November 17, 2018
September 2017, the London Stadium. Renato Sanches is brought down by Cheikhou Kouyaté deep inside the West Ham half and is determined to take the free-kick. He tells his Swansea teammates he is going to put it in the top corner. One swing of his right boot later and the ball is on its way to the top corner … of the stadium rather than the net. Swansea’s players are already turning on their heel before gravity has started to do its work.
July 2018, Wörthersee Stadion. Bayern Munich win a free-kick wide on the right, about 22 yards from goal. Every Paris Saint-Germain player is expecting a cross as Sanches stands over the ball. Expertly disguising his intentions, Sanches curls a brilliant shot inside the near post. Rafinha jumps on top of Sanches to celebrate and the rest of his Bayern teammates join in.
What a difference 10 months make. Broken at Swansea, Sanches appears rejuvenated at Bayern, with the smile back on his face and the dynamism back in his legs after a chastening season in English football that will for ever be remembered for a pass to a Carabao advertisement hoarding.
The defining image of this season promises to be much happier. After being overlooked for the World Cup, Sanches will play for Portugal for the fifth time in two months when they take on Italy on Saturday. He has already made 11 appearances for Bayern this season, including two in the Champions League where he scored a terrific goal against Benfica.
Although injuries to key players have helped Sanches’s cause, notably the long-term absence of Corentin Tolisso, the feeling within Bayern is that Sanches has also helped himself by the way he approached pre-season and the performances he has delivered since. Against Augsburg in September, Sanches marked his first Bayern start in almost 18 months with five shots and 97.3% passing accuracy. “An irresistible display,” Mats Hummels said.
Those close to Sanches believe that Niko Kovac, Bayern’s manager, has been as influential as anyone. “Renato needs affection,” says Hélder Cristóvão, who managed Sanches in Benfica’s reserve team and remains in touch. “He needs to feel part of something and to know that he has someone to support him – a constructive critic who knows how to talk to him. Renato has a lot of confidence but he just needs a positive surrounding, and with Bayern’s new coach he got that from the first day. Kovac said he was counting on him and he wanted him.”
Swansea were counting on Sanches too but his season-long loan turned into a disaster for both parties and by the end of the campaign, Carlos Carvalhal, their manager at the time, was urging his fellow countryman to return home. “Someone told me he could go back to Benfica and if he can, it’s the best step for him,” Carvalhal said. “Renato has a big talent but he stopped learning when he left Benfica.”
It is hard to argue with the idea that the move to Bayern, in May 2016, came too soon. Sanches, aged 18, had played only one season of senior football. Benfica, however, were never going to reject €35m plus add-ons for a teenager who had cost them €750, plus 25 footballs, when they signed him from Águias, his local club.
From Bayern’s point of view it initially looked like money well spent. Two months after the transfer was announced, Portugal won Euro 2016 and Sanches picked up the young player of the tournament award. What nobody could have imagined was that little more than 12 months later Sanches would be playing for Swansea.
Paul Clement, who was Swansea’s manager and had worked for Bayern as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant, was hugely influential in a deal that felt like a huge coup for the Welsh club. The reality was rather different and it soon became clear that Sanches was badly scarred by a first season at Bayern when, according to Cristóvão, he “began to have doubts about himself and say that he wanted to leave”.
Clement was clinging to the hope that Sanches would come good through game time but admitted after he was sacked that the player “was far more damaged than I thought”. Teammates were bemused by some of the things they saw in training but the tipping point came at Chelsea. Seven of the 22 first-half passes that Sanches attempted failed to find a Swansea player, including the ball that ended up next to an advertisement board.
Another Sanches pass, deep inside his own half and with Martin Olsson, his teammate, only five yards away, set Pedro free on the Chelsea right. Sanches turned to face the crowd and threw his arms in the air. He was in a state of despair – a tormented figure – and it was sad to watch.
Clement felt he had no option but to withdraw Sanches at the interval and those in the dressing room say the manager tried to do so in a way that spared the player further indignity, by acknowledging he was going through a tough time but also saying they all knew he was hugely talented. Sanches, not surprisingly, was emotional.
Dropped for the following game, Sanches started only two more league matches for Swansea before picking up an injury in an FA Cup tie in January that proved to be his 15th and final appearance for the club. He never scored or created a goal for Swansea, failed to register a shot on target in the Premier League and his passing accuracy was ranked sixth among eight central midfielders.
Those statistics make for bleak reading, yet it is too easy to shine the spotlight solely on the player. With the benefit of hindsight, Swansea and Sanches were a bad fit for one another. Sanches, in football terms, was in rehab and needed to go to a club where his confidence could be rebuilt slowly and where his own performances would not be so crucial to the team. Swansea, who had totally lost their way after flirting with relegation in each of the previous two seasons, were never going to be that club.
Cristóvão’s view is that Bayern wanted Sanches “in a safe place, far from everything”, but ended up exacerbating the problems at Munich by sending him to a new league in another country, where the boy who had been reluctant to leave his neighbourhood to travel to Benfica’s academy became even more isolated. Swansea did their best to help Sanches settle and there were never any problems off the field but the overriding impression within the club was that he wondered what he was doing there.
Looking back, it feels as though Sanches has lost two years of his career – something that Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern’s chairman, believes is “linked to him winning the Golden Boy award after the 2016 Euros”. Whether that had a negative impact or not, a player who celebrated his 21st birthday only in August has plenty of opportunities to make up for lost time. Sanches, step by step, is doing exactly that.