Craig Burley gives his top five U-21 English players, with Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold all battling for the top spot.
DORTMUND, Germany — Jadon Sancho lives in a contemporary home overlooking an artificial lake in Phoenix-See, an affluent development on the edge of Dortmund. He drives a white Mercedes, but he doesn’t drive it far. He’ll go to practice, which is about five minutes away. If it’s hot, maybe he’ll get ice cream. Then he’ll come home.
He’ll settle in with a video game, FIFA or Fortnite, and wait for his private chef to make him dinner. It’s a life so bland, so willfully anonymous, that you’d think it wouldn’t matter where he lives.
It matters. Still only 19, Borussia Dortmund’s Sancho has emerged over the past year as a transcendent footballer. “He’s an exceptional talent,” Jurgen Klopp said after his Liverpool team lost to Dortmund, his former team, in a friendly in July. “There’s no doubt about the potential of Jadon Sancho.” These days, he’s regarded as the best player in the world born in the 21st Century; there is nobody younger who is better. The website Transfermarkt gauges his value at 100 million Euros. “He can be a very, very, very important player in Europe,” says Lucien Favre, the Dortmund manager.
Axel Witsel, Sancho’s teammate, goes further. “I’ve watched him improve since I came here,” Witsel says. “He works hard. He scores goals. If he keeps going like that, he will be one of the best players of his generation.”
Sancho scored 12 goals last season for Dortmund. ‘When I left Manchester [City], there were a lot of people that doubted me,’ he says.
And Dortmund? It’s a working-class city in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s version of Pittsburgh. Hardly a tourist destination, it would seem unlikely to attract a young, ambitious Englishman in any profession. But it’s crucial to Sancho’s trajectory because it isn’t Manchester. Or London, Liverpool, Watford, Southampton, or anywhere else in England.
Three summers ago, Sancho declined the opportunity to tour North America with Manchester City after refining his game at its youth academy. The club regarded him as a potential first-teamer somewhere down the road. Sancho believed he was there already, even at 17. “I was standing out, week in and week out,” he says, describing his success with Man City’s U-23 team. “I felt it was time to seek another challenge.”
Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s manager, wanted to move slowly. He proposed letting Sancho test his skills against the first team during training sessions. “You start the phase where you duel with Kyle Walker, with [Benjamin] Mendy, with [Vincent] Kompany,” Guardiola said, listing three of City’s — and the world’s — leading backs at the time. “And then we will see what is your level, your dribbling, when you are going to play against all the fullbacks in the Premier League. That is what we believe is the next step.”
It sounded sensible, but Sancho didn’t want to wait. Crucially, he didn’t have to. Over the past decade, starting around the time that Klopp inherited the team in 2008, Dortmund has aggressively pursued promising teenagers, including Christian Pulisic. It was primed to do the same with Sancho. “You could see how good he was,” says Michael Zorc, Dortmund’s sporting director.
The Premier League is regarded as the best in football. Aspiring stars are supposed to come to England to make their fame and fortune, not leave it. But rather than striving to play for Guardiola, who had won titles at Barcelona and Bayern Munich and would win at Manchester City, Sancho decided to leave him before his senior career had even started. He was driving, somebody said, the wrong way down a one-way street.
Dortmund isn’t much further from South London than Manchester is. But it was in another country, and it might as well have been another world. “Going there was a very bold move,” says Arsenal’s Reiss Nelson, a childhood friend. “Not everyone would have done it. It was brave.”
Sancho had never played a first-team match. He couldn’t speak German. He didn’t know anyone in Dortmund, where he became the first Englishman to play for the club. He wasn’t criticized so much as pitied. Was he delusional? Getting bad advice? “When I left Manchester, there were a lot of people that doubted me,” Sancho says. “Saying it’s too early to leave England. It’s a big club. I might not play. That it was very rare for an English player to do well in Germany.”
But Sancho knew he was ready to go because he knew where he’d already gone.
As a kid, Sancho honed his game playing street soccer. ‘There’s no rules. I was just freestyling, finding ways to nutmeg people. You’d bring back tricks to the training ground,’ he says.
The Kennington tube stop is the one after Elephant and Castle, heading south on the Northern Line. Topped by a metal dome, it has pretensions of grandeur. It must have looked quite stately some sixty or seventy years ago. But the stained and crumbling concrete, and the straggle of bystanders on the street corner in front of it — one in a workout pants and a ripped jacket, another in knicker-length trousers and a soiled checked shirt — give it away.
This is Kennington, in the London borough of Southwark. It’s where Sancho grew up, a lower-middle-class neighborhood with the accent on the lower. Like Camden Town and then Bermondsey, it has started to gentrify because affordable housing near central London is hard to find. It looks a lot better, residents insist, than it did a few years ago. But it has a long way to go.
