Before his professional debut, Jadon Sancho was mostly known for a surprising exit from Manchester City. But 13 months after he left the comfort and familiarity of England, it’s his habit for making spectacular entrances that’s turning heads at Borussia Dortmund and across the footballing world.
The latest example came on Saturday. After Bayern Munich dropped points for the second game in a row, Dortmund had a chance to climb to the top of the table and raise hopes that the Bundesliga might be home to a rare title race this term.
The 18-year-old looked on from the bench as his side shrugged their way to a 2-0 half-time deficit at Bayer Leverkusen’s BayArena. Three days earlier, Sancho had come off the bench 14 minutes from time to put the cherry on top of a 7-0 win over Nuremberg with a goal and an assist. But his boss, Lucien Favre, didn’t have the luxury of waiting that long this time. Sancho stepped on to the pitch with Dortmund still a goal down and 22 minutes remaining.
It was long enough. As soon as the English winger entered the fray, Dortmund keeper Roman Bürki threw him the ball. Seconds later BVB were level.
“Because I got subbed on, I had a lot of energy,” Sancho said after the game, before making a stunning counter-attacking equaliser sound like instructions for boiling an egg. “I saw Marco Reus – me and him link up very well – I trusted him and he trusted me. After the first lay-off [then] one-two, it was an easy goal.”
After fellow substitute Paco Alcacer put 3-2 Dortmund ahead, Sancho played in the Spanish striker for the fourth. That was his fifth assist of the season – the most of any player plying his trade in one of Europe’s top five leagues.
That Sancho has racked up such numbers in just 124 minutes of game time is remarkable. But given that he’s yet to start a game for BVB, is he gaining a reputation as a ‘joker’, the word Germans use to describe an impact substitute?
“Obviously, I don’t want to be a sub. But if I keep on working hard hopefully I can get in the starting XI,” said the teenager, very much toeing the party line.
Favre may be taking reasonable precautions with a precocious talent whose eye for the flamboyant could mark him out as a target for full-backs. Sancho’s speed is an obvious asset against tiring defences, but it’s his ability to move off either foot, to do the unexpected and to do it all without a hint of hesitation that has made him so devastating this season.
“I think when you’re different you stand out more and I like when people stand out,” Sancho told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle earlier this year. “You don’t see that every day.”
It’s often said that a young player’s confidence is a product of the fact that his instincts have not yet been dulled by doubt, but Sancho’s team-mate Thomas Delaney says, as gifted as the 18-year-old is, he’s not just a box of tricks.
“He has an eye for other players, he’s not selfish,” said the Danish midfielder. “He’s very unpolished. I wouldn’t say he’s unorthodox because he has great technique. But you don’t know what to expect when you’re defending and when you try to go one-on one with him. He has that X-factor.”
Of course, this could just be a purple patch. But it’s one that’s been coming. Despite a difficult 2017/18 for Dortmund, who sacked coach Peter Bosz early in the season before finishing fourth under interim boss Peter Stöger, Sancho caught the eye late in the campaign after recovering from a series of frustrating injuries.
Leverkusen were again the victims of the first Sancho show which made Germany really sit up and take notice. He scored the first and laid on goals for Maximilian Philipp and Marco Reus in a 4-0 win in April, before completing the 90 minutes in Stöger’s last four games in charge. He’s averaging a goal or assist in every 73.5 minutes he’s played in Germany’s top flight – the best record of any Bundesliga player with over 10 combined goal involvements since the teenager arrived in the country.
Sancho isn’t the first, nor the most recent, young British player to try his hand in a league which has earned a reputation as a hothouse for bright prospects. But from Oliver Burke through Ryan Kent, Reece Oxford and now Reiss Nelson, none have yet made anywhere near Sancho’s impact. And none have been at a club of the size of BVB.
His move to the Bundesliga was a bold one and, although he’s making the most of cameos right now, Sancho is far closer to a leading role than he would have been at City. It surely won’t be long until England manager Gareth Southgate considers adding this German-based joker to his pack.