One of Borussia Dortmund’s English prodigies scored in the Champions League this week. It wasn’t Jadon Sancho. One of Manchester United’s summer signings struck on his first appearances in the Premier League and in Europe. It wasn’t Jadon Sancho.
While Jude Bellingham has assumed the winger’s old status as the prospect who should produce Dortmund a windfall if he returns to his homeland, Sancho has really been upstaged by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Perhaps that puts him in good company, given the number of other distinguished players to suffer the same fate. The Portuguese’s propensity to eclipse everything and everyone around him can mean that, two months after his arrival, Sancho feels United’s forgotten flagship buy.
It has spared him scrutiny. He might have assumed centre stage at Old Trafford without Ronaldo. Instead, he has seemed the footnote. His was an underwhelming European bow for United, substituted after 37 minutes in the defeat to Young Boys, sacrificed in the reshuffle after Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s red card.
By then, Ronaldo had already scored, courtesy of Bruno Fernandes’s wonderful pass. In a front four also featuring an in-form Paul Pogba, there was one obvious candidate to make way. In a club populated by big names and big personalities, the junior member of the attacking quartet departed. Sancho looked luckless, but his early exit seemed symbolic of a frustrating beginning nonetheless.
“Coming here, you are always going to get a chance, playing with the some of the best players in the world,” argued Ole Gunnar Solskjær. “We signed him because we see a top forward for 10 or 12 or 15 years.”
A different rationale was used for recruiting Ronaldo, unless United believe his capacity for age-defying excellence means he can still flourish at 51. A tale of attackers of different generations offers short-termism and long-termism, past and future, immediate impact and slow start, all from one transfer window.
Sancho has had two shots, neither on target, and is already seven assists behind Pogba. Ronaldo’s goals are also the only three of United’s 12 this season to come with Sancho on the pitch. He came on after the five-goal blitz against Leeds and was substituted before Mason Greenwood’s winner at Wolves. “He is learning our training methods,” Solskjær insisted. “He is learning the Premier League. He is so clean on the ball and he has got the enthusiasm to learn. That is a big thing when you come to Manchester United.”
But Ronaldo has announced his comeback in trademark fashion. He returned to the Premier League with a double, to continental competitions with a goal in 13 minutes, to United with a force of personality that seemed to compel goalkeepers to make mistakes. “He knows the circus and everything that happened before the Newcastle game, Cristiano handled it well. Tactically he gets what we want from him,” said Solskjær. “Cristiano has been here before, he knows how we do things and we have not really had to adapt any training at all.”
If that fits Solskjær’s image of his United, suggesting it is a seamless sequel to Sir Alex Ferguson’s regime, he argued that Ronaldo and the returning backup goalkeeper Tom Heaton had a head start on the other arrivals in their second comings at Old Trafford.
“The two of them know the culture, they’ve learnt it here, they’ve come back and they’ve given these young boys glimpses of what you can have in your career,” he said; presumably not referencing captaining Sean Dyche’s overachieving Burnley, as Heaton did. “How we do things here is within the walls and you have to experience it to be able to pass it on. With the career Cristiano has had, young players can learn off the best.”
If a role model is a rival, the seemingly impossible challenge for Sancho and co is to displace Ronaldo from the team. “Good players come in and you learn from them but you still want to take their place,” Solskjær said.
But Sancho’s station feels uncertain. The curiosity is that the 21-year-old seemed bought for Ronaldo’s old beat on the right but only one of his three starts has come there: the ill-fated cameo in Switzerland. Dan James played there at Molineux and was sold 48 hours later. With the most prolific goalscorer in footballing history suddenly at his disposal, Solskjær moved Greenwood to the right against Newcastle.
“It is about getting the best out of the team, not one player,” said the manager. “You can say you want the best out of Bruno, you want the best out of Mason, you want the best out of Jadon.” Which, thus far, United have not seen from a player who averaged a goal or assist every 69 minutes in the Bundesliga two seasons ago.
Ronaldo even garnered more attention when both had been substituted on Tuesday. He caught the eye more than both 1990s and 2020s United forwards alike. He and Fernandes led the touchline protests when Young Boys’ Christopher Martins fouled Nemanja Matic. “Bruno and Cristiano, competitive as they are, suddenly I had them on my shoulders for a brief spell, shouting at the referee,” said Solskjær.
It prompted Rio Ferdinand to say one former teammate, Solskjær, should have told another, Ronaldo, to sit down. There may be slight cracks in the relationships between the Old Trafford old boys. “Rio again, sometimes he comments on things he doesn’t really know,” said Solskjær with a sigh. “I don’t have any problem with them showing some passion and going back down. It is not like he was coaching the players.”
If Sancho has been relegated by the all-consuming power of Ronaldo, Solskjær was keen to stress he himself has not been.