Until he was 12, Sancho lived with his mother and sister on the ground floor of Kennington’s Guinness Trust Estates, red-brick apartments that were built in 1921 with a government grant. In primary school, Sancho would arrive home shortly after three o’clock. By four, he’d have eaten a snack, done his homework, packed his gear. If his father, Sean, was able to swing by in his old Citroen, Sancho would wait for him in the parking lot. If not, Sancho would head to that tube stop with one of his father’s friends, who had been designated for the assignment that day.
Driving from Kennington to Watford F.C.’s academy, which is located on the far northwestern edge of Greater London, takes maybe two hours each way during the afternoon crush. By tube, the trip is shorter, but only slightly. Take the Northern Line toward Charing Cross. Get off at Euston and wait for the National Rail. Go two stops on a Midlands train toward Milton Keynes. Then transfer to an Overground train at Watford Junction for the short hop to Watford High Street. It’s a fifteen minute walk from there. Leave at four and you’ll make the 6 p.m. training, assuming none of the trains arrived late or got stuck in one of the delays that plague London transit. “It took a long, long time,” Sancho says.
Two hours there, two hours back — all for two hours of training with a Watford youth team. Watford had discovered Sancho during a camp it ran in Battersea, across the river from Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. Sean Sancho’s friend was working as a liaison between the community and the club. Young Jadon showed up and impressed everyone. “They realized he was good,” Sean says, “and they sent that up the line.”
Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s manager, wanted to develop Sancho’s game slowly. Sancho didn’t want to wait.
The first-generation son of a Guyanese father and a Jamaican mother, Sean, 45, grew up in Kennington. He never married Jadon’s mother, so he used football to stay connected with his son. They’d occasionally go to see Chelsea or Arsenal, but mostly Jadon liked to play. Sean encouraged it. Football would help keep him away from trouble. “If you’re idle, something can come and take your mind away,” Sean says. “You’ve got to have something else to do.” After Jadon’s skills started turning heads, Sean started thinking of football as his son’s ticket to a better life. “Without football, I don’t know what path he might have taken,” he says. “I’d like to be optimistic, but who knows?”
Soon Jadon was offered a place at Watford’s academy. “We saw it as the next step,” Sean says. “That was always what was in my mind. Whatever needs to be done needs to be done.” At the time, Jadon was eight years old. The academy had no provision for boarders that young. But the trip from Kennington to Watford was too long for him to make every day. It was agreed that he would do it three times a week.
On the other days, Sancho headed to the cages. Blacktopped playgrounds surrounded by chain-link fencing, they’d been devised by cynical developers as a way to devote as little real estate as possible to inner-city exercise. They’ve evolved into one of Europe’s greatest manifestations of street football. Games there are raw, unstructured, often dangerous. Nobody is ever offside. You call fouls at your risk. “You’re allowed to do anything,” Sancho says. “There’s no rules.”
More talented players are on display in the cages of South London than anywhere else in the city, maybe anywhere in Europe. A few make it out. Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha developed his game in the cages. So did Liverpool’s Joe Gomez. Tottenham’s Ryan Sessegnon and Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham are two of the latest to break through. “You come home from school and you maybe don’t even change your shoes,” recalls Nelson, who lived a short walk from Sancho in Aylesbury. “You’ve got the ball at your feet, and you learn what you can do with it. Going into the academy, you bring that rough flair from the streets with you.”
One of the playgrounds is located over a tall fence that borders the development where Sancho lived. What passes for a pitch there is tiny, no bigger than a basketball court. Even five-on-five, there’s little room to maneuver. Dribbling makes far more sense than trying to thread a pass through the crush of defenders. Sancho is renowned for his speed, but in the cages speed becomes irrelevant. It’s all quickness, a shake of the head in one direction, then acceleration in another. “You have to shuffle your body,” Sean Sancho says. “It’s about the feint, like Boxing. You get the defender to second-guess.”
Because he didn’t go to Watford every day, Sancho was able to get the best from each of his disparate worlds. The skills he honed on rough blacktop were even more effective on a proper field. “I was just freestyling, finding ways to nutmeg people,” Sancho says. “You’d bring back tricks to the training ground. And not many people have them kind of tricks at a young age, so I would stand out.” At the same time, the coaching he received at Watford made him shine even brighter in neighborhood games. He learned how to make a pass, and how to effectively receive one. “You add that to the cage,” he says, “and become a complete player.”
Sancho commuted to Watford for four years. When he turned 12, the club proposed to pay his tuition at an elite boarding school near its facility. Many of the students there were sons of foreign millionaires. “It was a very different culture,” Sancho says. That, too, was part of Watford’s plan. Sancho had brought his street football nous with him from Kennington, but he’d also brought some of the street’s less desirable characteristics. “My attitude wasn’t the best,” he admits. “That part of the hood was still in me. I was getting into trouble, getting detention. And one of my coaches sat me down and said, ‘We rate you highly, but you’ve got to choose which way you want to go. Left or right. Good or bad.'”
