I miss Nani. Not words I ever supposed to type – at least not during his extended tour of the Premier League’s blind alleys, his indignance at their failure to open for him a regular aggravation. Before United played at Chelsea in November 2009, my dad saw him walking around the pitch wearing a suit, so hoped he was off for a job interview – something I remember not just because how often do our dads say funny shit at the game, but also because I’d not have minded seeing the back of him myself.
Looking back, though, we were being unnecessarily harsh. The thing is, football fans enjoy bitching about football, and in the Nani years there wasn’t much to go on, so he copped for more than was fair. But also – as became apparent in the weeks immediately following – when picked to play in his position, he was an excellent player, who ultimately suffered because Antonio Valencia was a footballer in the purest sense of the word, totally unable to do anything with his left foot. This forced Nani to spend much of his United career hanging about on the wrong side, his career compromised for the accommodation of a vastly inferior player.
So what does that have to do with Jadon Sancho? Well, not since José Mourinho have United had a serious right-winger, and not since Nani have United had the right kind of serious right-winger, someone able to do the unexpected and inspirational.
For a club that considers proper wide-play part of its tradition, this is an embarrassment – a minor one in the context of the Post-Fergie Wilderness Years ™, but one nevertheless.
Now, though, it seems like we may, at last, have a suitable successor to Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha, and not before time. Jadon Sancho was signed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to fill the role only to be rarely picked in it, and during Ralf Rangnick’s reign of terribleness, he was, almost without fail, deployed on the left. Like much of what Rangnick did, this was not without rationale – quick but not very quick, Sancho cannot always go on the outside, and his ability to drop into midfield as an auxiliary playmaker is more easily done when coming infield onto his stronger side. However, like everything that Rangnick did, it amounted to the cubed root of nowt, so Erik ten Hag doing the opposite feels like a welcome development for that reason alone.
One of the reasons Sancho has looked more comfortable on the left is that he’s actually had some help, whereas on the right, he’s been stuck with Wan-Bissaka’s weighted boots or Dalot’s low quality. But the way the new United will play – with the team given actual instructions and full-backs asked to stay high and wide – should change that at least a bit, while any semblance of midfield control will mean he’s not required infield and get him more of the ball, in better positions.
Added to that, there’s the prospect of some actual training, which should make him fitter and stronger. Sancho is a bigger unit than you’d expect someone with Shakira’s hips and Fred Astaire’s feet to be, so going down the line or at least threatening to, shouldn’t be beyond him. The first few times I saw him play for Dortmund, I was impressed by how close he keeps the ball to his body – it’s almost underneath him, allowing him to show it then confiscate it at the last moment. But I also wondered if he was difficult to play with because it made him so unpredictable that perhaps even his strikers couldn’t be sure what he was going to do.
It turned out that this was a nonsense, because his skill and intelligence – he can pick a pass, time a release, and nail a cross – is intense. Consequently, those who play alongside him can focus on themselves because if they make a run, Sancho will find a way of getting them the ball where and when they want it. The bit in between is none of their business.
That being the case – and given there are other options off the left – it makes perfect sense to stick him on the right then let things be. Ultimately, if it worked for Nani, it can work for anyone.
This article was taken from the RoM charity preview.
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