The Renaissance of Renato Sanches at Lille
Five years ago, an 18-year-old Renato Sanches broke onto the scene for Benfica and achieved history by winning the European Championship with Portugal, but after a disastrous move to Bayern Munich and an unproductive loan spell at Swansea City, his career looked to be headed nowhere fast. However, at 23 years of age, Sanches has played a vital role in helping Lille secure their first league title in 10 years, and he could be set for a massive summer with Fernando Santos’ Seleção.
Sanches rocketed through the ranks at Benfica’s Seixal academy after joining the club as a 10-year-old, becoming a starter for the first team under Rui Vitória at 18. He served as a box-to-box midfielder in Vitória’s 4-4-2, providing energy, tenacity and dynamism alongside Ljubomir Fejsa in the double pivot. With Sanches in the starting line-up, Benfica pipped Jorge Jesus’s Sporting to the league title and won the Taça da Liga. What’s more, they advanced to the Champions League quarter-finals, only to narrowly lose to Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich.
It was good enough for Portugal manager Fernando Santos, who called Sanches up for Portugal for the 2016 Euros. Sanches featured off the bench against Hungary and Croatia, but started each of Portugal’s remaining matches, operating in a more attacking role on the right side of midfield and scoring against Poland in the quarterfinals. He lifted the trophy, and then earned a €35 million move to Bayern Munich, potentially rising to €80 million with bonuses contingent on performance objectives, such as a Ballon D’Or clause. Spoiler alert: he didn’t meet those objectives.
It just wasn’t meant to be for him in Bavaria, where the Portuguese teenager found himself competing with Arturo Vidal, Thiago, and Xabi Alonso for gametime. Starved of minutes, he left Bayern on a deadline day loan move to Swansea, but failed to translate the performances he had shown in Portugal to Britain.
After suffering back-to-back hamstring issues in January, Sanches was allowed by new manager and compatriot Carlos Carvalhal to return home to Lisbon for warm weather training. Sanches never played another competitive match for Swansea from that point on, and when Swansea ended up dropping down to the Championship, Carvalhal observed, “Renato has a big talent, but he has much to learn. He stopped learning when he left Benfica and went to one of the biggest clubs in the world.”
Benfica spotted Sanches when he was growing up in Musgueira, one of Lisbon’s toughest slums, and signed him for €750 and 25 footballs. In an interview with Bleacher Report, Luis Nascimento, his youth coach at Benfica, reported that his aggressive nature in winning the ball back originated from his time in the favelas playing against kids 3-4 years older than him.
“He started as a forward and on the right wing. He didn’t have tactical awareness,” says Nascimento. “He didn’t know how to play in a team structure—it was him and the ball. Only when he was under 14, we started playing him in midfield because that was when he had the nous to look 360 degrees and not just at the goal and the sidelines.”
As a young boy, he’d take the metro by himself from the dreary neighborhood of Musgueira to the glitzy Seixal area; a long journey from Lisbon’s Valley of the Ashes to its East Egg. At 15, he left Musgueira permanently to live away from his mother at the club’s campus. He focused on working his way up the ranks for both club and country, and shortly after his 18th birthday, he made his debut for the first team and subsequently signed a contract with a release clause of €45 million.
With Benfica lagging behind crosstown rivals Sporting in the title race, Vitória needed something to turn around his club’s fortunes, but little did he know he had a joker up his sleeve. Sanches’s entrance into the starting line-up coincided with an uptick in form, with the club going on to win a domestic double. In his first start at the Estádio da Luz, he scored a rocket of a goal into the Académica net. Success for club and country soon followed, and before the season had even finished, he was headed to Bavaria.
When Sanches arrived as the club’s first signing under Carlo Ancelotti, he immediately encountered demanding competition from the likes of Thiago, Alonso, Phillip Lahm, Joshua Kimmich and Javi Martínez. He struggled for minutes in his first season away from home, and when it came time for the summer international tournaments, he wasn’t called up by Santos for the Confederations Cup, but by Rui Jorge for the U-21 Euros. It seemed at times that his behavior off the field was overshadowing his performances on it.
A year removed from starting for Portugal in the Euros, Sanches apologized for showing off a wad of cash in a video he had posted with his friends. According to BILD, Sanches also missed a flight and an entire day of training after a two-day break, and was also routinely late to team events. Sanches needed to get out of his current environment and get playing time somewhere else. There were plenty of teams willing to take the teenager on loan, such as Milan, Liverpool and Chelsea, but it was Swansea City who managed to pull off the deal.
Manager Paul Clement, formerly Ancelotti’s assistant at Bayern, had worked with Sanches for a few months, and used his connections to borrow one of the most prized assets in Europe. Sanches joined on deadline day on a €8.5 million season-long loan deal without an option to buy. Not quite as expensive as the €35 million Bayern paid for him a year earlier, but still pretty high for a loan deal. Once again, Sanches had to live up to his lofty price tag.
Having been given the start in Swansea’s first match after the international break, a loss to Newcastle, Sanches looked miles off the pace, misplacing easy passes and giving away possession cheaply, before coming off for Wilfried Bony in the 69th minute. He returned to Santos’s Portugal squad after a string of starts for the first time since the Euros, with the promise of turning his career around.
While it seemed as if going from competing with Thiago and Vidal to competing with Leroy Fer and Tom Carroll would do him a world of good, Sanches failed to make an impression and eventually lost his place in Clement’s line-up. Rock bottom came on November 29, in a loss to Chelsea, when Sanches confused an electronic advertising board for one of the three teammates around him, and passed it out of bounds for a Chelsea throw-in.
