They are two of the most exciting attacking players in world football, wingers with the ability to score as often as they create, and after a summer in which one emerged as a star of Euro 2020 and the other finally secured an €85 million move to the Premier League, this season should have been a showcase for Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho. But as they prepare for Saturday’s 186th derby between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford, both players find themselves on the fringes at their respective clubs, with neither expected to start the game.
There are different reasons behind Sterling and Sancho’s battle for form and favour this season, but there are also similarities — competition from new signings and managers attempting to devise a system to compensate for squad weaknesses are two significant factors — and both players are struggling to mount a convincing case for selection.
Sterling, England‘s outstanding player during their run to the Euro 2020 final this summer, has started six of Man City’s 17 games in all competitions this season, with manager Pep Guardiola handing him only three starts in 10 Premier League fixtures so far. And Sancho, who left Borussia Dortmund for United following a two-year transfer chase in July, has found life tough at Old Trafford. Like Sterling, the 21-year-old has started six games in all competitions, and three in the Premier League, but while his England teammate has at least been able to register two goals for City, Sancho has failed to get off the mark for United and has rarely looked like doing so.
Sterling became the fifth-highest scoring English player in the Champions League — behind Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard — by netting his 22nd goal in the competition as a late substitute during Wednesday’s 4-1 Group A victory against Club Brugge, but Guardiola was terse when asked whether the goal would help Sterling’s confidence.
“You have to ask him,” Guardiola said, before adding: “I expect the best from my players. We play for an incredible club, for our people, we are fortunate to be here so I expect the best. I want more from all of them. From staff to backroom staff, I want the best. If it doesn’t go well, we will have a problem.”
Less than a month ago, after Sterling had spoken publicly about being “open to going somewhere else for more game time,” Guardiola was clearly unimpressed by the 26-year-old’s comments — “I didn’t know it and I think the club neither” — and suggested he could leave if he so wished.
“I don’t know if he wants to play more game time like Riyad [Mahrez], who doesn’t play and he doesn’t complain, like Joao [Cancelo] doesn’t play and he doesn’t complain,” Guardiola said. “What I want from Raheem and everyone is they have to be satisfied to be here and delighted to be in this club. If that’s not the case they are free to take the best decision for the player and his family.”
Sterling’s contract, which expires at the end of June 2023, is not the central factor behind his diminishing opportunities under Guardiola. Sources have told ESPN that the manager is looking to the future, having signed Jack Grealish from Aston Villa for £100m this summer, and that the evolution of City’s game has rendered Sterling less important than during the early days of Guardiola’s time in charge. Initially, Sterling’s pace and ability to get behind opposing defences was a key element of Guardiola’s tactical blueprint, but the arrival of Grealish has enabled City to play a more technical, possession-based game, without relying on a central striker in the attacking third — one that’s less-suited to Sterling’s attributes.
Sources told ESPN that Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez are all regarded as being more comfortable on the ball by Guardiola and his coaches, while also being more able to replicate the quick, short-passing game that worked so successfully for the manager at Barcelona. In short, Sterling has served City and Guardiola well, scoring 116 goals and assisting 89 in 307 appearances, but is not deemed to be quite so important in the next phase of the team’s development, which is why his opportunities are becoming infrequent.
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It is a different story for Sancho at United. While Sterling might have become yesterday’s man at the Etihad, Sancho was signed from Dortmund with the intention of being both United’s present and future.
Solskjaer and his coaches had spent two years trying to sign Sancho, having identified the need for an attacking outlet down the right. His numbers at Dortmund were off the scale, with 50 goals and 64 assists in 137 appearances. But after 12 games at United, there have been no goals and no assists. United have played 15 games in all competitions and Sancho has clocked up just 520 minutes — 38 percent of all available minutes — since the start of the season. His only 90-minute outing came during the Carabao Cup third-round defeat against West Ham and according to official Premier League statistics, he has managed just 18 touches in the opposition penalty area all season.
The unexpected signing of Cristiano Ronaldo from Juventus in August has not helped Sancho, with the 36-year-old not part of Solskjaer’s tactical outlook when he added Sancho to his squad during the summer. United’s game is now built around how they can accommodate Ronaldo’s incredible scoring talents at the same time as compensating for his lack of defensive capabilities; as a result, Solskjaer has struggled to find a place for Sancho. But when he has, the United manager has largely played him on the left, despite his impressive statistics at Dortmund being driven by his ability down the right.
Sources have told ESPN that Sancho’s need for time to adjust at a new club and in a new league have been overlooked by United, perhaps due to him being an English player even though he never made a Premier League appearance during his days as a teenager at City. History shows that attacking players moving from the Bundesliga to the Premier League struggle in their early months — Shinji Kagawa, Henrikh Mkhitaryan at United; Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Naby Keita and Roberto Firmino elsewhere — and Sancho is experiencing a similar battle to acclimatise.
So poor have Sancho’s performances been for United that former club captain Gary Neville said last week that he feared the player could “end up like Donny van de Beek if he’s not careful,” citing the Netherlands midfielder’s dismal time at United since arriving from Ajax for €45m in August 2020.
Sources have also told ESPN that United’s coaches have worked hard to get Sancho’s fitness up to expected levels following his arrival at the club in the wake of an unproductive summer with England at Euro 2020. (He’s also been left out of the England squad for their World Cup qualifiers against Albania and San Marino.) Another source has said that Sancho can be a challenging character, and that it will take time for him and United to understand how each other works successfully.
United manager Solskjaer is still offering his public backing for Sancho. “Jadon will come good,” Solskjaer said this week. He has a great work-rate and attitude. He’ll have many, many years as a good player here.”
Right now, Sancho needs to do something — anything — that will help him ignite his United career. For Sterling, however, it is more about resolving whether he wants his future to be at City and if he can win over his manager. Sadly, for both players, they are likely to be given more time to contemplate their problems from the bench on Saturday.