FEATURE | Renato Sanches – Redemption, Clarence Seedorf and the summer’s biggest bargain

There isn’t a player who sums up football in the social media age more than Lille’s Renato Sanches. At 18-years-old, he made his debut for Benfica and was touted to be Europe’s next big thing. He was tipped to dominate midfields for both club and country from essentially the first minute of his career and Bayern Munich activated his €45m release clause shortly after Sanches starred in Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph. It felt like the stage was set for Sanches to dominate. It wasn’t the case.

He struggled during his first season in Bavaria, despite winning the Golden Boy award five months after his move, and was subsequently loaned out to Premier League Swansea City, where he failed to nail down a starting place and spent a large portion of the 2017/18 season on the bench. By the end of the campaign, any hype around Sanches had faded as he became the butt of social media jokes and the new poster boy for youngsters who failed to live up to their potential. Bayern coach Niko Kovač would try to help rebuild Sanches’ Munich career but a move away from the German giants was needed.

When Lille signed the midfielder for €20m ahead of the 2019/20 season, he was their record purchase, showing huge faith in the youngster. He’d been discarded at a young age by one of the biggest clubs in the world as well as neutrals across the world but Lille offered him the opportunity to rebuild his career and nurture his obvious talent. It was an ideal situation. There was a higher chance of more minutes at a club away from the spotlight of Bayern and the Portuguese national team. To rebuild, he needed time to adapt and essentially start again. Lille was the perfect environment.

His first six months were littered with sporadic starts and bench appearances before a hamstring injury in November kept him out for a chunk of time. When he returned around Christmas, he won Lille’s Player of the Month awards in December and January and showed signs of his best – a powerful jack of all trades midfielder able to pass and create chances. He wasn’t back to the form that saw him win plaudits at a young age, but he was certainly back on track to reach a very good level in Ligue 1.

Forming a partnership with Ligue 1 stalwart Benjamin André in 20/21 before another hamstring injury, Sanches started the season in great form but would ultimately lose his starting spot to Boubakary Soumaré. Soumaré and André formed the base of the midfield that would guide Lille to the Ligue 1 title in the final third of the season, but Sanches still played a key role. Used across the midfield as a central midfielder and on the right, often replacing Soumaré, Sanches’ skill on the ball and intensity helped guide Lille through difficult situations and his performances earned him strong links to some of Europe’s elite.

Barcelona and Liverpool were both interested. Although injury concerns forced both to look elsewhere, such interest proved how much Sanches had improved in France. Sanches fought back from adversity in Germany, a situation that would’ve ended the top-level career of most young players in his situation, to return to a position where some of the biggest clubs in the world wanted to sign him. At just 24, Sanches still has time on his side and another big move appears to be on the cards.

Comparisons to Clarence Seedorf by Pierre van Hooijdonk, not to mention Sanches himself, make talks with AC Milan an exciting prospect, but, ultimately, whoever signs him, with PSG now strong front runners, will be picking up a fantastic player, providing he can stay fit – which is the big question mark despite his obvious mental toughness. His time at Lille has seen him play more games than anywhere else in his career to date but his time has still been severely hampered by injuries, which might have put Premier League sides off.

Nevertheless, with a fee potential as low as €10m, Sanches is worth the risk. For his talent and ability, such a price would represent one of the bargains of the transfer window. He may not start every game and the phrase ‘impact player’ might be used but, whichever club signs him, they’ll be getting a fantastic talent, provided his hamstrings stay in good shape.

Tom Scholes

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