MUFC Attack Combinations with Jadon Sancho

by | Jul 5, 2021

The long-drawn saga finally comes to an end! More than a year in the making, Jadon Sancho is now officially a Red Devil. Though it has taken time, the transfer fee of 73m pounds and the completion of the process before the Euros even ended deserves immense credit. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will now look forward to Sancho joining United’s pre-season tour and getting ample time to plan out tactics with the 21-year-old winger in mind. Sancho joins an array of attacking talent at the club in Rashford, Greenwood, Cavani, Martial, James, Amad, Mata, Elanga, Shoretire and more which will give the Norwegian manager selection and tactical headaches (good ones) for the coming season. Will Sancho play on the right more than the left? Will Greenwood play more as a centre-forward? Whose game-time takes the biggest hit? We try to answer these questions and more in this article. I will take a look at Sancho’s past 3 seasons at Dortmund and United’s last season trend to make some possible combinations and predictions for United’s front 3 in 21/22. Let’s get straight into it!

What is Sancho’s best position?

We know that Sancho is a winger capable of playing on either side. But where has he actually played more and where is he better at? 2 questions that need answering. I pull out Sancho’s playing time data over the past 3 seasons and split them by position. I’ve considered only his starts in this viz. Do note that he often switches positions mid-game and pops up in various areas as a substitute as well which isn’t reflected in the below viz.

The first obvious insight is that Sancho has clearly started at RW more than any other position in this period. That’s one W for the ‘He’s our permanent RW’ camp. But as we analyse more it also becomes clear that his rate of playing on the right wing is reducing over time. What was almost a 80% rate in 18/19 has become exactly half in 20/21. He has been playing more LW recently and as of last season even lined up as CF a few times. The starts are dependent on the tactic used. For the most part, Dortmund lined up in a 4-2-3-1 in this period, at times making way for a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 diamond mainly in 20/21 due to change in managers. The latter cases are when Sancho has found himself at CF (as per Fbref data). To be more precise, his role was of a central support striker role playing slightly off the finisher (mostly Haaland). For the majority of the last 3 seasons at Dortmund, it has been simply a choice between left or right winger in a 4-2-3-1 for Sancho and from the data we can clearly see that his managers have been shifting him from the right to the left progressively over time. The reason for that becomes clear in our next viz.

In the below viz, I simply chart Sancho’s goal contributions (Goals + Assists) per 90 minutes over the 3 seasons for each position he has played in – LW, RW & CF. This is to gauge where he’s most lethal from. 

Interesting findings here. Sancho’s 0.69, 0.94 & 0.76 G+A p90 as RW are comfortably bested by his 0.83, 1.24 & 1.26 as LW. The reason why he’s been given the LW berth more in recent times is simply because he’s much more effective from there. In terms of eye test as well, Sancho from LW has the options to cut in and shoot a lot more often while it also opens up the field for him to look for a cross-ball to his striker or opposite winger. Both his goal and assist threat increase from the left side due to these reasons. His G+A per 90 from CF in the few games he has played there is also an amazing 1.55. It should be noted that on the pitch this also translates to a left-sided support striker role where he has even more freedom to be close to goal while retaining his right-foot angle to create and shoot. Per game, Sancho takes 4 more shots when he plays on the left compared to the right. His xG (Expected goals) per 90 from RW is 0.34 while from LW is a whopping 0.84. The pattern is clear.

The summary of the above data is: 

  • Sancho has played more on the right than the left in his last 3 seasons at Dortmund
  • He is very capable of playing on either wing or even as a central support attacker
  • His goal contributions and goal threat are better from the left compared to the right which is why he has been featuring there more in recent times

Manchester United’s front 3 in 20/21

To understand where Sancho fits at United, we must first understand what he’s fitting into. The recent season data of 20/21 across all competitions should give us a good idea. In the next viz I simply plot who Ole has chosen for the front 3 positions in the recent season.

CF appears a little more than RW and LW thanks to a few iterations of the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 diamond that Ole attempted in the first half of the season. Else, it’s majorly been a case of 3 attackers in a 4-2-3-1.

For CF, we see that Martial and Cavani have played most with Rashford and Greenwood not far behind. Rashford’s 12 starts at CF aren’t as far off from Martial’s 20 and Cavani’s 21 as one might think. While injuries to the latter 2 have provided him more chances than one might have thought, there is a case to be considered here that Ole might see Rashford as a viable CF option after Cavani and Martial, thanks to his ability to run behind the defence. Rashford’s goals per 90 from CF are exactly the same as from LW (Both 0.37). Only his assist rate of 0.19 from LW is slightly better than 0.14 from CF. This will have an effect on our predictions later.

