In the summer of 2015, the young Portuguese midfielder could look back upon a largely successful first year of professional football. Having been promoted to the Benfica B, Sanches had largely delivered the goods, even if his two red card offences pointed to a possible problem with temperament. Going into the 2015/16 season, he was promoted to the first team for the following season, and would finally make his debut in October. So successful were his performances, that by January he had already been linked with some of the largest clubs in Europe. By May 2016, Bayern Munich had beaten out competition from Manchester United to sign the 18-year old for 35 million Euros plus objectives.
By signing for the Bavarian giants early in the summer, Sanches had guaranteed himself a spotlight going into Euro 2016. Unfortunately for all the neutral viewers, the ex-Benfica man was only given substitute appearances. Fortunately for all the neutral viewers, this minimal time had provided a glimpse into his incredible talent. By the quarterfinal, Fernando Santos had seen enough, and granted Sanches a chance to impress through a rare start against Poland. He duly impressed, a shining beacon of talent in the mire of drudgery forced upon the audience. He topped off his performance with an outstanding goal to force the game to extra time, where Portugal would progress through penalties.
So great was his performance, it seemed to have ingratiated Sanches with the European press. He had gone from a symbol of the overpriced market to potentially the future of the sport. This hyperbolic overreaction was only aided by comments made by Nani. The makeshift Portuguese striker claimed that his old club Manchester United would regret not offering the moon to Sanches, and that Bayern had bought a great player. For a player who has less that year of top-tier football under his belt, this seemed like an incredible diagnosis. Sure, some players are destined for the top from the moment they graced a pitch. Just in this millennium, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, among others, have proven that thought. However, many more have failed, especially after making the big money move to a large side. To understand what Sanches brings to the table, I decided to analyse his performance against Wales in the semifinal of Euro 2016, arguably the biggest match in his short career.
According to the pre-match graphics, Sanches was meant to be lining up at the tip of the midfield diamond, with Joao Maria to his right and Adrien Silva to his left. However, it was clear from the start that he was to be playing on the right of a roving flat three in midfield. While this pre-match mistake can be seen as an error on the part of the media, it did provide a glimpse into one of Sanches’ most impressive talents; his ability to play different midfield positions without a drop in quality. Sanches started the match brightly as Portugal dominated the ball. He was constantly on the move, trying to provide an easy pass for his fellow midfielders should they be under pressure. The most impressive aspect of this start was his incredible confidence. Despite his age, Sanches was seeking to be the outlet for his more experienced teammates. It was in no small part due to his efforts that Portugal was able to gain such control over the game, which they would not relinquish until the final whistle.
While his pressing continued to be effectively remarkable in the first half, particularly in tandem with Maria and Silva, the rest of his game seemed to drop off. His harrying of the opposition covered up a surprising trait – his inability or unwillingness to tackle, as he made no tackles all match. Additionally, he was an ineffective source on the counter, in the attacking third, and at set pieces. He made no key dribbles, accomplished one key pass, had a total pass completion rate of 74%, and, surprisingly for a player of his build and duties, won no headers. Additionally, he only had one shot, off target, all game. According to the ever-reliable Who Scored, he had the lowest rating of any Portuguese starter with 6.4. On evidence of the statistics, becoming the first Portuguese substitution was an obvious development following Sanches’ performance. The only surprise was that he had lasted until the 74th minute.
However, as we all know, statistics can be misleading. It is true that Sanches had a pretty bad day at the office, but it must be remembered that he is an 18-year old who had played less than a year of first team football. His first international match was only in March. While his statistical output was nothing to boast about, especially the passing numbers, there were visual signs of his talent. As mentioned earlier, this boy has confidence flowing through his veins. In a tournament where Cristiano Ronaldo has been lauded in places for continuing to shoot despite his atrocious conversion rate, Sanches’ willingness to continue attempting passes on the night was indicative of his mentality. Additionally, while his passes rarely came off in the second half, the vision behind the attempts was spectacular. Carlo Ancelotti, his future Bayern boss, will be delighted that he needs to teach the midfielder composure and consistency, rather than compensate for a lack of ideas.
Overall, despite a lacklustre performance, Sanches can reflect upon a teachable moment. Assuming he is picked for the final, which seems a safe bet, all he needs to do is review the tapes of some of the other leading midfielders involved in the semifinal. Joao Maria provided a master class in box-to-box movement and action, even if his end product was occasionally lacking. More usefully, Sanches should review the performances put in by the suspended Aaron Ramsey at Euro 2016. The Arsenal midfielder played with a scarcely granted freedom that unlocked his true potential, especially against Belgium in the quarterfinal.
If Sanches can replicate his own vision with the movement of Maria and the finesse of Ramsey, he would provide Portugal’s opponents in the final with quite a headache. If not, he can look forward to at least a season under the tutelage of Ancelotti, who should be able to teach him those lessons. Either way, the Bayern midfielder looks like he has some significant potential. If he applies himself like his national team captain is famed to do, there is no reason why Renato Sanches can’t climb to the top of the game in a few years. Maybe Nani wasn’t being hyperbolic after all.