Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho got his first taste of major tournament action for England as Gareth Southgate’s men won Group D with a 1-0 win over Czech Republic, but the winger was only on the Wembley pitch for seven minutes.
With Mason Mount and Phil Foden out, Jack Grealish was moved into a number ten role and Bukayo Saka started on the right-wing, the same role which Sancho occupies for Dortmund. Unfortunately for Sancho, Saka had an absolute blinder as his driving attacking runs and defensive attitude won him ‘Star of the Match’ and he was a huge plus as England kept another clean sheet.
Sancho is clearly a hugely talented 21-year-old. He recovered from injury to finish the 2020/21 campaign with 30 goal contributions and was one of Dortmund’s most creative players, well deserving of his spot in England’s 26-man squad. The issue he faces is that England’s depth in those wide areas is more fruitful than it has ever been and Southgate has a difficult job merging together a quartet of players who provide the perfect blend of pace, talent and experience.
The German press have been left baffled by his lack of game time, especially when the Three Lions were struggling against Scotland. German publisher Bild commented:
“With his speed on the ball, the Dortmund player is a headache for defenders when he is in the right mood. He's unpredictable and he can change games. The problem is that Southgate doesn't seem to trust him to do so.”
The key words in that comment? “When he is in the right mood”. With all their options, England cannot risk it all on a player who has relatively little international experience and who has never shown the same form internationally as he does for Dortmund. It could be a case of the faster paced club football suiting Sancho more, as his talent is unquestionable, but with all England’s attacking options, there needs to be some level of context applied to his lack of game time.
Arguably, England have the most talented and varied attacking line-up, all of whom are of a similar ability. France have Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, three standout forwards all guaranteed to start, but for Southgate, it is not quite as clear cut. Even so, the decision on who starts in those attacking spots really isn’t as pivotal as those on social media like to make out.
For the last 16 match, Harry Kane is a guaranteed starter up front, as is England’s only Euro 2020 goal scorer Raheem Sterling on the left-wing. Either Jack Grealish or the currently isolating Mason Mount will start in the attacking midfield role which leaves just the right-wing place up for grabs.
Phil Foden is England’s golden boy, and one of the most talented teenagers in Europe and one of the best players on the ball in this England side. He hit the post in the opening moments against Croatia and certainly can bring a lot to this side, even if he was ineffective in the sluggish draw with Scotland.
Saka showed he is the most likely to come in for Foden with his fantastic performance against the Czechs. Southgate, who knows his England players better than anybody else, has clearly been impressed with the 19-year-old Arsenal man in training, who made 17 goal contributions in a poor Arsenal side this term.
“We have been super impressed with Bukayo Saka throughout the month,” Southgate said after Tuesday night’s win. “He was excellent up at Middlesbrough and we have liked him with and without the ball. His receiving tonight under pressure was fantastic.”
Meanwhile Marcus Rashford has been poor so far this tournament, is more effective on the left and seems to be carrying a long term injury, but his England experience makes him a viable option, which leaves Sancho somewhere towards the back of the pack.
Like it or not, a Premier League move this summer, something that could be affecting his current training performances, is likely to bump him up the pecking order by the time we reach the World Cup, but the likes of expats Kieran Trippier and club teammate Jude Bellingham have both received ample game time so far. Southgate is fully aware of the talents he has at his disposal, judging them every single day in training and Sancho’s time will come for England.
It is just unlikely to come at this tournament.