southgate’s team ruthlessly demolished weaker sides.
But some slack defensive performances, particularly the 5-3 win over Kosovo, seemed to cause a slight rethink. Southgate has looked to the recent World Cup and European Championship-winning sides of France and Portugal as models to follow. Those teams keep it tight for long stretches and look to rely on only a few moments of quality. While this might not look great in the group stages, Southgate and others believe it’s the recipe for success in the knockout phase.
In that light, some of his choices make sense. While Kane and Sterling have been his most reliable players and were always likely to start, he’s chosen Mason Mount and Phil Foden over Sancho and Grealish. This seems likely to be down to their greater tactical discipline and solidity. Both are outstanding players, but they’re more suited to playing as cogs in highly structured machines, thriving in the complex tactical systems of Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel.
Sancho is different to that. He does the unpredictable. It’s understandable that Southgate would get a little nervous. But in doing so, he’s made England overly rigid in patterns of play. In facing set defences, England lack options in terms of dragging players towards the ball and freeing up space elsewhere. Sancho can dribble through those congested areas, opening up options and inviting surprise from defenders. Even France, as dull and structured as Didier Deschamps asks them to be, find room for someone as individualistic as Paul Pogba because he only needs a moment or two of brilliance to turn a tight game. They play different positions, but Sancho can offer some of that to a defensively solid England.
Let’s not lose our heads here. England have kept two clean sheets in their opening games without Jordan Pickford having an awful lot to do. Southgate’s plan to go more defensive has worked in that England are a tough nut to crack. We are obviously cursing them here, but it’s hard to picture England getting torn apart by Germany the way they were in 2010. England are a good defensive side, but that has come at a cost in terms of attacking play.
This functional unit needs a little spice of unpredictability. Someone who can, as Sir Alex Ferguson would say, “put bums on seats and get people off them, too”. Sancho is a maverick. A joker in the pack. A cage footballer bringing all those uncoachable skills to the big time. And he’s just what England are crying out for.
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