When it comes to right wingers in 2020, Jadon Sancho is probably causing the biggest stir.
With Manchester United intent on signing him, he could feasibly soon be the most expensive English player in history, surpassing the £80m fee that took Harry Maguire to Old Trafford last summer. Were it not for the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the transfer market, his value could have even exceeded £100m and firmly in the bracket with the few most expensive of all time.
What is remarkable is that Sancho has reached this level, expected to be among the world’s best players for years to come, at the age of just 20. As recently as March, he was still a teenager.
His place in history as the first player born in the 21st century to make a world class impact in the sport is already secure. The rest is still yet to be written.
At an age when most footballers are just trying to get first-team opportunities, Sancho was top scorer for Borussia Dortmund during the 2019/20 season. He got 20 goals in all competitions, despite not being a striker, while his 20 assists were also a team high. That made for 40 combined goals and assists in 44 appearances for one of Europe’s leading clubs.
For one so young, Sancho is already mature in his play, understanding the difference between substance and style. Many skilled players don’t learn to take on such a mentality until they’re older – it didn’t click for Cristiano Ronaldo until the age of 21, for example. Some don’t manage at all.
But Sancho was on his way to that at 18.
“In most games he’ll create something – it’s not a beauty contest. He’s not on the pitch flicking it over someone’s head for the sake of it,” Dan Micciche, an England youth coach who worked with Sancho at Under-16 level, told The Guardian in 2018.
Even from an early age, the youngster has always backed himself to succeed in circumstances that other players might find challenging.
He moved away from his family into academy accommodation at Watford aged 11 because the commute to the northern outskirts of London from his home in the south of the capital was too much. By age 14, he had then moved even further up north to join Manchester City.
Sancho’s ambition ultimately saw him leave City in the summer of 2017. Even though he was already regarded as one of the finest teenage talents in England, he was left out of the club’s pre-season tour that year as he stalled on a contract over assurances about playing time.
It was reported at the time that City had offered 17-year-old Sancho a ‘lucrative first professional contract’, but there were concerns over the pathway to the first-team and once he had been omitted from the tour squad his time at the Etihad Stadium was swiftly ending.
There were rumours that Arsenal, where close friend Reiss Nelson was emerging from the youth ranks, and Tottenham were interested and it would have been easy for Sancho to choose either and head back to London. Instead, he saw an opportunity to further his career faster and took the bold step to uproot to Germany and join Dortmund, where he was immediately placed in the first-team.
The upheaval of leaving behind everything he knew, moving to another country and learning a new language, culture and style of football didn’t faze him.
It did cost him in one sense. Sancho was part of England’s Under-17 World Cup squad that winter, but his first-team status at Dortmund made the Bundesliga club reluctant to release him for the tournament and a compromise was reached that he would play in the group stage only.
Sancho promptly returned to Germany after the opening round fixtures and he missed out while his young Three Lions teammates then went on to win the whole competition.
On the flipside, he had played 12 first-team games for Dortmund by the end of the season. Only Wolves midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White got more, but was doing so at a second tier level. Excluding Gibbs-White, the other 19 players in the squad made 16 senior appearances between them.
That experience and those opportunities were invaluable.
The 2018/19 season was when Sancho properly announced himself. He made the most of six successive substitute appearances at he start of the campaign, registering six assists and scoring only the second senior goal of his career. After two assists off the bench to help Dortmund complete a 4-2 comeback win over Bayer Leverkusen it was impossible to leave him out of the starting XI.
Sancho was barely out of the team again all season and finished with 32 goals and assists to his name. Since then, he was stepped up to another level and was in prime place to shine for England at Euro 2020 this summer to underline his status as the best right winger in Europe.
The time for that will come soon because Sancho is only really just getting started.