Jadon Sancho shines as Harry Maguire toils on contrasting nights for Manchester United
The onlookers included a couple of battle-scarred centre-halves, each wrapped up against the Manchester cold. Indeed, Harry Maguire, his snood pulled up high over his face, seemed better protected than Steve Bruce, the manager who signed him for Hull in 2014. It is probably safe to say that, back then, even Bruce did not envisage Maguire becoming one of his successors as Manchester United captain.
The role can bring particular prestige in cup finals. Bruce skippered United in the 1994 FA Cup final, when Chelsea were beaten and the double secured, but Bryan Robson was the club captain who did not make the matchday 14. Two years later, he had the opposite experience: Bruce was the old warrior omitted as the armband was worn by Eric Cantona.
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fast-tracked Maguire to the captaincy, it brought the promise he would lift trophies. Instead, he missed the only final of the Norwegian’s reign; he was injured when they faced Sevilla in the Europa League showpiece in 2021. He seems certain to start the first of Erik ten Hag’s tenure on the bench: Bruno Fernandes will lead United in another final, but this time as the regular leader. If Bruce’s scars were physical, Maguire’s may be partly psychological.
That Maguire did not begin a semi-final second leg against Nottingham Forest when United kicked off with a three-goal lead felt another indication of how his season has gone awry. Injury prone as Raphael Varane can be, he was sent out anyway. As the fixture list toughens, Maguire may not be chosen again for a while.
Forest’s visit proved a restorative occasion for one of Ten Hag’s substitutes, but not Maguire: Jadon Sancho came on before him, and if that was explained by an attacking triple change, a return after 102 days out of action brought a shift in perception. Maguire and Sancho were Solskjaer’s two biggest buys. Each has spent spells outside Ten Hag’s team. The latter may have more of a future inside it.
Apparent interest in Maguire from Inter Milan had been rebuffed, the message that the captain wanted to fight for his place given out. Yet he feels at the back of the queue for the centre-back positions; Luke Shaw has been reinvented and, in a different way, so is Victor Lindelof. He came on with Maguire, but in front of him. “He was educated as a No 6, a control, holding midfielder in Benfica,” Ten Hag said. “I want my centre halves in midfield positions so we create dynamics.”
That may not sound like Maguire. Meanwhile, Sancho had come on as a No 10, a different role for a winger. Simply being on the pitch amounted to a change for a player who had not been in the squad for the previous 16 games. Injury had accounted for his absence; so, too his mental wellbeing. He had been sent to the Netherlands to work with coaches Ten Hag knew. He had trained alone at Carrington. Not everything has been explained, perhaps to protect his privacy. The goals involved others on his return to action. The pertinent part was that Ten Hag considered him ready.
Since his previous appearance, one United forward, Cristiano Ronaldo, was exiled with few regrets. In contrast, Sancho was welcomed back. “I thought it was great that the fans gave him love,” said Ten Hag. “I think it was great, the reception from the fans to him. He’s back at Carrington for two weeks, we see that smile and hopefully he can keep that. It is most important players enjoy football, which gives energy.”
Sancho’s energy was always a reason to deem him a Ten Hag player. He has some of the characteristics – versatility, speed on the break, a capacity to score and create – the Dutchman likes. United’s attacking options have felt slender in recent weeks, their reliance on Marcus Rashford increasing. Yet Ten Hag suddenly seemed to have another dimension. His manager mentioned Sancho’s goal against Liverpool and performance against Tottenham as evidence of his ability; he has the talent to affect defining games. “He has really high standards, great capabilities to contribute to our team,” Ten Hag added.
For now, Sancho looks a potential impact substitute for a manager who has often used his replacements well. “If you want to win trophies, you need them all to be available,” he said. “You can bring a different dynamic from the bench.”
And, in time, in the strongest side, if Sancho can displace the enigmatic, inconsistent Antony. Go back to the summer and he seemed in Ten Hag’s preferred front three. Sancho actually scored before Rashford this season, in the August victory against Liverpool that represented a turning point. Their seasons have gone in different directions since then; Ten Hag, his appetite whetted, relished the prospect of Sancho, Bruno Fernandes and Anthony Martial combining more often.
The chances are that he will not start at Wembley either, and perhaps Maguire’s status as club captain means he will lift United’s first trophy for six years. But an evening that showed how far the defender’s star has fallen ended with hope the forward’s can rise again. If United, potentially ending a six-year wait for silverware, look on the comeback trail, perhaps Sancho is too.