Sancho’s time to shine now: Neil Humphreys
Man United must shake off past with young winger
It seems obvious now. Pick the wunderkind and his latent talent will take care of the rest.
Manchester United know something about winning with kids so Jadon Sancho's first goal for his club - finding the top corner in the 2-0 Champions League win over Villarreal - should have felt like normal service resuming, rather than a transformative moment.
But the Red Devils are still stumbling along in their identity crisis, flailing around like blind mice in a cellar, searching for something vaguely recognisable and consistent.
Sancho's burgeoning pedigree is recognisable. The 21-year-old might even be consistent, if he's permitted a run of games that his efforts deserve.
His trickery against Villarreal yesterday morning (Singapore time) makes his peripheral role under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer all the more bewildering.
The popular narrative suggests an unstoppable force on the wing met an immovable force in the dugout, which isn't entirely fair.
On this occasion, the manager's tactical haziness was less significant than the arrival of an ageing superstar.
Cristiano Ronaldo brought the welcome baggage of yesterday's glories and the guarantee of today's clicks on social media. Sancho brought the promise of something positive tomorrow. The kid never stood a chance.
But that era is done now. United's addiction to nostalgia must end with Ronaldo. It's counterproductive and damaging to all aspects of the club (except the corporate brand, which is why the pull of the past remains strong).
Ironically, one of the last beneficiaries of that addiction recognises its flaws. Michael Carrick, the interim to the interim to whatever board members come up with next, has no first-team managerial experience, but his old-boy status earns him a temporary pass.
And he knows that Sancho's class might be permanent.
The young Englishman scares opponents. When was the last time a United forward did that? Ronaldo still has his moments, but they are shooting stars, sparkling, fleeting and rare. And Bruno Fernandes appears to be heading for a wintry hibernation.
In stark contrast, Sancho tried to dance against Villarreal. The moves didn't always come off, but the speed of thought, foot and deed were a treat to behold, confusing everyone on the pitch, including his own teammates at times.
That's fine. Let them play catch up. If not, Sancho has left a vacant spot on the bench for anyone incapable of finding his wavelength. The onus is on others to quicken their stride. United have been slow enough for long enough.
Interestingly, Fernandes barely raised a smile, let alone his arms, when his vibrant colleague smashed in their side's second goal. Perhaps he was aggrieved after being dropped to the bench or weary from recent struggles.
Either way, the Portuguese playmaker is part of a musty status quo that has failed to match Sancho's attacking endeavour for weeks.
In a single outing, the Englishman set a refreshingly higher standard for teammates to follow. Even his off-the-ball industry impressed his manager, highlighting yet again a basic prerequisite missing from United's forward line of late.
Sancho tracked back constantly, out of necessity. Behind him, Aaron Wan-Bissaka continued to indulge himself in a bizarre tactical experiment to see if a right-sided defender can complete 90 minutes without ever defending his right side.
He's getting perilously close to achieving the feat.
If Sancho stays on the right of a 4-2-3-1 to accommodate Ronaldo, then he'll need that work rate to cover for the wandering Wan-Bissaka.
Their fragile relationship requires time to build and Carrick can afford to be patient.
With general expectations on the low side, the interim manager is under little pressure, beyond personal pride, to rely on nostalgic goodwill and stick with the old guard. Playing it safe got Solskjaer the sack. Playing for the future gives United a chance of a faster recovery.
There's always an element of risk with any wide forward as the position depends on improvised gambles. The odds are longer, even for Sancho.
But at this point, the Red Devils really don't have much to lose.