The saddest thing, perhaps, is that nobody seems surprised by Jadon Sancho’s absence from England’s World Cup squad.
Nobody feels strongly enough to challenge Gareth Southgate about it. Nobody really mentions it at all and, if you think about that properly, what does it say about a player who was previously the rising star of English football?
Just compare and contrast with the commotion if James Maddison had not made the cut. Imagine the interrogation if Southgate, as England manager, had decided to exclude Maddison at a time when the Leicester City man was playing at the point of maximum expression. Imagine the froth of indignation on social media. Whatever Southgate said, the reaction would have been sulphurous.
Sancho, on the other hand, counts as little more than an afterthought these days. Nobody questions his absence because, in the bluntest terms, he has stopped being the player English football wanted, and expected, him to be. Manchester United’s No 25 is England’s forgotten man. And when the squad fly to Qatar next week, he will slip even further below the radar.
All of which can feel both perplexing and unsatisfactory when, in other parts of his career, Sancho left the clear impression that he would become a mandatory pick for these big occasions.
This is the player, lest it be forgotten, who scored 50 goals and set up 64 others in 137 games for Borussia Dortmund. At one stage, Sancho featured more prominently in Southgate’s thoughts than Phil Foden, his former team-mate from Manchester City’s youth programme. Then Sancho moved to Old Trafford and, overall, what would be a reasonable assessment of his performances? Six out of 10, perhaps? Seldom any higher, but occasionally lower.
The difficult part is to understand the reasons for it. What has held him back? Why has his career in Manchester flickered only sporadically?
Behind the scenes at Old Trafford, it has been a regular point of discussion. One theory is that the team is not always set up to get the best out of Sancho, whose strength is to get past opponents, often in confined spaces. On that basis, there is a measure of sympathy that he no longer sees as much of the ball as he did at his previous club. There have been injuries and illnesses and, towards the end of Rangnick’s tenure, one occasion when the management were surprised that Sancho had made himself unavailable.
Then, of course, there is Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence and the long, complex issue about whether or not that is a good thing, a bad thing or perhaps somewhere in between. Some players have felt under pressure to pass to Ronaldo, from all sorts of angles and near-impossible situations, even when there are better options available. Ronaldo expects the ball. He can be a demanding team-mate and, for someone with such a portfolio of achievement, he can also seem strangely insecure about some of his team-mates. Sancho, it is said, has encountered the good and bad.
Ultimately, though, it feels a bit of a cop-out to believe Sancho’s diminished status can be pinned on the presence of a fading, and occasionally problematic, six-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Sancho, for his part, tends to be a reluctant interviewee and, on the few occasions he has agreed to speak, he is not the type to open up about his inner thoughts, his strengths and maybe also his vulnerabilities.
The reality, however, is that he has pulled on an England shirt only once in the 16 months since his last appearance at Wembley ended with England’s defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final. Sancho was the fourth of England’s five penalty-takers. Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy’s goalkeeper, kept out his shot and Sancho discovered in those moments that there was nothing more shattering in football than to feel responsible for losing on penalties. He was dragging his fingers down his face as he made his way back to the centre circle.
Since then, England have played 15 times and Sancho has been restricted to 72 minutes against Andorra in October last year. It was his 23rd cap, which is some achievement for a player of his age, and the only one that has come his way as a United player. England won 5-0 but, unfortunately for Sancho, there is little glory to be had playing against a microstate with roughly the same population as Carlisle.
Sancho was left out of England’s World Cup qualifiers the following month. He was not involved in the internationals in March, either. Then Southgate went public while England were preparing for a run of Nations League fixtures in June. Sancho, he said, had “a lot to do” to get back into England’s plans. And, five months on, that brought us to the scene at St George’s Park yesterday when Sancho’s name was missing from England’s World Cup squad, amid absolutely zero surprise, and the football world merely shrugged its shoulders.
Southgate was asked about leaving out Tammy Abraham, James Ward-Prowse, Reece James and various others. He talked about his reasons for including Maddison and it was interesting that he mentioned the player’s directness – “not enough players play forward” – at a time when many observers feel that part of the problem for Sancho is that he has abandoned his instinct to go straight at the opposition defence. Never, though, was Sancho mentioned directly.
The conversation turned to Marcus Rashford and, for Southgate, a happier subject. The England manager wanted to praise Rashford for the manner in which he had reinvented himself. Rashford, he said, had shown competitive courage to return to the squad after so long off the scene.
All of which must be deflating, in the extreme, for Sancho, when the level of expectation was so high after his £73million ($85m) transfer two summers ago. Sancho had become an obsession for Ed Woodward, United’s now-departed chief executive. The club had spent over a year, under the management of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, trying to make a deal happen. When it finally went through, there was only Paul Pogba and Harry Maguire in United’s entire history who had cost more.
Sancho was the ninth-most expensive player in the Premier League. He was, in the words of Solskjaer, a signing that “epitomises the type of player I want to bring to the club” – a skilful, incisive wide-man who would score goals, create goals and bring the crowd to its feet.
That was the plan anyway. Since then, Solskjaer has left, Ralf Rangnick has been and gone and now it is Erik ten Hag’s turn to try to solve the puzzle and re-establish Sancho as a player whose performances rank at seven or eight, or possibly even higher, out of 10, as they once did in the Bundesliga.
Sancho’s goal against Liverpool earlier this season – the drag-back under his studs, the precise finish, the improvisational brilliance to create time for himself in the penalty area – was a reminder that he can be an ideal wearer of United’s colours.
It was one of only eight goals for United across two seasons and, for England, he has been restricted to five 90-minute performances since winning his first cap, aged 18. But there have been plenty of times when he has shown why the other players who came through the same England youth teams eulogise about his ability. Let’s not dismiss all that star potential. Let’s not forget Pep Guardiola’s dismay when Sancho left City for Dortmund five years ago.
Sancho is still only 22 and it is just a fact of football life that players of that age can lose their way sometimes. Sancho will be older and wiser (yet still relatively young) when the 2026 World Cup is played in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Nobody should think it is beyond him to emulate what Rashford has done this season, to come again and rediscover some of the old joys. Nobody should imagine it is beyond him to shake this disappointment out of his system.
Equally, let’s not forget that Sir Alex Ferguson used to hate the word “potential” and had a habit of pulling up any member of staff he heard using it at United’s training ground. It made him think back to his early years at Old Trafford and, specifically, one of the players he inherited from Ron Atkinson, the previous manager. His name was Peter Barnes and he, like Sancho, had started his career at City. “All this talk was about his potential,” Ferguson explained. “Yet the guy was almost 30 years old.”
The moral of the story? The elite footballers – the ones who reach the top and then stay there – take responsibility for themselves rather than trying to pass the buck or come up with excuses. Sancho is going to have plenty of time in the coming weeks for a period of self-reflection. Maybe he needs to use that time to analyse what has gone wrong and, just as importantly, to understand what needs to be done about it.