We notice that the wings give us a much clearer pattern with Rashford being the main choice for LW and Greenwood for RW. Once again Rashford pops up at RW as much as James and boasts some important goals and assists from there as well. Like Sancho, Rashford retains the ability to play anywhere in the front 3 and just like Sancho he seems better suited to LW and CF compared to RW. We see Pogba make the 2nd most starts at LW, a ploy which saw Ole get the best out of him towards the end of the season. But whether that remains a long-term tactic is up for debate. With Pogba’s future in question and his eventual role lying in central midfield (where he started most this season) it might be safe to assume he is not seen as a long-term winger post the signing of Sancho.

There’s also a very good argument to see James at LW more often since his underlying metrics also suggest a higher goal and assist threat from the left (I hope you can see a pattern of too many right-footed players preferring left-sided roles at the club). But the stability advantage James offers when he plays RW is also worthy of mention. When United tilt the attack to use Shaw, Rashford, Pogba and Bruno to combine on the left, James and AWB often slot in like RM and RCB in a 3-5-2 to help stabilise the formation. James offering the 2 options of an inverted winger on the left and a deeper classical one on the right make him a valuable squad player.

While Martial shows up a few times at LW here, eye test can confirm that he’s much poorer from the left than centre. Injuries forced Ole’s hand on those few occasions. It’s safe to assume Martial won’t feature at LW much after Sancho’s arrival. Cavani seems locked at CF for now. Amad and Mata also seemed locked at RW for the front 3, although both could provide good options for CAM on the rare occasions Bruno decides to rest. Elanga looks interesting. having started once each at LW and CF and offering a very brief glimpse of his traits which could suit either role. He is one to watch out for, but he has some time before he can trouble our starters at least for the upcoming season.

With an understanding of the position preferences, I bring your attention to the time Ole has given to each of these attackers over the past season.

Minutes played by MUFC attackers in 20/21:

4144 – Marcus Rashford
3142 – Mason Greenwood
2415 – Anthony Martial
2192 – Edinson Cavani
1518 – Daniel James
862 – Juan Mata
267 – Amad Diallo
155 – Anthony Elanga

While injuries to Martial and Cavani are big reasons for their reduced minutes, it is worth noting that Ole likes to use Rashford and Greenwood a lot. Even in 19/20, Rashford’s 3459 minutes and Greenwood’s 2631 were next best after Martial. With age on their side and rapid development to look forward to, it won’t be baseless to say that such a trend might continue. Cavani’s injury and fitness issues over the past 3 seasons are well documented. The Uruguayan hasn’t managed to cross 2400 minutes in any season in this period and was almost set for a return to South America this summer before a sudden U-turn enabled another year at United. It might be fair to assume he won’t be in the top 3 starters for the coming season and will be used mostly as an impact sub.

Okay so that’s a lot of information. We’re now going to use all this to make some combinations.

Predicting the front 3 for 21/22

Using what we’ve discussed so far, I make a few predictions on what we could see in the coming season. A few points to note before I start:

  • I’m lining up the options from most probable to least. This means that I feel that by the time the season ends, Option 1 would have been used a lot more by Ole than Option 6
  • I’m assuming a consistent 4-2-3-1 for the full season. Ole has played with the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 diamond before and we also saw a fluid 4-2-4 variant towards the season end but all signs (including the signing of Sancho) point to the 4-3-2-1 on a consistent basis
  • Injuries and massive dips or upturns in form could change these equations to a large extent

Enough disclaimers! Let’s get into it. 

You might have seen this coming if you read between the lines so far (either that or I’m bad at dropping clues). For the first – and what I feel is the one we might see the most – option, I simply line up the highest appearance-making attackers of last season along with the new boy. I give Sancho and Greenwood the positions they have been most effective from in recent times and give Rashford his 2nd choice berth, a role he has shown good ability to pull off. The left-sided tilt strategy gets further enhanced with Shaw and Bruno combining with Sancho and Rashford to lethal effect while the roaming Greenwood can pop up with dribbles and shots when they create the space for him to cut into.

Pros:

  • We can expect pace and flair in abundance from the three U23 players that could give any defence nightmares
  • Positional fluidity that could be hard to track will be a strong weapon. Rashford and Sancho can switch between wings while Greenwood can play on the right or centre
  • Sancho’s high goal and assist threat, Rashford’s dangerous runs behind the defence and Greenwood’s ability to cut in from the right maximizes the natural traits of each player

Cons:

  • The absence of a proper line-leading CF like Cavani in this mix could cause a ‘too much support but no finish’ scenario. Especially against low blocks, phases of attack where the 3 strikers roam in the half spaces and areas around the box without anyone really running between the opposition centre-backs can be a roadblock

In this option, I slot Rashford and Martial in their best roles while giving Sancho his 2nd best role which he has ample experience and ability for. Ole has pushed Martial hard in his tenure and brought out one effective season (19/20) from him, but the jury is still out on the Frenchman. The coming season could be a make-or-break one for Martial and if he discovers his best form, then this combination could be Ole’s go-to lineup.

