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Breaking: Leroy Sané is a human being

Leroy Sané was on the verge of joining Bayern Munich. Then a serious knee injury derailed his future and Bayern’s squad renewal. Who is to blame for it all?

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Liverpool v Manchester City - FA Community Shield Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

Leroy Sané is one of the most coveted players in the world, and the one player coveted by Bayern Munich more than any other — or rather he was, until he partially tore his ACL in what would otherwise almost certainly have been his final match for Manchester City.

Now he is injured, awaiting surgery. Instead of a lucrative new contract at Bayern, he may not receive an offer at all. But Sané has other, more pressing concerns: as debated endlessly here and on other forums, he now must also be wondering whether he can regain the impressive form that caught the eye of his Bavarian suitors, or — given the quality of the medical attention treatment he will receive — he must at least be wondering how long it may take him to recover.

Lost in all the transfer banter and noise surrounding this particularly tragic injury is Sané the person. It happens with every professional athlete, but the case of Sané is especially crass. His worth has been measured variously in euros, goals and assists — even xG and other metrics — but little that has to do with who he is. And Sané watched the value that others attach to him plummet over the course of a Sunday afternoon.

The strange circumstances of his failed transfer to Bayern Munich derailed more than a business transaction. How did it come to this?

In the aftermath of Sané’s injury, fans and critics alike have debated who is to blame for Bayern’s situation: club leaders Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic, City coach Pep Guardiola, Manchester City — Sané himself?

The answer is not clear-cut.

Guardiola’s “word of power”

Obviously, blame focused initially on Guardiola himself. He was the one, after all, who decided to include Sané in his starting lineup for the Community Shield against Liverpool. Fans blasted the coach for uttering his “word of power,” as the Twitterverse rendered Bild’s exaggerated description of the decision to start Sané as a kind of power play or fiat — a Machtwort. It was hardly that.

The Community Shield, like the DFL Supercup, is something of a glorified friendly, but it nonetheless carries prestige, at least for the winner. This year’s fixture, like Bayern’s own game against Dortmund, was viewed as a test of strength for the two favorites to win the Premier League. And, in fact, given Guardiola’s limited options on offense as several players returned from the Copa America, many expected Guardiola to start Sané in this match.

Guardiola’s job, in the end, is to win games, and especially trophies. Sané started.

Salihamidzic out of his depth?

Fans on Twitter and Instagram, which always seem to bring the very worst out of any fanbase, have relentlessly attacked the leaders of Bayern Munich. The vitriol directed toward the sporting director Salihamidzic, who has sometimes seemed out of his depth in his second year on the job, has been especially bitter.

Salihamidzic, however, is hardly to blame for missing out on Sané. By all accounts Sané had agreed to personal terms prior to his injury, and Salihamidzic’s culpability in other failed transfers is also debatable. Bayern’s other primary target, Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi, was also apparently on the cusp of signing when he tore his Achilles tendon. It was Chelsea that simply refused to deal at any price. There is little Salihamidzic or anyone could do.

It is also unfair to dismiss the signing of Lucas Hernandez on account of the fact that Bayern activated his €80m release clause to sign him: the move would have been futile if Hernandez had not agreed to personal terms. And Salihamidzic has also procured Benjamin Pavard, Fiete Arp, and Alphonso Davies, all of whom agreed to come.

Criticism over potential targets who went to other clubs — Matthijs De Ligt (to Juventus), Frenkie De Jong (Barcelona), Luka Jovic (Real Madrid), Rodri (ManCity) — is moot. With the exception of Rodri, none of these players play positions that are a current need at Bayern. Rodri’s transfer to City for €70 to play for Guardiola was a genuine disappointment, and Rodri was potentially the unnamed player whose unnamed agent advised him against a move to Bayern (Focus). But the fact of the matter is that City handily won the Premier League last season and should make a deep run in the Champions League, while Bayern is still in the midst of rebuilding its roster.

Timing is everything: Rummenigge & Hoeness

The board bears much of the blame for that fact. Major transfers require the involvement of Bayern’s CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and president Uli Hoeness, since the supervisory board must approve the sums in play. They gave the green light for Hernandez, shattering Bayern’s record transfer by nearly €40m, and they also must have authorized the massive offers for Hudson-Odoi and Sané, but the timing of the transactions gave the club very little leeway.

No one can say that Bayern failed to go all-in on Hudson-Odoi: Bayern bid €40m for the youngster prior to his ruptured Achilles and still bid €25m after the injury. But a transfer takes two to tango, and Chelsea simply moved the goalposts farther and farther with each offer. At some point, it ceases to make sense for Bayern to offer more. For what it is worth, Hudson-Odoi still has not signed an extension at Chelsea.

