Manchester United’s future can be bright if they build around Sancho

小号hortly after half-time the Villarreal fans broke into their customary rendition of Yellow Submarine, the song from which the club takes its nickname. 自然, being English people abroad, 这 曼联 fans at the north end of the ground decided to drown them out with their own version. “Number one is Georgie Best,” they sang. “Number two is Georgie Best.”

How many other fanbases sing about a player who has not played for them in almost 50 年? It’s easy to ridicule United’s veneration of its past, the interminable appeals to nostalgia, the decision to appoint an episode of Premier League Years 97-98 as its full-time manager. But there’s something really rather touching about it, 也: the sense of a lineage, an unbroken thread, roots and origins. Singing about George Best in 2021 说: “We don’t really know where we’re going. We don’t really know who we are. But we know who we were.”

Does the past still matter? It is a more complicated question than it looks. 这 demise of Ole Gunnar Solskjær proved that you can’t run a modern super-club on soundbites and traditions alone. The past can inspire you but it cannot shape what you will become. But on the other hand you have Cristiano Ronaldo, a player whose past generates this incredible, ominous aura around him, a latent menace that makes defenders panic a bit and earns him an extra yard. Without that aura, he is just an oiled 36-year-old man with a stepover. For Ronaldo the past matters a great deal.

但, individually brilliant as he is, no matter how many late goals he conjures up, Ronaldo is not going to show you where you’re going. If the United of 2024 is still being built around Ronaldo, then something’s gone seriously wrong. To get a real glimpse of what you can be, you need players who can shine a flashlight into tomorrow. You need players with vision, players around whom you can build a vision. You need players like Jadon Sancho.

On a chilly night on the Valencian coast Sancho finally got his first goal for Manchester United. It came in the 90th minute against tiring opponents and made no difference to the result. But all the same it felt like a transformative moment: a short back-lift, a paddling of the feet, then a shot of immense power from an unforgiving angle. Shuffle. Bang. A broad, relieved smile. 是的: as it turns out, Sancho is still quite good at this.

It was probably his best performance in a United shirt, albeit one that took a while to get going. For much of the first 70 minutes United looked exactly like a team with an interim-interim manager: leaden, indeterminate, 接地. Villarreal were passing them off the park, even if they too lacked intensity and kept messing up in the final third. Had Gerónimo Rulli not done them the enormous favour of passing the ball straight to Fred with 12 minutes to go, it could have been a grim evening for Michael Carrick.

But even amid these long periods of stalemate, often played out against a deathly hush, Sancho was still probably United’s best player. He had one of the best chances of the game, exchanging neat passes with Bruno Fernandes before seeing his shot saved by Rulli. He covered well for Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right-back. He didn’t have loads of the ball but almost invariably did something interesting with it.

Inevitably Sancho’s performance here will be attributed to the departure of Solskjær but in truth it was probably coming anyway. Sancho is, 毕竟, a brilliantly inventive player who has been adapting and finding solutions his whole career. 尽管如此, imagine how demotivating it must be as a world-class player to know that you are playing under a coach who does not know how to maximise your talent, who is not going to swell your trophy cabinet, who is not going to improve you. No wonder Sancho has looked like a player trying to make it up on the fly: in a way he was.

And yet the irony is that for all the missteps United have taken in the last few years, the wasted money and wasted time, the general pall of late-Solskjær disaster, United’s future actually looks reasonably bright. Donny van de Beek is 24. They still have a 20-year-old Mason Greenwood.

Sancho is only 21 和, with an elite coach, a midfield screen worthy of the name and a right-back who does not panic every time he crosses the halfway line, United could build its next decade around him. He is that good. Time for a reset. Time to embrace pace and complexity and technical excellence. Time to leave the past behind.