By then, his game had evolved into a rough version of what we see today. “Some people said I seemed Brazilian,” he says. “I understand where they’re coming from. Because English players don’t typically play like I do.”
He had just turned 14 when Manchester City made an offer. Moving there was his third journey. “The hardest one,” he says. “Could I handle that next step? And obviously, I handled it very well.”
Sancho was a star for Man City’s youth teams. ‘I was standing out, week in and week out. I felt it was time to seek another challenge,’ he says.
“The team sheet,” Michael Zorc says. He smiles. “It’s my best argument.”
He’s explaining how Dortmund manages to get tomorrow’s stars to spurn some of world’s biggest clubs and come to the Ruhr Valley. “They know we are not afraid to use young talent,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Look at our team sheets. You will play!’ And not in a cup game against a second-division team, but important games against Schalke, Moenchengladbach, Bayern. In the Champions League.”
By 17, Pulisic was on Dortmund’s senior team. When Mario Gotze was 17, he was playing every week. Ousmane Dembele, now with Barcelona, had turned 19 when he came to Dortmund in 2016. Jurgen Klopp’s unheralded Dortmund team that upset Bayern Munich in 2011 had an average age of 22. “On 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon,” Zorc says, referencing the usual Bundesliga start time, “we typically have three, four, five players under 20.” Zorc wanted Sancho to be the next.
One of football’s most adept executives, Zorc has made a virtue out of necessity. Dortmund won the Champions League in 1997, a stunning apotheosis for a working-man’s club. By 2004, though, it had spent itself into bankruptcy. If not for a bridge loan of two million Euros from Bayern Munich, and then a crucial vote by investors in March, 2005, that ratified a restructuring plan, it would have been dropped into the nether reaches of German football, and without the financial capacity to return.
Frightened into frugality, Dortmund has since operated far more prudently. The home dressing room lacks the luxuries that even smaller clubs routinely offer. Players don’t even get a cubicle, just four metal hooks for their street clothes and accessories. A wooden bench runs the length of room like in a sauna, with a rubber-covered floor beneath. If the hair dryers, which are permanently installed beneath the small mirror at one end, look like remnants from the 1970s, it’s because they are.
Sancho joins a front line of Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane for England.
Even with one of the largest stadiums in Europe, Dortmund’s earning capacity doesn’t come close to matching that of the world’s biggest clubs. Its fans can’t afford the ticket prices that most of its Champions League competitors get. Nearly 30,000 standing-room places in Signal Iduna Park cost under 20 euros. Even the priciest seats top out at 60.
Like many small clubs, Dortmund generates revenue by selling players to the giants. The difference is, it also wants to successfully compete against them. So Zorc combs the world for young talent. He hopes his discoveries will make their most dramatic progress at the end of their teens and the start of their twenties, while they’re wearing black and yellow. Then he’ll sell them to a bigger club at a sizeable profit. These days, Dortmund’s alumni association would field a competitive team in nearly any league in Europe: Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski, Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Man City’s Ilkay Gundogan, Barcelona’s Dembele, Chelsea’s Pulisic, Japan and Real Zaragoza’s Shinji Kagawa. Klopp took many of those players to the Champions League final in 2013. And Sancho was watching.
Sancho had shaken off homesickness and raced through the Manchester City youth program after arriving there in 2015. In the summer of 2017, director of football Txiki Begiristain offered a professional contract. Begiristain assumed it was pro forma, a done deal. Who turns down Man City?
But Sancho wasn’t convinced. The world’s greatest collection of forwards was already fighting for playing time under Guardiola: Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus. “The opportunity, I didn’t see it,” Sancho says.
And while Dortmund was noticing Sancho, Sancho had been noticing Dortmund. He saw that Pulisic was playing regularly. He knew that Dortmund competed in Europe nearly every season. He hadn’t been there, but when he Googled the city, Borussia Dortmund came up as the top attraction. “I thought of it as an opportunity to show the world who I am and what I can do,” he said. “I thought of it like just another away trip. ‘I just need to go away and play football.'”
The deal Zorc and Beguristain negotiated called for a price of seven million euros, with a clause that gave Manchester City 15 percent of the profit from a future sale and a first-refusal option. Dortmund gave him the same No. 7 shirt that Dembele had worn. “That surprised me,” Sancho said, but it also gave him confidence. As a 17-year-old in 2017-18, he started seven games and came on as a substitute in five more. His first goal in any senior competition came against Bayer Leverkusen on April 21, 2018.
