Five years ago, Renato Sanches made his debut for Portugal’s national team and assisted his nation in winning Euro 2016. Today, the 23-year-old is in the middle of a reputation revival.
In 2016, Sanches was considered a wonder kid with endless potential. He won the Primeira Liga and Taca da Liga with Portuguese powerhouse Benfica. Afterwards, he became the youngest person in the nation’s history to be called up for an international competition. Initially, it was thought the youngster was only invited for the experience and wouldn’t play a part in the tournament. Eventually, he became an essential figure in the team and played a major role in their first major trophy.
Sanches received man of the match in their Round of 16 victory against Croatia and in their quarterfinal win against Poland. The 18-year-old won the inaugural Young Player of the Tournament award for his contributions. When the competition ended, Euro 2016’s Golden Boy winner made the leap to Bayern Munich. It was difficult for him to convince Carlo Ancelotti for a permanent spot in the starting 11 with veterans such as Xabi Alonso, Javi Martinez, Thiago and Arturo Vidal in front of him. Also, Joshua Kimmich was playing in midfield more often after paying his dues at right-back.
The next season, the 2015-16 Primeira Liga Breakthrough Player went on loan to Swansea City to get consistent game time and regain his confidence. It would also allow him to play in arguably the best competition in the world in the Premier League. The plan didn’t work. After mixed results and hamstring injuries, his season was cut short. The 2018-19 season was more of the same, but he received a resounding endorsement from his manager.
“It’s true that people fly off him left and right, just like they used to do with Lothar Matthaus,” said then-new head coach Niko Kovac.
To be compared to a Ballon d’Or winner and one of the greatest players of all time must be nice but also frustrating when you barely play for your club. Sometimes, players make the jump to big clubs when they are too young and not ready. It can hamper their development. Memphis Depay and Wilfried Zaha at Manchester United are some examples, but they eventually turned it around. Malcom went to Barcelona and could not deliver, now he is at Zenit Saint Petersburg in Russia trying to reclaim the form that made him a hot commodity three years ago.
Sanches moved to Lille in 2019 and began to find himself again. In a season cut short by COVID-19, he contributed three goals and one assist in 19 Ligue 1 matches. This year, he scored one goal and dished out three assists in 23 appearances. The statistics aren’t mind blowing but he is playing consistently again.
“Honestly, I feel better than a few years ago when I signed for Bayern. Simply because I play more, and when I play more, I have more confidence in myself. This is really what has changed since then,” said Sanches to La Voix du Nord.
Lille won Ligue 1 this season and interest in the Portugal international is rising again. His performances at Euro 2020 have only bolstered it. He’s played in all four matches and started in their 2-2 draw against France as well as the nation’s eventual exit after losing to Belgium. A Seleção’s first match was a struggle against Hungary until the man nicknamed El Bulo, the bull, came on the pitch. His box-to-box play gave his side a spark as they finally had a central midfielder that was able to drive with the ball and provide progressive passes. Portugal ended up defeating the Magyars, 3-0. As we saw in his final game of the Euro 2020 tournament, Sanches was a force to be reckoned with, bulldozing his way past Eden Hazard and moving the ball into midfield to create attack after attack for Portugal.
After starting Euro 2020 on the bench, Renato Sanches is now Portugal’s best central midfield option, and he is once again on the radar of the major clubs around Europe. This time, he is ready to take the next step.
Author: Dan Adu-Gyamfi