Jadon Sancho has made his comeback for Man Utd with a renewed love for football. His potential resurgence could be Erik ten Hag’s greatest success story.
Over 18 months ago, Sancho finally got his move to Manchester United from Borussia Dortmund.
After taking the leap to play abroad in the Bundesliga, he had been working towards earning himself a move back to one of England’s elite clubs and he got his wish in the summer of 2021.
Buoyed by the £73m vote of confidence from United, you imagine that Sancho would never have felt better ahead of his debut campaign for the Red Devils.
But the ‘flop’ tag was swiftly placed alongside Sancho’s name as he endured a troublesome debut season at Old Trafford. While the club’s overall woes cannot have helped his cause, he was not exactly a bright spark as United limped their way towards a sixth-place finish.
Eager to put the 2021/22 season behind him as quickly as possible, Sancho and the rest of his United teammates had a fresh start last summer following Ten Hag’s arrival from Ajax.
The Dutchman was joining one of the biggest clubs in the world but he had a major job on his hands when inheriting the top-to-bottom shambles which came out of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer/Ralf Rangnick era.
Sancho initially profited from Ten Hag taking over, as the Englishman’s upturn in form at the start of this season led to calls for him to be selected by Gareth Southgate.
He was ultimately not picked and following the September international break, his form started to decline once again and he found himself out of the team.
A three-month spell away from Man Utd followed, with Ten Hag suggesting that his player was suffering “mentally and physically“.
What Sancho may or may not have been going through between November and January should not be speculated upon. That has rightly been kept under wraps as it is no-one’s business except those close to the player himself.
But taking into account what we can analyse from his performances in a Man Utd shirt, Sancho was a player shot of confidence.
Going back to his days at Dortmund, he performed like a player who had self-belief and the freedom to express his talent however he pleased.
That translated into an impressive amount of goals and assists. For United, he has often played within himself and has been fearful of making mistakes with the heightened expectations placed upon him.
While Sancho was away, Ten Hag rightly remained coy when asked about his whereabouts; it was clear that he had his player’s best interests at heart.
The ex-Ajax boss is often stern with his squad – as shown by that 8.5-mile run back in August – but he is empathetic and knows that footballers are multi-layered with mental health needing to be put in serious consideration.
It is utter nonsense and infuriating when some fans of football suggest that Premier League stars cannot have mental health struggles because of their incredible wealth. It can affect anyone – footballers are not above going through their own battles with anxiety or depression.
Modern managers must be wary of this and Ten Hag clearly is, as typified by Marcus Rashford’s upturn in form and the recent return of Sancho.
Both attackers have been on a journey of self-growth this season but are at different stages. Rashford has gone from a player looking set to leave to one of the Premier League’s in-form forwards.
Rashford has his love for football back and is playing with a smile on his face. Sancho is not as far along in this journey, but early signs suggest that he is at least finding joy in what he does once again.
Sancho has come off the bench in recent games against Nottingham Forest and Leeds United, and he was roared onto the Old Trafford pitch both times like a returning hero.
Grinning from ear to ear, Sancho has so far managed to repay the support from fans as he has stolen the show in these two brief cameos.
He’s back to being lively in possession and he was rewarded with Man Utd’s equaliser against arch-rivals Leeds United.
Sancho changed the game when he came on and is now likely to start for Man Utd versus Leeds in the reverse fixture at Elland Road this weekend.
Champions League-bound Man Utd are ahead of schedule this season as Ten Hag has managed to transform them after not even a full season at the helm.
It has not been easy for the head coach either. Cristiano Ronaldo’s petulance could have easily been the start of his downfall if he let the 38-year-old take control.
But Ten Hag acted respectfully as Ronaldo was calmly nudged out of the door following that ill-fated interview with Piers Morgan. Rashford, meanwhile, is a prime example of a player who has overcome struggles to return to his best under the Dutchman.
Yet Ten Hag’s biggest success story will come via Sancho if the winger is able to live up to his price tag with his guidance.
Sancho, a player who looked all set to fall by the wayside and be clickbaited as ‘Man Utd flop’ until the end of time, has gone from having three months in the wilderness to return to the fold with that infectious smile back on his face.
The England international does have a long way to go yet, but he does at least appear to have overcome a major mental hurdle with his aura unrecognisable compared to what it was earlier this season.
Casemiro, Christian Eriksen, Lisandro Martinez and Tyrell Malacia have settled in beautifully since being signed by Ten Hag. That is impressive, but what is more eye-catching is Ten Hag’s ability to transform the feeling of players he has inherited. Sancho has gone through the most drastic change, with his head coach affording him the time to reach the right level of self-assurance so he can prove why Man Utd saw him as a £73m player.