It was a joy to see Jadon Sancho make his return for Manchester United in midweek and return to the pitch with a smile on his face.
Sancho had been out of action since October, amid fitness struggles. After a slow re-integration into the first team set up, the 22-year-old helped United clinch a Carabao Cup second leg semi-final win.
The forward returned in an unexpected but not totally unfamiliar role. Instead of featuring as a winger, Sancho played through the middle as an attacking midfielder.
Speaking after the game, Erik ten Hag explained: “Jadon, I know he can play as a number 10 and a winger. We can mix it often and that is what I like.”
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Sancho solves squad dilemma
Jadon Sancho solves a squad dilemma facing Erik ten Hag; the lack of an attacking midfielder to alternate with Bruno Fernandes.
Fernandes wants to play every game, and invariably does. He is capable of doing it too. But this does not mean it is the wisest decision.
United must protect Fernandes from himself, by not over-exerting him, and allowing him to rest, in order to optimise his top performance levels.
Christian Eriksen was capable of fulfilling this role, even though he was most frequently used in a deeper position in conjunction with Fernandes.
Following the releases of Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, United lack a back-up purely for Fernandes’ position. It was originally earmarked by Ten Hag as a position Donny van de Beek – and he is now out for the rest of the season with an injury.
United have an array of young talent capable of stepping up in the future. Shola Shoretire, Hannibal and Amad could each step up. For now, they are all out on loan deals gaining experience.
This is why it is so welcome that Jadon Sancho can step into the void. He offers a different style to Bruno Fernandes, being more willing to run at players with the ball. Both can be valuable options for specific situations.
Sancho will still get games on the wing, Erik ten Hag indicated this, but he will evidently split his time across two positions. This will be helpful to the player, the team, and to Bruno Fernandes.