There is value in the magician. The tricks that deceive the eye and confound logic. That slight of foot or the drop of the shoulder can and do make the difference.
Despite playing just 124 minutes this season, Sancho already has five assists and a goal. He is quickly moving up the bill in Dortmund’s dazzling show of attacking talent, and largely because he highlights what German are missing.
In Borussia Dortmund’s thrilling 4-2 comeback win against Bayer Leverkusen, every type of winger was on display. Germany’s finest, Julian Brandt, showed the value of having defensive qualities. The 22-year-old sacrificed much of his attacking value to do the defensive work - and to great effect in the first half. In the second though, both he and Kevin Volland failed to continue their defensive work, which offered Dortmund more space to exploit.
Christian Pulisic, running at a then isolated Wendell, did that to far greater effect but the combination of that and the first half running cost him a lot of energy. Young talent Jacob Bruun Larsen had more neat moments in attack, but failed to offer the defensive stability that often gives him the starting edge over Sancho. Some of Leverkusen’s best play came down the right side in the first half, and the opening goal fell from the extremely advanced Leverkusen right wingback Mitchell Weiser. For all the talent of these wingers, perhaps it is only Christian Pulisic who possesses a similar spark to Sancho but the game was calling out for the kind of winger capable of unleashing raw, cheeky, swag-ridden skill.
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With just over 20 minutes to go and just minutes after Dortmund had scored their first, Sancho replaced a tired Pulisic. Instantly, the 18-year-old picked the ball up in the right back position, drifted past the Leverkusen player closing in and sprinted up the wing. A one-two with Marco Reus and suddenly Sancho was bursting into the box on the right. Instead of shooting, he pushed it perfectly back into Reus who scored to end a brilliant move. Or as Sancho said afterwards: “When I went past the first player, one-two, easy goal really.”
Call it an injection of pace, maybe even call it magic - but Sancho has it.
“He’s very unpolished,” Thomas Delaney said on his English teammate afterwards. “I wouldn’t say he’s unorthodox because he has great technique, but you don’t know what to expect when you’re defending against him and then you try to go one on one with him and he has that X factor.”
Part of the reason he stands out is because, despite his teenage years, there aren’t many players in the league like him. There was excitement about Leroy Sane at Schalke, perhaps even something similar about Julian Draxler, but it’s a player who trusts themselves in the one-on-one situation when it really matters. “I saw Marco Reus and obviously me and him link up very well. I trusted him and I trust me,” Sancho said afterwards, as if it was the simplest of things. It’s probably the same trust that saw him hit a cross-field pass to set up Paco Alcacer to score into an empty net as Leverkusen went for broke.
While it’s true a lot of his time on the pitch has come against tired defences, his skill set can be equally effective in a Lucien Favre side capable of devastating counterattacks. It must. At the World Cup in Russia Germany’s lack of attacking guile left them looking exposed. Many Bundesliga sides often lack a game changer, or have them employed in defensive systems that don’t allow them to express themselves.
“Obviously I don’t want to be a sub, but I have to keep working hard to make the starting eleven,” Sancho said afterwards.
“I won’t say it will always change games, but it can,” Delaney said afterwards on Dortmund’s young talents. He added, with a grin, that he skips the part of training where Sancho gets the chance to dribble at players.
Clearly, Sancho will learn the benefit and need for the defensive game during his time in Germany. But he must not lose his raw skill along the way. It’s what sets him apart, what makes him such an attraction in this league. It’s what makes him, for some, a magician.