Though he may not have thought much of it, there was a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Jadon Sancho ahead of Sunday’s game with SC Paderborn.
Injured for Borussia Dortmund’s 4-0 rout of rivals Schalke in May, he watched on as teammate Erling Braut Haaland took the plaudits for a superb display up-front. Meanwhile, the Englishman’s substitute appearances against Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich left a lot to be desired.
With the majority of English (mainly Manchester United) fans watching him regularly for the first time, his performances seemed… underwhelming. At least to some, who questioned his fitness levels after the mid-week defeat to Die Roten.
And with Haaland ruled out due to a knee issue, the onus was now on the 20-year-old to replicate the attacking firepower that Lucien Favre’s side showed in their opening game. Granted, his team did create chances against Bayern – but the lack of potency raised questions over just how lethal Die Schwarzgelben were.
The pressure was certainly on. And at half-time, his performance seemed to suggest the critics were right.
His touch wasn’t sharp, as he was dispossessed by opposing defenders on numerous occasions. While he found himself in great attacking positions, it just didn’t seem like he had the goods to produce against a Paderborn side that admittedly double and even triple-teamed him at every opportunity.
But you would have been silly to write off a player who has had a terrific 2019/20 campaign, with only Thomas Müller producing more assists than the England winger in the Bundesliga.
All he needed was one moment to spark him to life. And thanks to Julian Brandt’s generosity, he tapped home the German’s pass to get his name onto the scoresheet. It was like the pressure had been completely released off his young shoulders.
With Paderborn then scoring from a penalty, suddenly the game didn’t look quite as sewn up as fans had thought. The plucky bottom side had halted Die Schwarzgelben’s momentum – or so they thought they had.
Tidy work from Thorgan Hazard would result in his pass finding Sancho, who took two touches to steady himself, before unleashing a curling finish with his weaker left foot. The precision in arrowing the ball past the dive of Leopold Zingerle and in off the post was just a small piece of evidence showing how he’s become a lot more clinical this season.
The two goals showed the 20-year-old is more than just a traditional winger, who stays out wide and mainly creates chances through his dribbling. Indeed, both portrayed his improved finishing skills, which is what has made him stand out as a future superstar.
And there was still time for him to grab his hat-trick, picking up the ball on the right-wing and taking his time before firing the ball past Zingerle at his near-post. It capped off a devastating second-half display that resoundingly answered any critics who wondered if he was worth the hype and big-money offers.
It’s easy to forget that at just 20 years old, Sancho still has the potential to get even better. Now running at close to full fitness, he looks just as potent and lethal as he did before the league was suspended. The fluidity in his runs, coupled with his awareness to pick up different positions in the final third, are why he’s such an unpredictable threat for Favre’s side.
And with no news on the length of time Haaland will miss, there’s definitely no reason to panic about a supposed shortage of goals. Sancho clearly demonstrated that he can fill his teammate’s place if he can continue to combine well with both Hazard and Brandt, who were also terrific in the second-half in wearing out Paderborn’s defence.
If Dortmund are to keep themselves in position to capitalise on any slip-up from Bayern, they’ll need the England star to perform as well as he did today. While Paderborn looked to test them in the first-half, their superior quality meant that a resounding win was always on the cards. Bigger tests lie ahead – including a red-hot Hertha Berlin that they will be hosting next weekend.
On the back of this performance however, there’s no need to think twice if Sancho is capable of stepping up in the absence of his Norwegian teammate. He proved just how much of a match-winner he already is – and there’s certainly more to come from him.