The Resurgence of Renato Sanches

Renato Sanches, still at just 22 years of age, is currently playing some of the best football of his career. Dynamic, energetic, intelligent and technically proficient, he is putting in performances for Lille that are once again drawing widespread attention to the boy-wonder that lit up Europe as a 19-year-old. Renato Sanches is back and with a point to prove. Aaron Barton for Próxima Jornada takes a closer look at the resurgence of Renato Sanches.

Cast your mind back to the 10th of July 2016. Portugal had just won their first ever international honour by beating France on their own turf, a historic moment. One of the warriors to start on that famous night in Paris was 19-year-old Renato Sanches, who prior to Euro 2016 had never started a game for his country. A whirlwind 3 months saw the central-midfielder move to European heavy-weights Bayern Munich, lift an international honour with his country and be crowned Golden Boy, becoming the first Portuguese player to be given the prestigious award. The world was at his feet. However, a Bayern Munich career plagued by injury, inconsistency and minuscule playing time threatened to kill his development, next came a loan-spell at then-Premier League outfit Swansea City that can only be described as a horror story, the epitome of just how bad his time on South Wales was, is that he is most remembered for passing to an advertising hoarding. It was now June 2018 and Renato was returning to Bavaria, 2 years on from his mercurial performances at the Euros, with his career firmly at a stand still. Another season of little playing time passed in Germany until finally his exit was sealed, French club Lille OSC secured his signature in the summer of 2019.

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Lille paid around £18 million for the midfielders services, breaking their record transfer fee, safe in the knowledge that if they were able to uncover Renato’s Benfica and Portugal form, £18 million would later represent incredible business. His season with Lille started, unspectacularly. He featured in the match-day squad for 5 consecutive games playing 19 minutes, 27’, 90’ and 90’, whilst remaining on the bench for the other. During this time in the side, he showed sparks of brilliance but just as he was getting into his stride, injury once again struck. A hamstring contusion meant he missed 5 Ligue 1 games, with Lille’s form during that time inconsistent to say the least. Christoph Galtier’s men won just 1 game, losing twice and drawing twice. He made his league return against PSG in a 2-0 loss, playing just 29 minutes with the game already won, courtesy of two first half PSG goals.

It was around this time however, that things started to change on the pitch for Renato. 8 days later, he started and played the full 90 minutes against Dijon. He pulled the strings from centre midfield and led Lille to victory, earning the man of the match award, his first for Lille. He was quite simply, everywhere. 8 successful dribbles, 46 passes, 2 key passes, 2 tackles won, 1 aerial dual won and 1 interception only begin to tell the tale of his dominating performance.

Boss Christoph Galtier was full of praise afterwards, telling French media:

“He showed all his qualities and when he got the ball, he revealed his tremendous ability to break the lines. I’m happy for him as it’s a long time since he completed a full match.”

However, there have been times in the past when one good performance would signal a potential revival of Renato Sanches, only for this revival to be slashed short due to injury, a poor performance or through simply not being selected for action. I’m sure Lille fans whilst excited, weren’t holding their breath, at least not yet. Next up for Lille was 7th placed Lyon, Renato started in right-midfield, operating on the right of a 3 behind the striker. He was again very effective, playing 90 minutes as Lille won 1-0. 3 key passes, 3 successful tackles, 100% dribble completion and 3 interceptions marked another good days work for the versatile 22-year-old.

A week later, Lille hosted Brest and once again, Lille won 1-0. Making it 3 successive 1-0 victories for the northerners. Sanches again started as a right-sided attacker in a trio behind Victor Osimhen. He was again highly influential, picking up a WhoScored rating of 8.0, losing out on the man of the match award to the Brest goalkeeper, who had earlier saved a Bamba penalty. When operating further up the pitch on the right of this attacking trio, Sanches is able to engineer dribbles closer to the opposition box, opting to either come inside and play killer passes between the lines or to take it on his favoured right and either wait for an overlapping full back, or take on a cross himself. One of his greatest traits is undoubtedly his dribbling, he possesses the ability to move through the gears and go past his man with ease. Both at CM and RW, he is able to utilise this dribbling, whether it be carrying the ball from deep and opening up the pitch or further up the field, drawing fouls around the area and creating attacking openings.

Another key element that comes with being a proficient dribbler is decision making, knowing when is the right time to either take on an opponent or opt to play the simple pass. Effective decision making is something that Renato is developing and sharpening with each passing match. In Lille’s encounter with Brest, Renato attempted 5 dribbles and completed every single one, the only player to attempt 4 or more dribbles and end the match with a 100% success rate.

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His scintillating form was beginning to please Lille supporters and also attract the European football media, particularly on social media. However his best performance in a Lille shirt was still yet to happen. On the 13th of December, Lille, fresh off the back of 3 successive victories took on Montpellier at home. Renato gave what can only be described as the complete performance. His best overall, both for club and country, in over 2 years. The match also saw him score his first Lille goal, a decisive winner 6 minutes from time (You can watch the goal below).

During the match, Renato completed TEN dribbles, setting a Ligue 1 record for most successful dribbles in one match, an incredible feat when you consider he shares this league with the likes of Neymar Jr, Memphis Depay and Kylian Mbappe. His passing throughout was sharp and incisive, his movement explosive yet measured and his willingness to dictate proceedings remained unmatched throughout. He was continually picking the ball up and attempting to move his team into and around the 18-yard box. It was quite simply, a one-man show and the performance that epitomised all that is great about the 22-year-old.

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Lille manager Christoph Galtier was full of nothing but praise for Renato’s performance:

“He was better than the other 21 players,” Galtier said. “He did some magnificent things that people who come to this stadium want to see.”

One thing is for sure, the talent as it always has been, is unquestionably there. Lille’s task is to continue getting the best out of Renato by providing him with the correct conditions in which he flourish in.

Lille Sporting Director Luis Campos, speaking to  La Voix du Nord courtesy of Get French Football News, explained:

“To improve, a player needs to respect three things that often move at different speeds: adaptation, maturity and opportunity. Renato received enormous support from everyone at this club. We repeated to him of the need to be patient because he has a 5-year contract with us. We need a high-performing Renato but on the condition that this lasts. He had a lot of stress and anxiety with this transfer and he has paid for that. Christophe (Galtier) has shown his skill in dealing with this situation and from the moment when the player is listening, it is easier. We are going to help him to adapt and to respect the three things I talked about. In my opinion, Renato is currently playing at 40% of his potential.”

This faith and confidence that the club are showing him, are exactly what he needs at this point in his career. With Euro 2020 looming in the summer, Renato goes into the new year with time still on his side. Portugal manager Fernando Santos, the man who gave Renato his Portugal debut, will be well aware that a high-performing Renato Sanches is almost impossible to neglect. As the new year begins, Lille sit 4th in Ligue 1, 2 points off Rennes in 3rd and 7 points off André Vilas-Boas’ Marseille in 2nd.

If what Luis Campos says is true, that “Renato is operating at 40% of his potential”, I for one, cannot wait for the day he reaches 100%.

By Aaron Barton for Próxima Jornada

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