Sancho the scapegoat? Ten Hag should not feel obliged to shield Man Utd star

Ian Watson
Man Utd winger Jadon Sancho
Jadon Sancho took to social media to hit back at Erik ten Hag's comments.

Erik ten Hag offered a mild rebuke of Jadon Sancho’s output in training but even that is too stern for some. Managers must be empowered to call out slipping standards…

It now seems like Jadon Sancho has two choices: Turkey or Saudi.

The transfer window remains ajar in other countries too, but regardless of which league the Manchester United winger casts his eye towards, the main objective should be to get away from Old Trafford.

That became necessary when he pressed ‘send’ on the statement he issued on Sunday evening. Sancho typed furiously in the wake of the defeat to Arsenal, after which Erik ten Hag was asked why the £72million winger was not in his squad.

“On his performance in training, was not selected,” said the manager. “You have to reach a level at Manchester United every day and we can make choices in the front line. So for this game, he was not selected.”

Hardly incendiary stuff. Firm, yes. Fair? Probably, since Ten Hag has clearly reached the point of exasperation with Sancho. The player’s response, issued within the hour, hinted at why he might be struggling to find favour with his third United boss.

The fact he responded at all is damning. Rather than hinting at agendas and pinning the manager as a liar, the ideal reaction – from Ten Hag’s perspective at least – would have been for Sancho to get his head down in the coming fortnight, while many of his team-mates are carrying out their international duty, which is something no longer expected of the winger. Has he been ‘scapegoated’ by Gareth Southgate too?

We have to be careful what we say and write. That was the message from this piece in The Athletic, suggesting that Ten Hag and the rest of us ought to remember the case of Dele Alli before harshly judging Sancho, or any other player whose standards have supposedly dropped. All we really know as outsiders is that there is likely to be plenty that we don’t know.

But in the same way that we should not rush to reprimand, is it realistic to automatically empathise with Sancho and assume that there must be more to this story than merely attitude and tardiness? There has to be some level of measured accountability at the highest level. Wherever the bar, Sancho is clearly not meeting the not-unreasonable expectations of his club and manager.

The tidbits of information we are fed suggest these are not new concerns around Sancho. As well as blistering potential, he showcased issues with timekeeping at Borussia Dortmund and on England duty. Southgate was said to be concerned with Sancho’s output in training during the European Championship finals in 2021, when he was on the move to United. The England manager has not called on Sancho in almost two years.

In that time it is fair – generous, even – to say the 23-year-old has failed to live up to expectations at Old Trafford. Sancho was signed as the right-winger United have craved for years, but it turns out he’s not a right-winger at all. Not in Ten Hag’s eyes.

Sancho lacks the necessary pace to go down the outside of left-backs, which is a shame because United still need a right winger, despite having spaffed more than £150million on the position since 2021. Most of Sancho’s appearances for Ten Hag have come off the left flank, where United are already well-stocked with Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho. Ten Hag has even dabbled with Sancho in the No.10 role but, again, Bruno Fernandes and Mason Mount have the playmaker role pinned down.

Jadon Sancho whispers to Erik ten Hag.

So Sancho was already up against it before he retaliated to Ten Hag’s mild rebuke. The manager has been patient with the winger since he was appointed, to the point of fixing him up with coaches in the Netherlands during the winter to work on ‘physical and mental issues’.

“I think many top athletes, sometimes it’s good to go away from the place where you are at daily to get a new vibe and a new experience,” Ten Hag when asked about Sancho in January when he returned to Manchester. “People have a different approach and this can give you the right push to get back on track.”

It seems a change of scene would benefit all parties again. Sancho wants to ‘play football with a smile on my face’, while United need him to recapture some of the Dortmund spark that made them pursue him so hard. Either for the purposes of re-reintegration or recompense. Buyers were beware even before the weekend, apparently, with Chelsea swerving the chance to give him a fresh start at Stamford Bridge.

Sancho says he will ‘continue to fight for this badge’ but the battle for his career will be lost without a swift and dramatic shift in fortunes and, more than anything else, focus. It might be easier to find that elsewhere.

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