Hot property Jadon Sancho set to leave teen years behind and take on the world
Europe's big guns have the Bundesliga king of assists in their sights with Dortmund winger about to celebrate his 20th birthday
In the hothouse that is elite football, great talent seems to emerge younger and younger.
The outcome of last World Cup final was sealed by a goal from a 19-year-old, Kylian Mbappe.
The last summer transfer window saw a defender, Matthijs de Ligt, bought for €75 million (Dh298m) while still in his teens.
But even in this age of precociousness, it may come as some surprise that only Wednesday does Jadon Sancho, set to be the hottest property on the next transfer market, turn 20 years old.
He has a hundred senior matches to his name already, club and country combined.
In normal times, with life and sport not under lockdown, Sancho would be high-fiving birthday wishes with colleagues in the England national team, preparing for a now-cancelled friendly against Italy.
The match was due to be a dress-rehearsal for a Euro 2000 which Sancho, who has played all his senior club football for Borussia Dortmund, was entitled to regard as his showcase tournament.
He would have heard congratulations from England team-mates for having collected the Bundesliga’s Player of the Month Award for February.
Had it not been for the startling impact of his Dortmund team-mate, the teenaged striker Erling Braut Haaland, Sancho might have claimed the prize for January, too.
The English winger’s league form in 2020 has been eye-catching, even by his high standards: five goals, and six assists, from eight matches, for one of which he was rested from the starting XI.
Since the turn of the year, there has not been a Bundesliga fixture in which Sancho has not set up or scored a Dortmund goal. Nobody has had a greater say in maintaining the club’s pursuit of Bayern Munich in a tight, gripping title race.
Nor is this form a flash in the pan. Sancho has been making his case as the most creative footballer in Germany’s top division for the best part of two years.
The key metric is those assists: the 14 Dortmund goals his passes directly set up in 2018-19 put him top of the Bundesliga’s assist charts.
This season, the 15 assists he has provided for the likes of Marco Reus, Paco Alcacer or Haaland is bettered only by Bayern’s Thomas Muller, a player who has spent a decade longer calculating the geometry of cutbacks and lay-offs, and more than five years partnering that peerless finisher Robert Lewandowski.
“Sancho does things on the ball that you see only very seldom in a player,” says Michael Zorc, Dortmund’s director of football and a man with a fine eye for up-and-coming forwards.
On his watch, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, now of Arsenal, Ousmane Dembele, now of Barcelona, and Christian Pulisic, now of Chelsea, were brought to Dortmund and moved on at vast profit. Sancho, who cost Dortmund around €10m from Manchester City, may well prove a better investment than any.
The qualities Zorc points to that make Sancho unique are his confidence taking on opponents at pace with the ball at his feet.
He is a dazzling dribbler, as comfortable shifting to his left foot as his right, and there is an understated efficiency even in some of the more extravagant manoeuvres: The pirouettes are performed with purpose, head up, his stepovers wisely judged, not showy.
All this Sancho, who grew up in urban South London, first brought at the tender age of 17 to a country he had never lived in, into a league he had not followed with special attention, and to a club he admits he knew best from childhood computer games where yellow-shirted Dortmund “seemed to do very well”.
He joined them because he felt frustrated at what he saw as a closed pathway into the first team at City, where he spent his mid-teens in successful age-group sides.
City had high hopes for Sancho but he was probably right to acknowledge that in a squad where Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, among others, were thriving in his favoured positions, he would have needed patience.
What he can hardly have foreseen was that, before he turned 18, he would be hailed as a pathfinder, for boldly moving to Germany from an English football culture considered rather insular.
A line of young British footballers, such as Reiss Nelson, who joined Hoffenheim on loan from Arsenal, Ademola Lookman (RB Leipzig) and Rabbi Matondo (Schalke 04) have all followed, citing Sancho’s success as the motivation for their moves to the Bundesliga.
By the time he is 21, it is likely Sancho will be regarded as a standard-bearer for a whole generation. Whoever tables the most successful bid to prise him from Dortmund, be it an English superclub, or Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern, it will be for very high fee indeed.
Updated: March 25, 2020 10:07 AM