The dilemma on Bayern’s wings meanwhile has less to do with this transfer window than it does with transfer windows past. While Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery remained on the team, there simply was not enough incentive and definitely not enough room to sign replacements. Instead of a gradual changing of the guard, the process became a long goodbye. While Sané blossomed in Manchester, Bayern made do with what club legends Ribery and Robben could provide alongside an oft-injured Kingsley Coman and newcomer Serge Gnabry.

Uli Hoeness remarked last season when Ribery’s farewell was announced,

We have two or three players to whom we must be incredibly grateful; Robben and Riebry are among them. ... We were prepared to sacrifice the [Bundesliga] championship a year to give the players a sensible farewell. I’ve won more than fifty titles in my life. One title more or less isn’t so important.

In the end, Bayern won the Bundesliga anyway, but instead of a title the club sacrificed the timely renewal of its offense. At the end of the 2018-2019 season, after a heartfelt farewell, suddenly both Robben and Ribery were gone, and the need to replace them became acute. Then circumstances conspired to snatch the club’s two top targets, Hudson-Odoi and Sané, from its grasp with injuries and Chelsea’s intransigence.

Sané the human being

Lastly, Sané the person, the human being behind the stats, also bears much of the blame for his situation: faced with a career and life-altering decision, he took his time. He hesitated, debated, conferred, consulted, and decided — too late. But of all the parties in this affair, Sané had the biggest reasons to move slowly and carefully.

Chelsea FC v Manchester City FC - Carabao Cup Final
Leroy Sané with Vincent Kompany and Riyad Mahrez after winning the Carabao Cup, Feb. 24, 2019.
Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

While we sometimes view players as bundles of abilities that we can transfer from one place or team to another, reality is messier. Sané has his own career to think about foremost: he has become a standout for Germany while playing in Manchester under Guardiola. He has blossomed as a player, but he does not feel completely confident there, having lost playing time to Riyad Mahrez last season.

Sané would presumably be an undisputed starter at Munich, potentially lining up alongside teammates from the German national team. Then again, what about the coaching? Guardiola is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the world. Even if Guardiola sits him more often than he would like, Sané still might view Guardiola as better for his personal development — and his odds of winning titles. Guardiola’s counterpart at Bayern, Niko Kovac, still labors under the impression that the club signed him reluctantly, and the erratic results of last season’s Hinrunde almost cost him his job.

Perhaps most significantly, though, the decision to leave Manchester for Munich pitted Sané’s own mother against his partner and the mother of his child, quite apart from his own private wishes. That is not an easy choice for anyone.

Obviously, Sané also stood to gain immensely from a new contract at Bayern that would catapult him among the top-earners there, if not above them. Sané owes it to himself and his family to earn the most money as possible from his short playing career. The back and forth between agents and representatives, and whatever private concerns needed to be addressed, brought the negotiations all the way down to the Community Shield, five days before the English transfer window closed.

Then Sané injured his knee.

Losers all around

The injury is a disaster for Sané the player and Sané the person. He now faces months of rehabilitation and then he must make the same career decision as before, but with greater uncertainty and probably on less favorable terms. He must start the process over, this time as a convalescent from a serious injury.

It is a disaster for Bayern Munich as well. The club pinned its hopes on Sané and rode along until August waiting for his decision. Critics have attacked Bayern for its indecision, but the board had decided: “Sané oder nix!” But now he is injured and unable to provide what the club needs now, not in six or seven months: an added offensive threat on the wings. No one at Säbener Strasse could have foreseen that.

Of course, Manchester City has also lost a valuable player, although if anyone really deserves blame in this affair, I would attach it to them. City is the party in the negotiations that lost the least: Sané is not their only offensive threat, let alone their best. Although the club would have undoubtedly charged a very high transfer fee, City seemed totally indifferent to selling Sané all along. It was Sané and Bayern who wanted the deal. For City, Sané was just another bundle of goals with a valuation in euros or pounds attached to it.

If City was negotiating with Bayern (and Sané himself) in good faith, the done thing would have been to hold Sané back from playing. City let him play, arguably to drive up his value one last time. The plan may have backfired and Sané’s “price” may have dropped, but the cost of the injury to others — Bayern and especially Sané himself — was far higher than it was to City, which crushed West Ham 5-0 in its season opener a week later. That City can afford such spectacular indifference is truly a shame.

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