OLIVER HOLT: The sad truth is that Jadon Sancho is not a scapegoat… he’s become an afterthought at Manchester United. Now is not the time to lose faith in Erik ten Hag
Erik ten Hag did not seek to damn Jadon Sancho during his post-match press conference at the Emirates on Sunday, when responding to a question about why the England man had not been in the Manchester United squad to face Arsenal.
Ten Hag did not throw Sancho under the bus, as some have suggested. But he did not dissemble, either. He said Sancho had not been picked based on the evidence of his performances in training.
Ten Hag was not confrontational or adversarial. He does not do demagoguery or crowd- pleasing. He was matter-of-fact. The United manager merely committed football’s cardinal sin of telling the truth.
Ten Hag did not imply lack of discipline, misbehaviour or bad attitude. He just refused to lie. Without mentioning them by name, he suggested others — Facundo Pellistri, Alejandro Garnacho, Antony, Hannibal Mejbri, Dan Gore and Marcus Rashford among them — deserved a place in the squad more.
Sancho, a sublimely talented player who established himself with brilliant performances at Borussia Dortmund a few years ago, is entitled to a right of reply if he thinks it wise, and in the world of social media he has a ready-made platform.
Manchester United winger Jadon Sancho hit back at claims that his training performances have led to a lack of game time with the Red Devils during the 2023-24 season
Erik ten Hag (left) is set to hold clear-the-air talks with the winger after his recent comments
Stars like Alejandro Garnacho (left) and Antony (right) are regularly chosen ahead of Sancho
Your browser does not support iframes.
It is possible to feel sympathy for Sancho, too, without agreeing with the content of his reply. We have learned later than we should that earning millions of pounds does not protect sportsmen and women from mental health issues and the fact that Sancho has struggled with those has been reported before.
But that does not change the fact that his statement made him sound entitled, as though a place in the squad was his right. When he said he had been made a scapegoat ‘for a long time’, it felt as though he was answering allegations that had not been levelled at him.
A scapegoat for what exactly? He did not specify. It does not really matter. The sad truth is that Sancho is not significant enough a player at United to be a target for undue criticism. Nobody blames him for anything. He is not a scapegoat. He has become an after-thought.
The schism between the manager and a player who has effectively called him a liar is symptomatic of a club fighting for breath as it struggles under the dead hand of its owners, the Glazers, and waits and waits for the result of a Kafka-esque sale process that feels as if it is destined never to be concluded.
It is also a lingering symbol of the dysfunction that Ten Hag inherited when he took over at Old Trafford at the start of last season and began to rid it of a culture that placed celebrity and reputation above performance and team ethic.
Ten Hag does not indulge star players because they have a big presence on Instagram or a couple of million followers on Twitter. Cristiano Ronaldo was a preening passenger at United when Ten Hag arrived and Ten Hag moved him on.
He is not scared of player power. He tackles it head-on and at a time when more and more supporters align themselves with famous players and charismatic managers, irrespective of their waning abilities, that is not always a popular place to be.
Ten Hag deserves our respect for pursuing that path and for re-establishing the authority of the manager at Old Trafford. Because in the other direction lie madness and chaos.
Sancho hit back at ten Hag’s post-match comments via a post on his social media on Sunday
Ten Hag also fell out with Cristiano Ronaldo and eventually sold the star in January last year
It is the easy out to be critical of Ten Hag as United stutter at the start of the Premier League season and labour to build on the progress they made last season.
But now is not the time for the club’s supporters to lose faith in their manager and certainly not because of Sancho’s outburst.
United did not play well against Arsenal. For most of the match, they looked stodgy and dull, leavened only by the Christian Eriksen pass that set up Rashford’s fine finish for their only goal.
And, yes, it seemed a sign of stasis to see Anthony Martial starting up front and Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans ending the game as United’s central defensive partnership.
But these are early days. United’s £72million signing Rasmus Hojlund came off the bench and made an immediate impact. He will improve the side.
Sofyan Amrabat, another new signing, will improve it, too, when he becomes available after the international break. United have injuries to other key players, who will soon return. Things will get better.
The spat with Sancho is just a sideshow. More than anything, it is a sad cameo, a story of a fine player who has lost his way, an outstanding talent who joined United at a difficult time in their history and, like others before him, seems to have struggled with the pressure of playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs.
Ten Hag’s side emerged second best after their closely fought contest at the Emirates
The irony of Sancho’s outburst on Sunday evening is that Ten Hag did everything he could to rehabilitate him and give him time to recover when the winger was said to be suffering with physical and mental health problems last season.
His treatment of Sancho, the patience he showed towards him, was held up, quite rightly, as an example of sensitive, forward-thinking, modern management. The club, too, deserve credit for the way the issue was handled and the duty of care they exhibited towards him.
Now, it is hard to see a way forward for the player at Old Trafford. The club’s former defender Rio Ferdinand suggested Sancho should try to escape to Saudi Arabia, if there is indeed such a thing as an escape to Saudi Arabia.
His scapegoat statement, alleging ‘other reasons for this matter that I won’t go into’, will, regrettably, probably be his epitaph at United.
It will be one of the last acts of a player whose popularity on social media and among supporters far outstrips his effectiveness.
The 23-year-old has made three substitute appearances for United during the league season
United paid £73m for him in 2021 after a lengthy pursuit and he has scored nine league goals and provided six assists since in 58 appearances.
Those are the bare statistics. It is not about blame, it is about a fine talent who has become a bit-part player. He is still only 23. He has the talent and the time to rebuild his shattered confidence elsewhere.
Ten Hag has decided Sancho no longer deserves a place in the squad ahead of players like Pellistri. He is running a meritocracy, not selection by social media or according to the contents of a highlights reel from those halcyon days in Dortmund.
Beyond the bluster, anger and entitlement of his statement, beyond the fragile ego, beyond the poignancy of a player who cannot quite grasp how far he has fallen, Sancho’s schism with Ten Hag is simply a sad tale of a star who ran out of reputation.
Now Eddie’s gripes include Cipriani claim
As England stagger towards their first Rugby World Cup game against Argentina on Saturday, the malevolent sprite that is Eddie Jones seems to be accompanying them every step of the way.
To no one’s surprise, England’s former coach seems not to have been greatly saddened by the country’s struggles and now he has even got into a row about the sex lives of his players.
Ex-England fly-half Danny Cipriani has written in his autobiography Who Am I? that, back in 2016, Jones seemed more concerned about quizzing him over the intimacies of his relationship with television presenter Kirsty Gallacher than anything to do with rugby.
Jones told Mail Sport yesterday morning that the claims were a ‘complete fabrication’. At least it’s more fun than talking about England’s chances in France.
IT’S ALL KICKING OFF!
It’s All Kicking Off is an exciting new podcast from Mail Sport that promises a different take on Premier League football.
It is available on MailOnline, Mail+, YouTube, Apple Music and Spotify.
Your browser does not support iframes.