With Renato Sanches reappearing to make a difference on a major stage, memories still swirling of his supreme breakthrough at Euro 2016, the predominant question has been ‘why did he get so bad at football for so long?’
Perhaps, though, the more pertinent line of enquiry is how the game allowed a teenager to be swallowed up, spat out, and feeling isolated at his most vulnerable time.
At 18, Benfica were fully aware that Sanches still needed to develop tactically, and calm would be required to handle his rapid rise. When Bayern Munich showed up with a guaranteed €35million, plus an extra €45m in add-ons, they showed him the exit door.
Not that the Portuguese midfielder didn’t want to go: He had started the season in Benfica’s reserve team and having collected just nine months of senior experience, was fast-tracking his way to winning a Ballon d’Or by joining a super club.
That line of thinking was solidified sharply after the deal was agreed when he stormed the Euros. As ever, Cristiano Ronaldo was Portugal’s headliner but Sanches was the hub of their brilliance.
Effervescent, creative, direct, physically-imposing, he created a goal against Croatia in the last 16, added one himself against Poland and took a penalty in the subsequent shootout of that quarter-final.
When France were defeated in the showpiece, Sanches had become a national treasure in Portugal and recruitment teams across the continent were cursing Bayern’s coup.
Everything looked possible for the boy from Amadora. Yes, even winning the Ballon d’Or.
Benfica could not reject silly, transformative money even if it was not yet the right time for Sanches to make such a sizeable switch.
The youngster had huge dreams, but he also had a huge attachment to Lisbon. He did not know life out of Portugal, nor was he prepared for the contrasting football that was to follow in Germany’s top flight.
“I thought the Euros had prepared me for all the pressure in the Bundesliga,” Sanches would reveal in a 2019 Players’ Tribune piece. “I thought I was ready. I found out pretty quick, though, that I wasn’t.
“Football in Munich, and in Germany as a whole, is so different. In Portugal, I would just run and run and run because I had the technical ability and awareness to make up for any fatigue.
“In Germany, you can run, but the game is so fast that it has to be coordinated otherwise you’ll get caught out of position. Everything was just … different.”
Bayern, a machine conditioned to win and win, could not waste time being patient with a younger player as he found his bearings.
And when it was decided he would go on loan in 2017 to earn much-needed minutes at a top level, the club picked Swansea City.
Renato Sanches struggled at Swansea
Paul Clement, who was in charge at the Liberty Stadium had been Carlo Ancelotti’s former assistant.
He used his connection with Bayern’s manager at the time to seal the deal and one has to wonder whether Sanches’ best interests were considered again.
If he struggled to settle and get up to speed in the Bundesliga, the Premier League was not the most appropriate platform to glue together shattered confidence.
Sanches went from Europe’s golden boy to bust… at Swansea. The feeling from the club on the southwest coast of Wales was that he didn’t want to be there: it wasn’t a major name in a major city.
But maybe, it just didn’t feel like the right place for a youngster trying to balance the weighty expectations of himself with reality?
“In Wales … it’s just like everything went wrong,” Sanches would explain.
“Just as I was adjusting to my new team, I got these weird injuries – all on the same leg.
“I had never had injury trouble before, but all of a sudden I was out for months, sitting alone in an apartment in Swansea watching it rain all day.
“Nothing prepares you for that.”
Sanches return to Bayern saw temporary shoots of dynamism and success, but it quickly shifted to frustration at a lack of opportunity.
He required reassurance, a reminder of what he could do and still be. Sanches would find it at Lille, largely sheltered from the global glare, after becoming their most expensive purchase for €25m in the summer of 2019.
Christophe Galtier took time to soothe the player, to help him make some tactical tweaks for ball retention and to ultimately stop him from rushing to relax and think through his football.
“He was in a hurry, he lost patience, he got angry quickly because he wanted to play 95 minutes,” noted the Lille manager.
“When he arrived, he was short of playing time. This rhythm deficit cost him some slight muscle relapses. He needed playing time to reassure himself.”
Cristiano Ronaldo is still Portugal’s main man but Sanches has impressed at Euro 2020
Now, on the stage he first illuminated, Sanches has illustrated he still has it: dynamism, the dribble, a killer pass, strength, tenacity…
Portugal’s performances against Hungary and Germany dramatically improved when he entered the pitch and he was their star performer on his first start against France.
Not many expected Sanches rather than Bruno Fernandes to be igniting the team and helping Cristiano hit record after record, but it has been thus.
If Portugal are to have designs on shocking Belgium and beyond in the tournament, he will be central to it.
Two years ago, Sanches admitted his “journey hasn’t been simple” before delivering the kicker: “but it’s not over. Not even close.”
He was right – and it has been a welcome sight to see him rediscover the scale of his powers.
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