Sancho’s torment of Di Maria shows he’s Man Utd’s perfect protagonist
Given what we know about Jadon Sancho, we should no longer be able to be left speechless by him, yet he continues to find a way.
The more we see of the young Englishman, the harder it is to argue with those describing him as a generational talent.
And there have been plenty of occasions in the last few months when he has demonstrated, above all else, that he doesn’t need to play by other people’s rules to hit his ceiling and punch straight through it.
Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League meeting with Paris Saint-Germain was the real test for Sancho and his team-mates,
While PSG are by no means an old and storied club, their personnel gives them an air of prestige which automatically relegates a club like Borussia Dortmund to the status of ‘pretender’.
To take them on on your own terms is like showing up to a stately home wearing heelies: the only power capable of letting you get away with it is your own unabashed confidence, but Sancho always looks capable of making it work.
There’s the old line about going up to the biggest guy in the prison yard and socking him in the face to assert your authority. However, in this case, Sancho made such an impression he left Angel di Maria punching himself.
The nutmeg is a combination of knowing where your opponent is and knowing who it is, all at once.
One of these things is essential to pull off the nutmeg in the first place, while the other is key to knowing the act of pulling off the nutmeg is itself essential.
Di Maria is at his best when properly balanced and able to conduct play from a position of strength. Take that away, and you remove his equilibrium, at least temporarily, and give yourself the upper hand.
Sancho is upsetting the natural order of things, both at collective and individual level, instilling in his opponent a level of doubt which is not just immediate but also existential.
Even if Di Maria and PSG prevail on aggregate, as was the case here, they do so knowing their position within the football world is anything but constant.
It forces them to panic, to take risks they didn’t think necessary, in order to chase that which they have not yet lost.
It sends them down paths they didn’t need to follow and weren’t personally prepared to follow, which is how they leave themselves flailing both mentally and literally.
If Sancho leaves Dortmund for another European powerhouse this summer, his task may change.
Not only will he be taking the challenge to those with more years in this game, and those unused to being challenged in this way, but he’ll be tasked with doing it over and over purely because there will somehow be even more eyes on him.
However, anyone who has watched the 20-year-old develop over time will have few concerns about his ability to step up in different surroundings or against different opponents.
This is a player who treats challengers as individuals sent out to stop Jadon Sancho-as-protagonist, and their differing levels of fans or acclaim simply serve as minor tweaks to how their story pans out in relation to his narrative.
If you step out onto a pitch with Jadon Sancho and don’t find yourself embarrassed, don’t make the mistake of thinking it comes from a position of honour or deference. The truth is he’s just waiting to find the perfect way, be it this time, next time, or the time after that.
By Tom Victor