Sancho’s progression has been so rapid, it’s hard to believe that goal happened only 18 months ago. He added 12 more goals and 14 assists last year, helping Dortmund finish second in the Bundesliga, a point behind Bayern Munich. Under Favre, whose idea of perfect football is Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team, Dortmund plays a free-flowing style that enables Sancho to show far more creativity than he would for another German side. “We can play very active football because we have players like Jadon,” Favre says. “He can play short, he can play long. He can play with one touch. He can dribble in front of the goal, he can use his head. He destabilizes the other team.”
Sancho is still learning, like any teenager. He makes mistakes. Accustomed to watching young players develop, Dortmund’s supporters shrug them off. That’s not the reaction he’d be getting if he’d stayed in Manchester. “There’s just a lot of pressure in England,” he says. “The media is so hard on young players. If you have not a good game, it’s like you’re not ready, you’re not good enough. Germany is relaxed. I think a young player needs that.”
Sancho played for England in the UEFA Nations League in June. By the time he reported back to Dortmund, he was a full-fledged star. “It isn’t just that he made the team, but that he continues to build on it,” said teammate Thomas Delaney. “I would almost call it a privilege to watch Jadon every day in training. It’s spectacular. He does things with the ball I’ve never seen before. If I tried to do what he does, I’d hurt myself.”
Will Sancho leave Dortmund after this season for a Premier League club? When asked, he smiles and says he’ll do what seems right to him no matter what the expectations dictate.
It’s a quiet night in Dortmund. But then, what other kind is there?
Zorc grew up there. He spent his entire 17-year senior career playing for Dortmund as a central midfielder. Now he has placed the success of the club in the hands of players who can’t legally drink a beer in the United States. In that situation, he understands, dull is desirable. “There’s no nightlife,” he confirms. “No distractions. It’s not Las Vegas, not Berlin, not London. You have to go 100 kilometers for anything.” That allows young players to focus on their football. If Sancho fritters away his evenings playing Fortnite after the occasional ice cream, well, Zorc knows he could be doing far worse somewhere else.
Eventually, Sancho will want more, on and off the field. Lewandowski ultimately left for Munich. So did Gotze, though he returned. Aubameyang and Gundogan moved on to the Premier League, and Dembele for Barcelona. They were replaced by the next generation of hot prospects, the likes of Pulisic and Sancho. Pulisic now plays for Chelsea, a deal that enhanced Zorc’s budget by $73 million. As he was leaving, perhaps the next great American prospect — Gio Reyna, ClAudio’s son, who turns 17 next month — arrived. And hidden away in Dortmund’s youth program, a 14-year-old named Yousouffa Moukoko is scoring goals by the dozen.
Soon enough, too, Sancho will be gone. It almost happened last summer, after Manchester United made its intentions known. But Zorc advised Sancho that the time wasn’t yet right, and Sancho agreed. In August, Sancho signed an extension through 2022 that pays him more than 200,000 euros a week, but nobody is under the illusion that he will finish the contract. This season in the Bundesliga is almost certain to be his last.
Sancho reflects on his decision to move to Dortmund. ‘Could I handle that next step? And obviously, I handled it very well,’ he says.
On this particular quiet night in Dortmund, Sancho has just been chosen to represent England for Euro 2020 qualifying matches against Bulgaria and Kosovo. Unlike his first senior selection, when he was expecting to be chosen for the U-21s, this one was a foregone conclusion. Very quickly, Sancho has become the best sort of problem for England manager Gareth Southgate, whose front line of Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane will need to make room.
Sancho is the only England player who hasn’t played in the Premier League. Until Kieran Trippier left Spurs for Atletico Madrid before this season, he was the only one not playing in England. But that hasn’t hampered his international advancement. “I don’t see a negative at all,” Southgate said recently. “Jadon’s playing before 80,000 fans at Dortmund every week. That brings huge pressure. We want our players to be feeling that intensity.”
Sancho ended up scoring twice in England’s 5-3 victory over Kosovo. That set the English media on its latest frenzy about which Premier League team he will be headed to next summer. In recent months, he has been linked not only with Man United but also Man City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool. He’d be open to the idea of playing in England but insists it isn’t something he needs to do, not now. That’s a point that Frederik Obasi, one of two South London brothers who represent Sancho, made before the summer. “Everyone is talking ‘England, England, England,'” he said. “But why do they assume he has to go there? There are other leagues and other clubs that would also make sense for Jadon at this point.”
For a player on the cusp of worldwide stardom, spurning an offer from one of the Premier League’s top clubs would seem counterintuitive. By next summer, he’ll be 20: a proven England international, and one of the biggest stars in the sport. Why wouldn’t he want to compete in the world’s best and most remunerative league, coming home as a superstar to a place where friends and family could watch him? To go anywhere else would be to defy logic.
Sancho smiles and says he’ll do what seems right to him, no matter what expectations might dictate. Believe him. He has done it before.