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Malen and Sancho: What Does the Future Hold?

Rumored departures for Donyell Malen (and Jadon Sancho) have gone quiet.

FC Augsburg v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Sebastian El-Saqqa - firo sportphoto/Getty Images

As 2023 comes to an end, we are all left to reflect on the bygone year; our highlights, our shortcomings, and what we aim to achieve in the year to come. For Donyell Malen, 2023 contained some incredible highs marred by frustrating lows. Malen’s surge of form in the spring helped carry Borussia Dortmund to within inches of the title, notching nine goals and six assists almost entirely in the spring of 2023. Malen ended the season joint top scorer for the team, finally stamping his authority on a squad where he seemed a misfit for most of his time in black and yellow. Dortmund reportedly fielded several advances in the summer for the Dutchman, all of which were rebuffed.

Today, with the Bundesliga in its annual Winterpause, Malen, like BVB, will be evaluating his status in the team. Despite being a fixture in the side last season, Malen has seen his minutes reduced by Edin Terzic this term, especially since his early season form tapered off. He is reportedly dissatisfied both with his role as impact substitute, and his consistent deployment at right wing. Malen recently changed his agency, fueling rumors that he could be on his way out of the club. But since then? Not much.

Of course, there had been discussion of a sensational swap with Manchester United, where Malen would head back to England, and BVB’s battered golden boy Jadon Sancho would return to the club where he forged his fame. Fundamentally, this isn’t an outrageous concept. Let’s take a look at what a swap could mean for both sides.

Sancho to BVB

Pros:

  • Tactical fit
  • Loves BVB

Cons:

  • Cost
  • Risk of failure
  • Lack of tactical flexibility

Let’s start with the positives for the Englishman. Sancho’s main issue in Manchester has been his inability to adapt to the systems that both Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Erik Ten Hag have deployed. Sancho was brought to United to light up the right wing, but struggled to make any impact due to tactical differences (we will get to that in a second). At Dortmund, Sancho would operate in a more similar space to what he is used to. Unlike Malen and Karim Adeyemi, who are by nature support strikers, Sancho is a traditional ball carrier. He operates in the spaces behind the attack to move the ball into dangerous positions, something BVB has sorely lacked this season. While Brandt has done his best to fulfill this role, he struggled in wide areas, where Sancho has traditionally thrived. Jamie-Bynoe Gittens has been such a breath of fresh air, because he too brings this progressive element that BVB lacks.

The other factor that makes a move for Sancho a wise one is his desire to play for the club. Since his departure from Borussia Dortmund, Sancho has made no secret of his continuing admiration for the club. It takes little more than a check of his Instagram likes to see that he is still very much in touch with his black and yellow roots. In a season where Dortmund has struggled to show consistent drive and commitment, a player like Sancho, eager to rediscover his best form, could come in and galvanize the season.

Or not. Let’s talk cons.

First, it wouldn’t be BVB if we did not talk about how everything is too expensive and there’s no money and early 2000’s bankruptcy and BLAH. BLAH. BLAH. Still. Jadon Sancho moved to Manchester United for €85 million, and reportedly makes around €300k per week. United would likely to be remiss to part with the Englishman for anything less than half of what they paid, and Sancho himself would need to brace for an enormous salary cut. In order to be brought in line with BVB top earners, Sancho would likely need to half if not third his salary in a move back to BVB. Would Sancho even deserve to be a top earner? The ultimate question lies with the player himself: stay on the fringes at United and collect the paycheck, or make an effort to get your career back on track at a significant financial loss?

To that end, what if Sancho cannot get his career back on track? Can BVB afford that risk? Knowing the conservative nature of Hans-Joachim Watzke, that answer is almost certain to be a resounding “no”. Sancho has an enormous mountain to climb to become the player he once was. Following reports last season that he was sent on basically a spiritual retreat by Ten Hag to help his mindset, is Sancho ready to step into the boiling pot that is Edin Terzic’s Borussia Dortmund? It’s difficult to right one’s own ship when the docks are halfway under water. Then there’s BVB’s history with returnees. While all of Shinji Kagawa, Nuri Sahin, and Mario Götze found relative success when they returned to BVB, none were able to replicate the form from their first stints in Black and Yellow. Why would Sancho be any different?

