Go back to January and the career trajectories of Jesse Lingard and Jadon Sancho couldn’t really have been more different. One was on the way out of Manchester United to join West Ham on loan after being completely frozen out by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while the other continued to set the world alight as one of the most exciting young players on the planet at Borussia Dortmund. Oh, and he was on course to replace the first guy at Man Utd that summer.
And yet here we are at the end of September, and the tables have turned dramatically. Lingard ended up having an excellent loan spell at West Ham, showing himself to be one of the most in-form players in the Premier League in the second half of the 2020/21 campaign, winning back his England place, and then returning to Old Trafford for the start of the new season. Despite not being a regular starter for United, he’s now clearly had a much bigger impact than big-money summer signing Sancho so far.
Should we really be surprised by this development? Not too long ago it was clear that Lingard, whilst not a world-beater, had plenty to offer this United side, with the England international the latest of a long, long list of top talents to rise up through the club’s academy into the senior side. Given his reputation for being, well, a bit of a wally, it’s perhaps not too surprising that there were plenty of people quick to write him off as finished once he hit a slightly poor patch of form.
This shows an ignorance of what they drill into young players coming through at United, however, and it seems obvious now that his dip in form and spell away from the club has once again brought the best out of Lingard, who will be no stranger to adversity. Sancho, by contrast, simply has not been prepared for the scale of the challenge awaiting him at Old Trafford.
For all that we – perhaps rightly – have praised young English players like Sancho for moving abroad early in their careers in order to play more regularly and develop their game, we have perhaps overlooked the fact that it comes with a cost as well.
Borussia Dortmund, for all its qualities, is not an ambitious football club like Manchester United, but perhaps one of the best stepping-stone clubs for talented young players before they seek to move on to bigger things. The Bundesliga side make something of a pretence of challenging Bayern Munich for the title each year, but haven’t actually come particularly close to stopping Bayern from winning the last nine in a row. Any progress in the Champions League is a bonus, there isn’t really any expectation to speak of, other than for players like Sancho to play, express themselves, and improve their market value before being sold at a profit.
Some players from this stepping stone club have gone on to fare better than others after leaving; Robert Lewandowski, notably, has gone on to show he’s the real deal since his move to Bayern Munich, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has undoubtedly been a star performer for an otherwise pretty average Arsenal side since his move in 2018. There have been plenty to struggled to make the step up to a new kind of pressure, however, with Ousmane Dembele faring pretty terribly at Barcelona, while, more worryingly for Man Utd, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Shinji Kagawa both moved from the Westfalenstadion to Old Trafford and never looked the same. Ilkay Gundogan has been a big success at Manchester City, but then Christian Pulisic hasn’t really set the world alight at Chelsea. It’s a bit of a mixed bag overall, but the end result is always the same for Dortmund, who are left laughing all the way to the bank.
Of course, it’s still too early to see how Sancho will fare at United, but for the time being there is surely a case for Lingard being ahead of him in the pecking order. Sancho’s development at Dortmund may have made him a better player, but it hasn’t set him up for being mentally ready for playing at a club where success is demanded as an absolute bare minimum. The system is different, the circumstances are different, and we shouldn’t be too surprised that he’s finding it a bit of a culture shock, whereas a player like Lingard, who for many years had to bide his time and take his chance when it came to him before then proving himself all over again with his loan to West Ham, is currently the man rising to the challenge.