Jadon Sancho has hit the ground running again. How good can this record breaker be, and why has he shown 'one tenth' of his ability for club and country?
Sancho set a new record last weekend, becoming the youngest player in history to score 15 Bundesliga goals. It's an arbitrary number, but the context behind it has a far deeper, far more exciting meaning for both club side Dortmund and the England national team.
The 19-year-old said this week playing in Germany has 'taken off the pressure' of the intense scrutiny he would face in the English game - and the news of his achievement last weekend made few headlines this side of the Channel. He has escaped the spotlight other young English talents have had to endure, but that's good, because few possess had the ability he has.
Two years on from becoming the ballsy teenager who turned his back on Pep Guardiola to take an incredibly un-English path, backing himself on foreign shores which so few English talents have dared to tread, even fewer conquered, he is on a remarkable upward curve with little sign of slowing down.
Two goals, three assists in the opening three Bundesliga games of the season is just par for the course for him now. It's more noteworthy when he doesn't score than when he does.
He is already a cult hero at the Westfalenstadion. They love him and he loves them. Dortmund have handed him vastly-improved terms on a new contract, without demanding he extends his deal, such is his level of importance to the club even with less than a season's worth of Bundesliga starts under his belt. Earlier this week team-mate Paco Alcacer said Sancho was on the route to becoming world class, and he's unlikely to be alone in that belief.
On an international level, he has several years on his attacking rivals Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, but has no intention to respect their positions. No one completed more dribbles per game in last season's Bundesliga than Sancho. His 3.3 against Sterling's 2.4 in the Premier League is impressive, even with lingering question marks over directly comparing the two divisions. He scored almost a goal every other game and registered more assists than any other player in Germany's top flight. And he's still in his teens.
We're in an era when money can prove a major distraction for young players, but not for Sancho. Even as a child, a headstrong determination to be the best means he is just at the start of his rise to the very top, says his former youth coach and now Taiwan national team manager Louis Lancaster.
"I'm extremely proud of what he's doing, but I don't even think you've seen one tenth of what's to come," he told Sky Sports. "He's going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing.
"When he was a kid in training, if we had 14 players, I don't like to go seven vs seven just because it looks beautiful. I'd say to him, we're going to go nine vs five instead, and he'd say put me on the five because he wants to be challenged.
Sancho's 2018/19 stats
|Key passes / game||1.9||13|
|Successful dribbles / game||3.3||1|
"You're talking about a young boy, willing to move away from his family for sport. That takes a lot of guts. You can measure him on his dribbles, his goals, but how much courage does that take? How much courage does he have? It takes a lot.
"That's someone who has a dream and will do anything to get there. Steve Redgrave, Usain Bolt, it's like an iceberg - you only see the top, not the stuff going on underneath how they got there. That's him.
"I always ask young players three questions. The first is 'what's the dream?' When I asked him, he looked me clear in the face and said 'I want to play for one of Europe's top clubs and represent my country'. I asked him why? And he said 'to make my family proud of me'. He can't have been any older than 13."
Sancho breaks the English mould in so many more ways than just his nerve. His samba style, forged in the footballing cages of south London, his direct running and dribbling ability unmatched in an England shirt for some time, and in the words of Lancaster, a 'maverick' - something so at odds with our homegrown talent, even with the improvements St George's Park have brought over the past decade.
Even 21 years on from his last England game, people still talk about Paul Gascoigne, another true maverick, like few others since. For years England fans have looked longingly at other countries' special players, who can change the game in the blink of an eye. Remember the frustration that England had lacked a moment of magic in the World Cup semi-final last year? Sancho can make that difference, says Lancaster.
"I think he's going to continue to surprise people," he said. "His game is so fast-paced, it's very direct. When a player gets the ball, they've got a soft option, get the stats up, make the simple pass, or you can make it 75 per cent of the time but everything's forward. What you're seeing from Jadon is a 19-year-old boy with a lot of maturity.
"It's great that Gareth Southgate is giving the youth a chance, other countries use these flair players because they trust them - they can be a hero or a villain. They might not track that runner or something like that, but when it's the 89th minute they might produce something magical.
"It's like a computer game - you might have a favourite character because they have a signature move. I think players need that. With Jadon, the best players might have two aspects of their game which are 10/10, but a couple more which are five or six. But those signatures help them get where they are. When you're working with players like Jadon, you have a question to ask yourself 'do you develop the strength, or work on the weaknesses?'.
"I worked on my Pro Licence on 'what is a maverick? How do you get the best out of them?' I interviewed managers, players and mavericks themselves - and I interviewed Jadon. Even when he was younger he was completely fearless, and he always wanted to be the best player."
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