Lastly, there is Sancho’s lack of tactical flexibility. In nature, there are two types of symbiosis: facultative (optional), and obligatory. I would categorize Sancho as having obligatory symbiosis with his fullback. In order to succeed, he is fully dependent on a functioning relationship with his outside back. Sancho played with some of BVB’s finest fullbacks during his time at BVB, and interestingly, was swapped to whichever wing the better fullback was playing on. When Achraf Hakimi was marauding the right, he overlapped and combined with Sancho to great affect. The same was true when Sancho played on the left with Raphael Guerreiro. At Manchester United, without a dynamic fullback to combine with, Sancho floundered. This tactical dependency is a clear weakness in Sancho’s game, and given BVB’s dire fullback situation, questions must be raised about his ability to succeed in this current squad. Julian Ryerson offers the requisite pace and energy to combine with Sancho, but that’s putting a lot of pressure on the Norwegian to “fix” Sancho’s current woes. And if Ryerson is not on the pitch, does that guarantee a stinker from Sancho? Above all, is Terzic the right coach to recognize all this? I’m not certain.

Malen to Manchester United

Pros:

  • Front line flexibility
  • Dutch-ness

Cons:

  • Inconsistency
  • Not a clear upgrade

In the spirit of fairness, I am approaching this from the perspective of a Manchester United fan, and what Malen would bring to their club, beginning with his flexibility. While Malen has expressed frustation with his deployment at right wing, he can play it, and has done so very successfully for BVB. He can also play on the left, as a second striker, and a lone striker. Manchester United have struggled mightily up front this season, with the likes of Rashford, Hojlund, and Antony all struggling to find the back of the net. Malen would provide an alternative at central striker, where United only have Antony Martial to back up Hojlund. Malen would also be able to challenge an underperforming Marcus Rashford for a starting role on the left. His directness and pace would suit a similarly quick United front line.

Malen may also appeal to head coach Erik Ten Hag as the two share a home nation. Both Ten Hag and Malen made their names in the Eredevisie, and ETH could see Malen as a player to easily integrate into his tactics and philosophy. The two share a common sporting agency, with Malen moving to the same group as ETH himself in the fall. ETH has struggled at times to maintain control of the United dressing room (if reports are to be believed). With Malen on the outs with Terzic, he could be just to man to slot in at Ten Hag’s right hand to become an important part of his tactical setup.

Onto the negatives, which are frankly very similar to the issues Malen currently faces at BVB.

If nothing else, Malen has been inconsistent for BVB, and across his career. There are a million factors that lead to a player being inconsistent, from management styles to squad structure and individual mentality. Still, Malen’s excellent spell at PSV is now sandwiched by unsavory experiences at Arsenal and BVB, making him a risky investment for any potential suitor. This may be part of the reason he has not made many waves in the transfer headlines. There is no guarantee for Manchester United that he will immediately help their cause and an impact is what they need at this point in the season (to be fair, Sancho is guaranteed to NOT be an impact this season). Malen at his best improves Manchester United, but at his average does little to move the needle.

The Big Picture

Who stands to gain more from a swap of these two players? It’s a bit hard to say. I would argue the scales tip a bit further in favor of Manchester United, who could unload an expensive, yet useless asset in favor of a wildcard addition who could prove an incredibly shrewd signing should he succeed. Dortmund would assume a massive risk in welcoming Sancho back into the club, but also take no great benefit from keeping around a player in Malen who is disenfranchised by the club and tactically a bit out of place.

Fiscally, it’s difficult but not impossible. Logically, it’s justifiable. Ultimately, it’s a move that would require head coach Edin Terzic and sporting director Sebastian Kehl to really put their heads together. BVB could unload Malen without signing Sancho; certainly there are other wingers out there, and other potential suitors for the Dutchman. If the club does not feel that Sancho is the right fit at this time, this is certainly all moot. But given the analysis above, and the current disparity between the fans and the club, Jadon Sancho could be just the player to get Dortmund’s rocky season back on track. He wouldn’t be the first returning player to join up this season!