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He flopped at Bayern Munich, but Renato Sanches is finally making up for lost time at Lille

February 21, 2020January 6th, 2022

IT was not difficult to pinpoint the nadir of Renato Sanches’s dismal loan spell at Swansea City two seasons ago.

It was the moment, eight minutes before half-time in a Premier League match at Chelsea in November 2017, when he looked up and calmly passed the ball to a pitch-side advertising hoarding, having apparently mistaken its red Carabao logo for one of his red-shirted team-mates.

Sanches was withdrawn at half-time by manager Paul Clement and would go on to make only four further league appearances for Swansea before a hamstring injury brought his season to a premature conclusion. As he wrote in an article for The Players’ Tribune last year, he spent the final months of his time in South Wales “sitting alone in an apartment in Swansea watching it rain all day”.

His mishap at Stamford Bridge cruelly turned him into a laughing stock and became a symbol of his fall from grace, less than 18 months on from the succession of superb performances during Portugal’s triumphant Euro 2016 campaign that had seen him named Young Player of the Tournament and honoured with the Golden Boy award as the best player in Europe aged under 21.

After Sanches failed to win a first-team place at Bayern Munich following his return to his parent club in the summer of 2018, matters reached a head last August when he was fined €10,000 for skipping a post-match warm-down and publicly chastised for his behaviour by club chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. His disappointing three-year spell in Bavaria finally came to an end shortly afterwards when Lille brought him to northern France in a club-record deal reported to be worth €25 million.

Injuries and a lack of match fitness prevented the 22-year-old midfielder from making an immediate impact at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, but since returning from his latest hamstring complaint in November, his form has been exceptional. Whether playing on the right side of midfield or, as in recent weeks, in his preferred box-to-box role, the former Benfica starlet has rediscovered the consistency that had eluded him for so long and is now targeting a return to the Portugal squad, 15 months on from the last of his 18 international appearance.

After Sanches starred – and scored – in a 2-0 win at Angers earlier this month, opposing defender Romain Thomas admitted that he had gone into the changing room at half-time shaking his head in disbelief at the quality of the dreadlocked midfielder’s performance.

“It’s simple: I’ve not seen better than him this season, a midfielder so complete,” Thomas told regional newspaper La Voix du Nord. “He’s above everything.”

Sanches’s eagerness to make up for lost time was apparent from the very start at Lille and head coach Christophe Galtier had a job on his hands explaining to the new arrival why his playing time was being rationed so carefully.

“He started to lose patience and to get annoyed easily,” Galtier said in December. “He wanted to play 95 minutes too quickly. Thirty minutes wasn’t enough for him. He was perhaps a bit worried, too. You arrive at Lille, from Bayern, having not played for several seasons. You might ask yourself if you’ve made the right choice or if you have the required level. He needed reassuring.”

Conscious of the time that Sanches would need to adapt to French football and reluctant to dismantle his central midfield partnership of Benjamin André and Boubakary Soumaré, Galtier elected to move his new recruit into a wide midfield role at the beginning of December. It was a position in which he thrived, his advanced positioning allowing him to give free rein to his attacking qualities, and he notably scored a precious late winner in a 2-1 success at Montpellier.

More recently, a stand-off between Soumaré and the club opened up a vacancy in central midfield and Sanches slotted into his favoured role seamlessly, bullying a succession of hapless opponents with his remarkable alliance of strength, acceleration, dazzling footwork, stamina and creative passing.

“He has the very rare quality of being able to combine technical fluency, notably in attacking areas, with the energy of a pure defensive midfielder,” Lille president Gérard Lopez told L’Équipe earlier this month. “In his current form, he would have played at Bayern. You can’t do without a player like that.”

Sanches has spoken about the importance of “feeling the confidence” of the people around him and has reiterated his desire to get back into the national squad, having been given unexpected encouragement in August when Portugal coach Fernando Santos awarded him a surprise recall (for a pair of Euro 2020 qualifiers against Serbia and Lithuania in which he did not feature).

"I'm getting better and better and I feel better and better,” Sanches said recently. “I feel happy, I have adapted to the club and also to the philosophy of Christophe Galtier. “I came to Lille to play and to show that I am good enough to play for the national team. Of course, I want to be at Euro 2020 and I will work and do my best to get there.”

A lot of water has passed beneath the bridge since an 18-year-old Sanches paraded around the pitch at the Stade de France with a golden European Championship medal around his neck and the silver Henri Delaunay Trophy in his hands. But four years on, 130 miles up the road from the scene of the greatest triumph of his career to date, he has European glory in his sights once again.