Pros:

  • Rashford’s understanding with Shaw and his recent mastery of the movement and playmaking from LW are maximized
  • Martial’s hold-up play can supplement two attackers who love to drift in and cut in to central areas

Cons:

  • Sancho is a very average presser off the ball while Martial also has phases where his workrate without the ball suffers. With Rashford also showing a very conservative pressing pattern in recent times (possibly due to his ongoing injury issues), the cumulative defensive output of this front 3 could be a burden on the high press tactic Ole wants to employ
  • Rashford and Sancho both love an attacking fullback to combine with, which might require a lot from Shaw and Wan-Bissaka in this formation. While Shaw has shown great form recently, AWB will need to improve a lot to provide that flank domination on the right that Sancho expects from his fullback partner (See Hakimi when he played with Sancho at Dortmund). Such a tactic with both fullbacks high up the flanks might not even be practical in many games unless United are trying to break low blocks. The stability of the formation comes into question again. 

A slight modification from option 2, I simply switch Martial with Cavani here. The traits the veteran brings to the table would be really appreciated by the dribbler-turned-creator duo of Rashford and Sancho. 

Pros:

  • With a clear line-leading CF to push defences back, the Englishmen could look forward to dribbling into the spaces Cavani’s continuous off-the-shoulder movement creates
  • With a very clear target man to aim at, Rashford and Sancho’s assist threat goes up a notch, as they can expect to find world-class runs behind the defence

Cons:

  • The tactic stability issues from option 2 make their return here. Although it must be said that Cavani’s intense and willing pressing makes him much more suitable to the high press system compared to Martial. The only doubts remain over both wings being stretched in transition and both fullbacks requiring effort to support either winger

A very subtle variant of Option 1, one would think that most of the dynamics remain the same, but they actually don’t. Even if we do see such a lineup on paper, my prediction is that it will change into the option 1 system on the pitch.

While Rashford does get his favoured role, Sancho and Greenwood operate in their second best roles. Yes, Greenwood’s best role comes up for debate at this point. We recently attempted to cover it in this article. In short, Greenwood seems like he benefits more when attacking from the right side compared to the center. Finishing is his best trait but the requirement of space he needs to run into and his poor off-the-ball movement make him better suited to use that finishing while carrying the ball from the right. The proof can be found in games this season where Greenwood lined up as a CF and never made the off-the-ball runs between the CBs like Ole expected him to. Numerous post-match comments about Greenwood not ‘breaking his nose’ or being a ‘pretty boy’ attest to this expectation not being met – as of yet anyway. While this combination could be the long-term dream of most United fans and even Ole and Greenwood themselves, the coming season might be too soon to see a developed CF version of Greenwood, which is why I am placing this option a little lower than some might have expected. 

Pros:

  • The pros of the dynamism and positional fluidity of option 1 are retained here

Cons:

  • The stability issue of options 2 and 3 of flank defence when Rashford and Sancho are on either wing comes up here
  • Additionally, Greenwood not being a line-leading poacher CF brings up the ‘too many SS’ players issue of option 1 as well

These last 2 options find themselves lowest in our list thanks to the absence of Rashford. Given his high playing time under Ole, a safe assumption would be to predict him to start, whenever fit. That last phrase is important though, which is why I brought up this option in the first place. If Rashford does opt for the corrective surgery which he currently seems to be pondering on as per own quotes before the Euros, he might miss the start of the 21/22 season. In such a scenario, the above 3 could line up as predicted. 

Pros:

  • Each player gets his most preferred role maximising their traits and individual goal and assist threat
  • Sancho can simply mirror Rashford’s highly attacking LW pattern of the previous season and combine with Shaw and the midfield to wreak havoc
  • The left sided attacking tilt ensures tactical stability with Shaw-Sancho being more dominant than AWB-Greenwood

Cons:

  • Other than missing the excellent traits of Rashford (like his understanding with Shaw and runs behind the defence) this lineup offers no real cons and could result in the best possible output from each of the 3

I round up our options with a variant of 5. Cavani replaces Martial to give us another option when Rashford stays out due to injury or fatigue. 

Pros:

  • Possibly the best replication of what Sancho enjoyed with Haaland in the previous season, he can use his creativity to find an elite poacher and run into the spaces offered by the defence-pushing movement of that person as well
  • Stability wise, possibly the best option on this list. The left-tilt strategy can help one side remain compact while Cavani’s intense pressing also supports the high press
  • Best role for each player once again

Cons:

  • Like option 5, there is no real con to this lineup as it boasts the perfect mix of creativity, goal threat, off-the-ball movement and defensive stability

Well, that wraps up our predictions for the attacking lineup United might opt for in 21/22. Thanks for sticking around so far. What do you think would be the option we see most in the coming season? Do you think we have completely missed an option in this analysis? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or reply to the article tweet.