Jadon Sancho has plenty of confidence. When he was given the opportunity to go to Borussia Dortmund from Manchester City three years ago, he looked at the Bundesliga team and targeted Christian Pulisic. “He was 18 at the time and starting week-in and week-out,” Sancho, who was a year younger than the American, said. “I felt like I could compete with him.”
It was the Londoner’s polite way of saying that he knew he was the better player.
The 20-year-old will have made the same mental calculation about Manchester United’s squad. He knows he can walk into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first XI and make a huge impact at Old Trafford. He is an attacker in the tradition of George Best and Cristiano Ronaldo. Asked last year about how he intended to improve his game, Sancho answered without hesitation. “More skills and more goals,” he said. “More stepovers. More tricks.”
For the moment it the trickiness of the transfer negotiations between Dortmund and United that are dominating the headlines.
There is very little transparency in deals like this. They are characterised by briefings by both sides and the various middlemen involved in the transaction. Dortmund want in the region of £106m and United are prepared to pay about £80m. There are differences of opinion about the upfront cash and payment schedules. An impasse was reached on Monday when Michael Zorc, Dortmund’s sporting director, declared that Sancho would spend next season in Germany.
United are one of the wealthiest teams in the world and have always resented that selling clubs have used this knowledge to try and wring out a premium on players wanted by Old Trafford. The upside of the situation is that transfer targets are generally thrilled to join United. A move to the Red Devils offers the promise of trophies, lifts the profile of the player and opens up a multitude of marketing opportunities.
This means United can squeeze the sellers. One tactic that is frequently used by the more powerful clubs is to provisionally agree a fee and wages but, at the last moment, drop both valuations. If it works, the buyers can save millions. When it goes wrong it alienates the selling team and causes bad blood.
This is nothing new. In 2004, United were keen to sign Arjen Robben from PSV Eindhoven. They indicated to Harry van Raaij, the rather old-fashioned PSV president, that they would pay £12.5m but when the official offer was received it was around half the figure. Van Raaij was appalled and Chelsea took advantage to bring the Dutch winger to Stamford Bridge. United had already signed Cristiano Ronaldo and would go on to buy Wayne Rooney from Everton at the end of the summer. The tantalising prospect of Rooney, Ronaldo and Robben operating together feels like one of the great missed opportunities of English football.
There were echoes of the Robben deal when United wanted Pedro from Barcelona five years ago. Ed Woodward, Old Trafford’s executive vice chairman, who is leading the bid for Sancho, was involved in the Pedro discussions and the Spaniard’s agent claimed that United “fell asleep” during negotiations. Once again there were suggestions that United made a late shift in valuations and Chelsea were the beneficiaries.
Woodward is not considered one of football’s finest wheeler-dealers. His protracted attempt to bargain with Leicester City over Harry Maguire’s fee last summer ended with the East Midlands club getting almost everything they wanted for the defender. Most observers feel that the £80 million it cost to bring Maguire to Old Trafford was excessive.
In the coronavirus-affected financial climate there is no other potential buyer to drive up Sancho’s price. Dortmund feel that next summer will likely provide a more stable fiscal environment. That means they can afford to hold their nerve to get their price now. United’s gambit has been to shop around for alternatives, with Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa of Juventus mentioned. Both clubs know, however, that Sancho is Solskjaer’s and United’s first choice.
The young Englishman has the right attitude, skillset and style to adorn Old Trafford. Woodward is likely to have to pay the asking price to get the deal done. United may have to stump up cold hard cash because attempts at guile in the boardroom could well backfire. If they want Sancho’s trickery on the pitch, United will have to play straight with Dortmund.