As one of the most prolific hotbeds of talent, scouts from the biggest clubs around Europe are constantly watchful of emerging Portuguese prospects.

They were instantly attracted to the potential of Renato Sanches, when the young midfielder enjoyed a stellar debut 2015-16 campaign at Benfica, helping them to win the Primera Liga after a thrilling title race with city rivals Sporting. 

Awarded the Primeira Liga Breakthrough Player and Golden Boy awards for his efforts, along with having already debuted with the Portuguese national team, it quickly became clear this physically and technically gifted player seemed to be destined for greatness. Manchester United were strongly linked with Sanches, although in the end it was Bayern Munich who swooped May 2016.

Given the initial fee of €35 million the Bundesliga giants had paid, when Sanches helped Portugal win EURO 2016 and was named Young Player of the Tournament, the excitement at Bayern Munich was palpable. However, little would he imagine just how difficult life would be at the Bavarian outfit, as the first Portuguese import ever to join their ranks.

Lack of backing in Bavaria

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Bayern Munich had gambled on the talent Sanches possessed, although they probably should have assessed his readiness in more detail, given that integration was a big part of the struggles the player faced. Not only did he now have to compete with established midfield stars like Thiago Alcantara, Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal, the young Portugal international needed to learn a new language and adapt himself to a different culture.

Preferring to rely more on his experienced players, Carlo Ancelotti was reluctant to place his full trust in what Sanches had to offer. During his debut season at Bayern Munich, the young Portugal international made just 25 appearances in all competitions, with most of those coming from the substitutes bench. Just to underline his struggles, Sanches started just 4 of his 17 games in the 2016-17 Bundesliga campaign.

Swansea sorrows and Munich misery

Ancelotti had claimed that Sanches would remain at the club, insisting his development and integration would continue. Nevertheless, by the close of the 2017-18 summer transfer window, the player found himself shipped off to Swansea city in the English Premier League, for a loan spell intended to act as the torch to reignite a promising career. Unfortunately, this move turned into an utter disaster.

Hauled off the pitch by manager Paul Clement after some terrible displays, Sanches endured both ridicule and criticism in his first months at Swansea, playing well below his capabilities. Clement was fired by December, replaced as manager by Carlos Carvalhal, although not even the Portuguese coach could help his compatriot. “Renato knows he has had a very bad season,” was the damning verdict of Carvalhal, after the Swans were relegated.

Sanches returned to Bayern Munich with Niko Kovac at the managerial helm, making a promising start under the Croatian coach, although poor form and injuries would continue to frustrate. After just 567 minutes of Bundesliga action during the 2018-19 campaign, Bayern Munich decided to cut their losses in August 2019, selling the midfielder to French side Lille for a fee reported to be worth €25 million.

New lease of life at Lille

Having arrived at Lille as their most expensive signing ever, there were clearly high expectations for Sanches at his new club, although injury struggles would continue to plague the player during his first campaign. That said, performances were strong and confidence was returning throughout the 2019-20 season, with Sanches making appearances across all competitions, scoring 3 goals and providing 3 assists.

The following 2020-21 campaign would finally see Sanches realise his full potential. Although he missed the start of the season with a meniscal injury, once back to full fitness, at long last the true potential of this exceptional midfield talent was realised. Sanches was a key figure in the Lille side which stunned French football, beating PSG to the Ligue 1 title. Once again, he was back on the radar of leading clubs around Europe. Strong performances at Euro 2020 (played in 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic) further emphasised that the Portuguese midfielder was back to his best.

During the summer, Lille president Olivier Letang claimed there were bids for Sanches, amidst reported interest from Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Whether divine providence or just bad luck, another knee injury prevented any moves from going ahead. Before pondering his future again, Sanches needs to think very carefully as the next switch could make or break his career. In the long run, staying at Lille might actually be the better option. 

 

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“These players continue to surprise me every day.”

Rúben Amorim
(Sporting coach after 3-1 Lisbon derby victory against Benfica at the Estádio da Luz) 

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