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Golden Boy reborn: The renaissance of Renato Sanches

He was a bench warmer at relegation-bound Swansea City. A year later, under Niko Kovac, he’s making a genuine difference at Bayern Munich.

MUNICH, GERMANY - DECEMBER 19: Renato Sanches of Bayern Munich is challenged by Stefan Ilsanker of RB Leipzig and Dayot Upamecano of RB Leipzig during the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and RB Leipzig at Allianz Arena on December 19, 2018 in Munich, Germany.
Renato Sanches in action against RB Leipzig at the Allianz Arena, December 19, 2018.
Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Before Swansea City squared off against Stoke City at the end of last season, coach Carlos Carvalhal told Renato Sanches he could leave for Munich early. He would not even be in the squad as Swansea played its final game in the Premier League before relegation. Seven months later, in December, Sanches comes on for Kingsley Coman in a crucial match against RB Leipzig and sets up the game-winning goal with a determined, physical run at Leipzig’s defense.

Head coach Niko Kovac has faced a range of difficulties in his first season with Bayern Munich. One unqualified success, however, is the Golden Boy reborn: Renato Sanches.

Long before the season began, it was speculated that Bayern Munich might attempt to loan Sanches back to his home club, SL Benfica. Rumors abounded in June of this year, even after Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had declared that Kovac intended to make Sanches his personal project. Rummenigge said of Sanches at the time,

He’s coming back. Niko Kovac will try to restore him to his former strength. It’s an exciting task.

In hindsight, Rummenigge was right. Kovac himself talked the talk once he arrived at the club and began working with the Bayern star. His opinion of Sanches was very high. He said in late July,

He has skills that you don’t see every day in the Bundesliga; that’s why FC Bayern signed him.

But although Kovac promised to help Sanches regain his confidence and comfort, he also expected Sanches to prove himself worthy of the chance:

I want him to take on the battle, to be so motivated, to go all out from the first minute on. Then I’ll be convinced that he can perform at the level we expect of him and that he expects of himself.

And Sanches himself took up the challenge. “I want to make it here,” he declared after scoring his first goal for Bayern in a friendly against Paris Saint-Germain. Although some of Bayern’s veterans may have griped, the rigor of Kovac’s early training sessions at Bayern seems to have benefited Sanches, who lost excess weight and survived a bicycle crash on his path back to a valuable place on the roster.

And now, as we approach the end of the Hinrunde, Renato Sanches — Renato Sanches, who couldn’t make the bench at Swansea City — made the difference in Bayern’s match against RB Leipzig on Wednesday. Watch it again for yourself:

As Joshua Kimmich drives forward with the ball in the midfield, Sanches makes a run, indicating to Kimmich where to pass the ball. Kimmich chips a perfect pass to him. Sanches collects it and uses his body to keep Leipzig’s Upamecano (no. 5) — who had played an immense game for Leipzig up to that point — away from the ball.

Sanches turns and shoots the ball right through Upamecano’s legs. It’s a difficult shot, and he cannot hit the ball well, but neither can Gulacsi save it cleanly. Upamecano rushes back and clears the ball from danger, firing it toward Konrad Laimer (no. 27), but Sanches has drifted precisely there after his shot. He sees the clearance and extends his leg in front of Laimer, redirecting the ball to Ribery. Ribery “put out of business Konrad Laimer and Ibrahima Konate” (as our own Miran described it in his player awards) with an epic cut. Goal!

Referee Marco Fritz (R) shakes hands with Bayern Munich's Portuguese midfielder Renato Sanches (L) after he got the red card during the German first division football match between 1 FC Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig in Munich, southern Germany, on December 19, 2018.
Renoto Sanches, in the heat of the moment, shakes referee Marco Fritz’s hand after receiving a yellow-red card, December 19, 2018.
Photo by Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

And that was not the end of it for Sanches: after Stefan Ilsanker committed a cynical, dangerous, red-card-worthy foul on Thiago, Sanches shoved him to the ground and was sent off with a yellow-red for his trouble. It was not the smartest move, but the team took note. Thomas Müller and Leon Goretzka, among others, could be seen congratulating Sanches after the match.

Sanches has truly arrived. He managed just 865 minutes of playing time in 16 matches all season for Swansea City in the fixture-ridden Premier League. In just under half a season at Bayern Munich, he has already logged 667 minutes and participated in 16 matches. He is not a first-choice starter; Sanches has started more frequently in low or rather — given how the season has gone — less-pressure games, but he has risen to the occasion several times.

Sanches’s greatest moment thus far for Bayern was undoubtedly his homecoming in Lisbon, against his home club Benfica. Sanches repaid Niko Kovac for his surprise start against Benfica with a Meister-of-the-Match-worthy performance and a goal that the home rewarded with a standing ovation. And Sanches has continued to flourish under Kovac.

Sanches is still only 21 years old, three years younger than even Corentin Tolisso, arguably his closest competitor for playing time on the roster. Thanks to his own efforts and those of his coach, his career at the top of European soccer looks like it is back on track against the odds. Kovac has made a point of encouraging and developing young players, something for which he was already well-known at Eintracht Frankfurt. At Bayern, that investment has paid dividends in Renato Sanches.

From not making the the squad for Swansea City’s relegation battle to starts in the Champions League, Sanches has found his confidence at Bayern, is finding his form, and has found his chance with Niko Kovac. That is one victory worth celebrating.

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