Dortmund unlock the joy of Jadon Sancho after Manchester United nightmare

Jadon Sancho delivered one of the best performances of the Champions League knockout stages  (Getty Images)
Jadon Sancho delivered one of the best performances of the Champions League knockout stages (Getty Images)

As the Borussia Dortmund players eventually left the pitch after their customary serenading by the yellow wall, there was only one player everyone was talking about. There was only one player everyone wanted to talk to, as well.

By the time broadcast media eventually got to Jadon Sancho, he was inevitably asked about Manchester United. It didn’t seem like the time or place, as he made clear. He gave the right answer: “I’m focused on the present right now.”

How couldn’t he be? He’d just delivered one of the performances of the Champions League knockout stages in repeatedly destroying Paris Saint-Germain, especially the hapless Nuno Mendes. It was tortuous to watch the defender. It was exhilarating to watch Sancho. This was the player many had been waiting for.

But even though it was unfair to put questions about United to the player himself after a night like that, it is impossible for the rest of us to avoid the issue. This story is all the more remarkable because of how the season started. Nobody could have imagined Sancho putting a team on the brink of a Champions League final when he couldn’t even get close to the United first team.

There is another twist to that, of course. Although there are no English clubs in these semi-finals, they had been framed by English stars. It was just that all of the attention was inevitably on Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham. Sancho was barely discussed.

Jadon Sancho ran rings around the Paris Saint-Germain defenders (Getty Images)
Jadon Sancho ran rings around the Paris Saint-Germain defenders (Getty Images)

He has so far had by far the biggest impact. A player who was born under 12 miles from Wembley now has one foot in the stadium, although through a path nobody expected. That comes from so many runs that PSG found impossible to predict. It was joyous in how Sancho so often turned this way and that. While Mendes had to face him most out wide, what was most exhilarating was how Sancho kept coming inside the player.

It was far removed from the more restrictive role that he has had at United. Sancho was more of a modern No 10, which much better suited his movement and innovation.

There is obviously more to it than just position of course, which is why the question about United is much more complicated than just about whether a performing player should return. Sancho has never looked fully comfortable at Old Trafford. It was as if the huge price and two-year wait for his signing created a pressure that was always a problem. He just wasn’t ready for that, especially amid the dysfunction at United.

It wasn’t only that they were signing yet another hugely expensive player but also there was a responsibility on him to be another saviour. Football no longer works like that. Sancho never properly worked in United’s more basic system. It is telling that Ralf Rangnick felt he was one of the few players who got the German’s idea of “ball-oriented pressing”. It makes it all the more of a surprise that Erik ten Hag has been unable to use him properly.

It does begin to look like the problem was more everything going on at United than just Sancho but there is more than that too.

He’s just more at home at Dortmund. This is a system that works towards him, but also a situation that suits him better.

Not even a Champions League semi-final involves the same pressure as United. That is because Dortmund did not expect to be here. They instead hope to go further. That is what Sancho plays into. His play offered a joy that brought hope. It is the freedom that comes from being released to roam rather than absolutely having to produce.

There is a difference. Sancho so often made the difference and could have been the decisive player had teammates taken some of his chances. A ball for Julian Brandt late on was divine, but it was just one of many.

Marquinhos was there, blocking. PSG still block the way to this final. They missed more than enough chances of their own. Luis Enrique’s assertive demeanour after the game suggests they will have an even greater sense of mission for the return than Sancho.

That will bring a different pressure. Sancho, however, looks ready to rise to that. He is suddenly the English player everyone will be looking to.