The remaking of Jadon Sancho at Dortmund

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The remaking of Jadon Sancho at Dortmund

A Champions League final at Wembley comes laced with meaning for many associated with Borussia Dortmund. Marco Reus and Mats Hummels played in their defeat there to Bayern Munich in 2013. Edin Terzic, now the manager, was in London as a fan.

The stadium holds slightly different emotions for another among the Dortmund squad tasked with providing a better ending against Real Madrid on Saturday. For Jadon Sancho, his Wembley final was more than disappointing. It was the night everything changed.

Brought on by Gareth Southgate in the 120th minute of England’s European Championship final against Italy, Sancho had been introduced to take a penalty. His shot was saved, his team lost and he was the subject of horrendous racist abuse in the aftermath.

England's Jadon Sancho reacts after missing his shot at goal during a penalty shootout at the Euro 2020 soccer championship final between England and Italy at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, July 11, 2021.

Image: Jadon Sancho reacts after missing his penalty for England in the final of Euro 2020

Just 12 days later, his £73m move to Manchester United was confirmed. He arrived as perhaps the most exciting young prospect in European football after scoring 50 goals and providing 64 assists in 137 games for Dortmund. He was still only 21 years old.

Events since have conspired to mean that despite earning the right to walk out at Wembley again in the biggest game in European club football, he does so having long since lost his place in the England squad – and not with United but back on loan at Dortmund.

The story of what happened in the intervening period depends on who you ask. For some, Sancho was a victim of the United malaise. Expected to turn up and turn it on, he found a team lacking in structure, an environment not conducive to allowing him to thrive.

Sancho had never been a soloist despite those slaloming runs from deep. At Dortmund, he had full-backs overlapping to create space and a centre-forward willing to exchange passes and provide movement. At United, it was just give him the ball and wait.

Others would point to talk of tardiness that predated his arrival, whispers of a questionable attitude. Omitted by Erik ten Hag on the grounds of training-ground performance, Sancho pushed back, refused to apologise and found himself frozen out of the squad.

It remains remarkable, something alluded to by former Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp as he left Liverpool. “I cannot just buy into that ‘he’s useless’ stuff – like other clubs did by the way,” he said. “Buying a player for £80m and then sending him out on loan!”

But whatever the situation says about United it did not reflect well on Sancho, either, and a response was required. Dortmund, it seems, was the best place from where to provide one. He immediately cut a different figure on his return to Germany. “Dortmund is home to me,” he declared.

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Jadon Sancho described Dortmund as ‘home’ upon his return to the club

The club where he had made his name seemed to intuitively understand their role in helping him to show his talent, rediscover his true self. “Jadon is a player that needs to smile,” noted Terzic. “If he is smiling then he is going to shine on the pitch.”

Dortmund eased him back at first but they played him into form. It has not been a tour de force, with two goals and two assists in his 14 Bundesliga appearances, but there have been glimpses of the talent that once lit up their stadium. He has felt valued again.

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Watch how Jadon Sancho celebrated reaching the Champions League final

‘We forget they are human’

Speaking to Jurgen Klinsmann about this, he emphasised the human aspect. “Jadon obviously had a rough time finding his rhythm again and settling back again. We often forget that these very talented young players are just human beings,” he told Sky Sports.

“When they go from one extreme to another and do not find their form in one place and something is not working or clicking and then they decide to go back to the place they came before, it takes time to adjust and get their confidence and form back.

“In that situation, I think that it is really important that the manager is patient with the player, that the manager lets the player do their thing and is there to help but not putting them too much under pressure to perform right away at the highest level.”

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Watch Jadon Sancho scores for the first time since re-joining Dortmund on loan

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Watch Jadon Sancho’s wonderful opening goal against RB Leipzig in April

Real Sancho emerging again

His importance to Dortmund is illustrated by the statistics. Sancho has completed 36 dribbles in the Bundesliga since his return – ranking third in the competition in that time – and has created more chances from open play than any other Dortmund player.

But it is in the Champions League that he has really impressed. It was in this competition, in a 2-0 win over PSV in March, that he scored his first goal back in front of those Dortmund supporters. Against Paris Saint-Germain, in the semi-final, he was outstanding.

His 13 completed dribbles in the first leg were not only the most by a player in a Champions League game this season, they were more than anyone else in the previous two seasons as well. In fact, only Eden Hazard and Neymar have topped that figure in the past decade.

Jadon Sancho has completed more dribbles than any other player in the Champions League in 2024

Confidence restored, Sancho was running at defenders with purpose again, full of energy on and off the ball. Since returning, he has blocked more passes than anyone else in the Champions League and ranks second in the competition for recovering possession.

Klinsmann speaks for everyone when he says that it is a joy to see him like this. “[He has shown] that he can perform at the highest level he has shown in the past in his young career. So I was really pleased that he picked up the pace now and is looking good, looking sharp.”

All that remains is a fitting ending. Three years on, he can close the loop with another big performance against Real Madrid, making history at the club that helped make him a star, at the stadium where the dream started to unravel. Back at Wembley. Just back.

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