In many ways, Jadon Sancho came to embody many of Manchester United’s fundamental flaws under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He was the player Solskjaer wanted more than any other over the course of his tenure in charge at Old Trafford, but when Sancho finally arrived as one of the most expensive players in the club’s history there was no plan on how to actually use him.
Now that Solskjaer is gone, though, Sancho’s United career has begun, underlined by the performance he produced in the 2-0 away win over Villarreal on Tuesday night. The player Manchester United spent £73 million to sign showed up for the first time this season. Sancho looked good in red.
Deployed on the right side of a front three, the position he was initially signed to fill, Sancho was influential throughout, particularly in the second half once United started to create more. The 21-year-old scored his first goal for his new club with a thunderous strike off the underside of the bar, but he’d been influential even before that moment.
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Solskjaer has only been out the door a matter of days, but there already appears to be a greater understanding of Sancho’s qualities. While Solskjaer wanted Sancho to run in behind, Michael Carrick recognised how the England international is more effective when the ball is played into his feet.
There were signs of an early-stage relationship between Sancho and Donny van de Beek, another player Solskjaer failed to understand, down the right which limited the need for the naturally defence-minded Aaron Wan-Bissaka to get forward. United’s right wasn’t such a weakness.
Interim manager Carrick promised a “fresh start” before kick-off. For much of the match, though, his team produced a performance that was surely very familiar to those who have watched United toil for much of the season. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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While Carrick opted for a conservative approach from the start, there was plenty of space left for Villarreal to dominate the midfield. United had David de Gea to thank for keeping the hosts out with a series of eye-catching saves, including a stunning save to deny Manu Trigueros. And just like was the case against Atalanta (home and away) and Villarreal at home, Cristiano Ronaldo netted an important late goal.
Of course, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that United suffered from many of the same fundamental flaws that finished off Solskjaer given that his coaching staff is still in place. By all accounts, Solskjaer wasn’t much of a nuts-and-bolts coach, so there’s only so much change United can expect in the short-term.
However, Carrick changed the game with the substitutions he made in the second half. While Solskjaer was frequently too hesitant to alter things when they weren’t working, his former right-hand man demonstrated a different instinct. This proved to be a catalyst for Sancho, who showed all that he is capable of in the final 25 minutes.
With Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford on the pitch, United carried more of a direct threat. Sancho, however, was a hub for attacking possession, playing a number of cutting passes that his team-mates might have made more of. He also gave United balance with the Villarreal defence stretched by Sancho’s presence on the right.
Sancho made a similar run to the one he scored from just minutes before United’s second goal only for Rashford to take the shot on himself. Sancho’s team-mates aren’t used to his movements, or even to him being on the pitch, but with Solskjaer gone everyone at Old Trafford will now get to know the winger much better.
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