Erik ten Hag will make the decision in the next day over whether to recall Jadon Sancho for the EFL Cup on Tuesday, in a significant indicator on where he stands in the Manchester United manager’s thoughts.
With the £73 million signing banished from the first team over a “squad discipline issue” and being accused of letting his standards drop in training, it appears a long way back for Sancho, just two years after arriving after a summer transfer saga with Borussia Dortmund and getting ahead of Jack Grealish to become United’s most expensive signing of that window.
Grealish has since painted Manchester blue with his two Premier League titles at City in as many years, with his iconic Treble celebrations enhancing his status as a national footballing treasure. Yet he could easily have been wearing red for the last two years had United made a different decision over which young winger to buy.
Aston Villa had negotiated a new contract in the summer of 2020 with a £100 million release fee, which was one of the first times a top Premier League player had such a clause. Now commonplace and used abroad for years, the fixed price was inserted as Manchester United had an interest in Grealish. It was kept secret and only revealed after he signed for City.
In that 2020-21 season hit by Covid, United’s focus had firmly switched to Sancho. They were comparable wingers, both in Gareth Southgate’s plans for the Euros, though Sancho looked more like a long-term right-winger, which was a position United needed filling. Grealish did his damage off the left. In the end, Sancho cost £27 million less than Grealish.
After the Euros in 2021, Sancho signed for United and during the course of that previous season it was clear he had become United’s first choice. Managers can often hint at their future plans when they see players after facing them in matches, but there was no such encouragement when United faced Grealish in the Premier League or a pre-season friendly. United’s eyes were on Sancho.
At the time, Sancho was arguably England’s brightest potential star after making the decision to start his senior career in the Bundesliga. His time at Dortmund was not without incident, and he was fined for breaching Covid-19 protocols during a time when there were restrictions. According to a team-mate, he was never late for training although he was rarely first through the door as players adopted an unofficial code of getting to work an hour early to prepare for sessions.
United and Ten Hag helped Sancho last season when he had issues both physically and mentally. He trained alone for eight weeks during the World Cup and had a spell at Dutch amateur club OJC Rosmalen where he worked with coaches.
This campaign has seen a dramatic shift in the relationship between Sancho and his manager. He claimed he was a scapegoat when Ten Hag highlighted his dip in training level. While his team-mates were losing to Brighton, he was at the club’s Carrington training base watching the under-18 team play.
United defeated Burnley on Saturday night, ending a run of three straight losses. Fans were singing the name of Alejandro Garnacho, their 19-year-old winger who was on the bench. It seems like the time for a wide-forward to seize their opportunity given Antony’s absence and Mason Mount’s injury.
The EFL Cup match against Crystal Palace represents a chance for Ten Hag to look at these options. He opted not to use Garnacho at Turf Moor as he did not want to upset the rhythm of a finely poised match.
“He [Garnacho] was in against Bayern Munich and I thought our team was playing very well,” Ten Hag said, “so I wouldn’t change that tonight because this game was a demand to keep that organisation. That’s why I wouldn’t change.
“I saw the players were still capable and the fitness levels were good and the energy was still there, it was only 1-0. I wouldn’t change that because I also know that Burnley in one moment and in this moment where everything is against us – we have seen again a disallowed goal.
“I don’t want to say if it is the right decision or wrong decision, but again there was a moment that was not on our side. I wanted to avoid that and keep this team on because they did well.”