More than a few eyebrows were raised in the summer when it was announced that Renato Sanches, European football’s ‘Golden Boy’ award winner for 2016, would be joining perennial English Premier League strugglers Swansea in a season-long loan deal from Bayern Munich.
It was a move that was greeted with outright surprise in some quarters – why on earth would he trade life at the German champions for a basement battle in England?
After all, the 20-year-old was the toast of Euro 2016 after helping to guide Portugal to the title, and he was duly named the Young Player of the Tournament. Not bad for a teenager barely out of short trousers.
Bayern Munich had secured Sanches’ services prior to the European Championship, paying Benfica 35 million euros for the privilege, which seemed a bargain after the tournament. In a perfect world, the transfer would have been the catalyst for Sanches taking his game to the next level and becoming a global star.
But as we know, football doesn’t always pan out the way it’s supposed to.
The youngster enjoyed just six starts in the red-and-blue of Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, and took to the field for just 201 minutes in their lengthy Champions League campaign as he struggled to nail down a regular starting berth in a squad packed with quality.
It was not the end of the world for a 20-year-old to not be playing every week; the worst fear for boy wonders is that they burn out prematurely. But for a young man who had the world at his feet in 2016, it was something of a fall from grace to be collecting splinters on the substitutes’ bench rather than medals and accolades.
To some extent, the switch to Swansea feels like a defining moment in Sanches’ career. It’s a new style of football to be mastered – the Premier League is rather more robust than the Bundesliga, and certainly less technical, and a strong campaign should see him climb the pecking order at Bayern on his return.
Although, a less than agreeable season at the Swans will tarnish his previously burgeoning reputation further, and it is unsure where his career would go from that point forward.
So how has Sanches accustomed to life in Wales so far?
Swans Lacking Grace
Imagine the excitement in Swansea when it was announced that Euro 2016 winner Renato Sanches would be joining the club, albeit on a temporary basis.
This was a team that avoided relegation from England’s top flight by the skin of their teeth in 2016/17, so to get their hands on one of the beautiful game’s hottest properties must have come as something of a surprise for the Welsh faithful. This season, with a quarter of the campaign gone, Paul Clement’s side are as short as 10/11 for the drop and that’s short enough for bonus bets to come into play as a genuine alternative to a cash punt.
Replica shirts were sold, terrace chants were formulated, and the 20,000 or so in attendance at the Swans’ second home game of the season against Newcastle – Sanches’ debut in the white shirt – could be forgiven for the feelings of excited anticipation that they were experiencing.
What followed was a poor – perhaps understandably so – performance, with Sanches giving the ball away regularly and struggling to come to terms with the pace of the English game. But mitigating circumstances were not hard to find: he had only linked up with the club a week prior as the transfer window closed, and participated in just two training sessions before being flung straight into Paul Clement’s starting eleven.
Sanches speaks little English, and so his familiarity with Clement from his time as an assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti at Bayern looks to be a key connection. Judging by the Newcastle game, Clement’s instructions – in whichever language they are delivered – did not seem to be getting through.
That was September, and now as we hurtle into November we sense that Sanches’ fortunes on English soil have not really improved. He has been beset by recurring problems associated with a thigh injury, meaning that he has had to watch two of the last three matches his new employer has played from the sidelines.
Perhaps, though, there is a silver lining on the horizon. In his last start against Leicester, Sanches appeared much more composed in possession, and his movement was intelligent rather than the ‘headless chicken’ levels of chaos his earlier showings had delivered.
The suggestion is that he is becoming accustomed to the defensive requirements of playing in a struggling side – not something he is used to from his time at Benfica and Bayern. The Portuguese starlet made one key tackle against the Foxes and three interceptions as he got stuck into another back-foot display from the Welsh outfit.
Swansea have now lost four of their last five Premier League matches, and they only occupy one of the positions in the league table outside of the relegation zone by virtue of goal difference.
So naturally, they will need some big performances from Sanches in the weeks and months to come if they are to avoid becoming embroiled in yet another relegation dogfight.
To the Future
The difficulty now for Sanches is in ensuring his standard of play does not dip long-term to that of the relegation-threatened outfit; he’ll be heading home to the probable Bundesliga champions next summer, after all.
He’s an instinctive player, and one who thrives with quality around him; is it any wonder he looked so good at Euro 2016 with Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani in his vicinity?
Unfortunately, he won’t enjoy such support at Swansea, whose tactics away from home in particular have an air of the ‘belt and braces’ about them. That is not an environment in which we would expect the 20-year-old to thrive, but he must learn to adapt his style to ensure career longevity.
Will Sanches’ game have improved following his season at Swansea? That is not at all certain, but his character may well have been strengthened by a campaign of struggle, and after the honeymoon period that has been his first two years as a professional footballer, maybe that could prove to be an essential component in his development.