Often forgotten amid Manchester City’s attempt to crack Europe’s elite is the success of their youth system in recent years. With Pep Guardiola, Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero et al rightly hogging the limelight, events at the Academy Stadium sometimes go unheralded.
City have poured a fortune into their Etihad Campus facilities, building a stadium that seats 7,000 and hosts EDS matches (along with Manchester City Women games, too). They’ve recruited some of the world’s finest young talents, such as Brahim Diaz, Kelechi Iheanacho and Rodney Kongolo, and are now setting them loose in a variety of competitions.
But perhaps the crown jewel of City’s youth setup is not an exotic import from Spain or Nigeria; it’s a 16-year-old by the name of Jadon Sancho, who was purchased for a nominal fee from Watford in 2015.
He was sourced much closer to home and settled quickly, and now, 19 months later, he’s excelling at under-19 level despite playing against peers several years his senior.
Those who follow the EDS side closely are starting to get excited about him. A year ago the attention was all on Diaz, whose ball-killing skills and close control are sumptuous, but now it has been shifted to Sancho, who is also impressing with every opportunity at England youth level.
Given he’s a domestic product, it’s natural the focus will shift; Sancho and Diaz both play together for City, but the raving is only being done about one of them.
Stretching the pitch: a key Guardiola trait
It’s crucial for any young City player performing at any level to show Guardiola traits. The club are trying to streamline the path from youth to senior sides by instigating the same style of football throughout, and that makes it easier for the manager to see who can cut it.
One of the main tasks a Guardiola winger must carry out is to stretch the pitch horizontally—and you do this by staying touchline wide.
This is the reason Jesus Navas is still a Citizen, becasuse despite the obvious flaws in his game, he brings natural width to the pitch. The same argument can be used to explain why Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello were moderate factors in Pep’s Barca sides. They were never genuinely good enough, but they did perform a function.
Sancho typically plays from the left as a right-footer, but does a good job of staying touchline wide and expanding the playing area inside him—both for himself and for others.
He receives plenty of switch passes or balls forward from the full-back when he’s situated within three yards of the line, and his strong buildup/link play allows City to work the space in his vertical third when pushing the ball forward.
Cutting in: Sancho’s incisive, bread-and-butter moves
Sancho’s exceptional dribbling skills and quick feet make him a nightmare for full-backs to track. After a tough opening 20 minutes, many end up backing off of him, but he’s still able to knock it past players and burst into space.
He’s particularly good when coming inside. His wide starting position draws his marker out to him, and that creates pockets of space just beyond them for him to eye up and nip into. Whenever possible, he skips a challenge, ducks inside and heads toward the “D” outside the penalty area. From there, opportunities arise to shoot and slip a reverse pass into the path of a runner.
His dribbling style is rather curious: he plays with a straight back and his head up, looming over the ball with all his height even when taking players on—reminding a little of senior colleague Leroy Sane.
His head stays up at all times—a difficult trait to master—and that allows him to pick out clever inside runs and feed the ball between the lines.
This combination of searing speed, close control, exceptional dribbling and heads-up creativity is rarely seen in a 16-year-old. Even the most talented of this age group generally mix poor decision-making and head-down dribbling into corners into their skill set, creating clear points on which to work.
Sancho doesn’t; the worst thing he does is fail to beat his man one-on-one, and that happens to everyone in football.
Extra edges: how can Sancho improve?
Sancho attacks incisively, works hard to help his full-back, drives forward with the ball at his feet from deep, identifies key passes and varies his decision-making well, but he’s not perfect; there are pieces he can add to his game to round out the skill set.
While he holds the width superbly in deeper and middling areas, once he’s 18 yards from the byline, he’ll nearly always cut in. Despite being able to take the full-back both ways, it’s not frequent he’ll take the outside lane all the way to the byline, making him a tiny bit predictable in terms of movement from certain positions.
This, likely, is born out of his love for a low cutback or low-driven ball into the box, rather than a sweeping cross. Again, this partially plays into Sancho’s hands when you consider he’s trying to progress to a first team managed by Guardiola, as this is a move Pep favours. But variation is something Sancho has mastered everywhere else on the pitch, and an extra edge here could transform him into a deadly two-way winger.
An age group brimming with talent
Sancho’s age group in the England youth system is truly one of the most talented we’ve seen in years, and the City man is at the forefront of it. If he fulfils the incredible potential witnessed in his game, the fee it took to prise him from Watford—one rising to a possible £500,000, per the Manchester Evening News—will be the bargain of the century.
To see such poise in a youngster’s dribbling, a willingness to lift the head and a braveness to try to take initiative, all combined with an inherent work rate, is quite the sight. Sancho’s career is only just beginning, but it’s easy to map his path to the top.