Viral moments like that can leave a player’s reputation buried six feet deep. A year after being selected as Europe’s Golden Boy, Sanches was Europe’s laughing stock, and with Swansea bottom of the Premier League, the club began to consider whether or not to cut his loan spell short.
Clement, who famously shook his head into his palm after seeing the errant pass, said, “[Renato] thought he was going to Man United, Chelsea or PSG. When he came [to Swansea], he was far more damaged than I thought. He was a boy who had almost got the weight of the world on his shoulders. He got in a vicious cycle of poor choices. The other players were saying, ‘He’s playing like that and you’re not picking me,’ so it became difficult to pick him.”
There were hopes that he’d rediscover his form playing after Carvalhal’s appointment, but they were cut short due to injury. He left Bayern as a Golden Boy, and came back as one of the biggest flops in Europe.
To his credit, Sanches was one of the few players who improved under new manager Niko Kovač, who asked the rest of the squad to show their full support to Sanches as he attempted to shake off a troublesome loan spell in Wales. Sanches arrived at preseason training overweight, and while biking with the rest of the team, he crashed into a barrier and fell off his bike. Nevertheless, Sanches shook off the extra pounds and played his best football since 2016 under Kovač, culminating in a man-of-the-match performance against Benfica, the club he had nearly returned to in the prior summer.
Despite only being an impact sub, Sanches’s improved performances drew the interest of Paris Saint-Germain in the winter window, after a big-money move for Frenkie de Jong was scuppered by Barcelona, while Julian Weigl stayed put at Borussia Dortmund. Kovač refused to let him leave, and Les Parisiens ended up signing Leandro Paredes instead. “I’m not happy here, I work a lot but I don’t play,” said Sanches in an interview with Kicker. “I want to play more, maybe at another club. I have to think about it.”
There were rumors that he would leave on loan, but midway through the summer, both Sanches and Kovač seemed prepared to stick it out for another season together. Nevertheless, despite his impressive preseason, Sanches was benched for the season opener against Hertha Berlin, and only entered in the 85th minute. He was furious with the broken promises and the lack of playing time, and publicly demanded to leave the club, before skipping post-match training and driving straight home.
Sanches rejected moves to Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen, preferring to end the Bundesliga chapter of his career for once and for all, and joined Lille for a club record €20 million. His conversations with Lille sporting director Luís Campos as well as José Fonte, who started alongside him for Portugal in the 2016 Euros, helped convince him to join Les Dogues, who had finished second in Ligue 1 the prior season.
The 2016 Golden Boy winner’s first few starts came in different formations and positions — he played in a double pivot in Christophe Galtier’s 4-2-3-1 in the opening match against Reims, but operated in an attacking role on the right wing against Ajax, where he thrived for Portugal in the Euros, before playing in a double pivot in a 4-4-2 against Strasbourg. He was limited to substitute appearances until November 30, 2019, when he was given the start in a box-to-box role in the traditional 4-2-3-1 against Dijon.
He has operated on the left as well as in the middle, but the majority of his starts in his debut Ligue 1 season came on the right flank, playing next to Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan Ikoné in attack. Lille brought in both Timothy Weah from PSG and Yusuf Yazıcı from Trabzonspor to fill the void left by Nicolas Pépé’s £73 million departure to Arsenal. But with Weah making just six appearances in 2019/20 due to a hamstring tear, and with the latter suffering an ACL injury in December, Sanches stepped up to the task, winning Lille’s Player of the Month award for both December and January.
After recovering from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for seven weeks, Sanches earned the trust of Galtier and locked down a starting spot for the first time in four years as Lille finished fourth in the Ligue 1 table, narrowly missing out on the final Champions League spot to Julien Stéphan’s Rennes by a point. They were the biggest victim of the Ligue de Football Professionnel’s decision to end the season early rather than ride out the storm and restart the season, and as such, Lille were forced to offload Victor Osimhen and Gabriel Magalhães to cope with the economic pretensions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of Champions League prize money.
Sanches began the season as a fixed starter in Galtier’s 4-4-2, playing as a box-to-box midfielder alongside Benjamin André in the double pivot, but he suffered another hamstring injury in November that caused him to miss a month and lose his place in the team to Boubakary Soumaré. Nevertheless, Sanches has remained a valuable player at Lille, playing in central midfield as well as the right wing and chipping in vital assists against Nantes, Ajaccio, Metz and Angers.
Today, Sanches is blossoming into the player that enchanted the footballing community in 2016. He’s getting forward with ease, cutting through defenses with his quick dribbles and sharp passes, while also helping his supporting fullback (Zeki Çelik) in defense. It isn’t the same position that he had in Benfica, operating as a box-to-box midfielder in Vitória’s 4-4-2, but it is a role that gets the most out of his unique skill set.
The Portuguese midfielder offers a unique skillset to his compatriot Xeka as well as Soumaré and André, and while his numbers may not indicate his importance (1 goals and 4 assists in 29 appearances), he has consistently proven to be Lille’s best answer to breaking down compact defenses, with the change of direction, close control and constant energy to cause a threat against teams that sit back and look to soak up pressure.
We saw an example of this on the final matchday against Angers, receiving in space, dancing his way into the final third before deftly tucking a through ball past the defense and into the path of Jonathan David, who made no mistake with the finish. Lille would go on to win 2-1 to end Paris Saint-Germain’s run of three consecutive Ligue 1 titles, with Sanches picking up his fourth league title in six years. Now, Sanches will be tasked with competing against the likes of Rúben Neves, João Moutinho and Sérgio Oliveira for a spot in midfield as he attempts to win his second straight European Championship with Portugal.
By: Zach Lowy
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images – Getty Images