Writer’s note: Swansea coach, Paul Clement, has since been fired from his post after publication.
During the 15/16 season, Benfica fielded and then subsequently lost two young Portuguese midfielders after exciting displays attracted circling clubs. Gonçalo Guedes and Renato Sanches—both members of the winning Portugal team at Euro 2016 in France—secured moves to PSG and Bayern Munich, respectively.
And it seemed that the pair’s fates were destined to run parallel for all time.
Both struggled to break into their respective first teams of the clubs after being crowded out by high caliber players, and each went out this year to possibly salvage a botched start to their burgeoning careers. But the comparisons stop there.
While one is currently featured as a jewel of a resurgent Valencia side that are on pace for second in Spain’s La Liga, the other is looking at the real possibility of returning to his parent club, having barely completed half of his one year loan with a side mired in relegation woes.
Nicknamed “Bulo” by his Mother, Renato Sanches grew up in a tough northern neighbourhood of Lisbon called Musgueira. Such an upbringing—playing on the streets against older kids—hardened the young man. Later, after being drafted into the Benfica youth teams, his tough and aggressive style set him apart from other players. He was raw, but an eventual switch from winger to midfield helped solidify him as a player capable of being fast-tracked to the first team.
Sanches was aggressive and demanding of the ball, willing to cover grass when the midfield was needed cover and offering himself as one to help switch play from defense to attack with a carefully crafted through ball. Even though he had since moved across the 25 de Abril Bridge to live closer to the posh neighbourhoods of Benfica’s Seixal training ground, his style never wore off.
Perhaps one of the qualities that integrated him into first team football quicker than others was his upper body strength. For someone that wasn’t so tall, he was hard to push off the ball and could overpower players a lot older.
His dynamism first gave notice to bigger clubs in Europe, namely Manchester United, but then further solidified it by helping Portugal to win their first European championship in his first season of first team football. He was only 18.
Phenom or flameout?
After winning the Golden Ball reserved for only the finest of young players, Sanches earned a move to the German giants, Bayern Munich, and set out to further his reputation.
After a handful of starts in the first round of games under Ancelotti, however, he was quickly dropped after realising that the experimenting wasn’t working in his favour. In his remaining appearances, he failed to make an assist or score a goal and he looked like a shell of the firecracker at the Estadio de Luz.
One year on, he was dropped to Portugal’s u21 team in their World Cup competition but failed to light up the stage as he did before.
Paul Clement has had an extravagant pre-managerial career, starting at Chelsea as a trainee coach, coupling that with a PE teacher job on the side, and then working his way up the youth teams to eventually assist first team duties.
When Carlo Ancelotti was hired between the 09/10-10/11 seasons, Clement became his right hand man, and the Englishman followed him across Europe in his backroom staff to Real Madrid, PSG and finally, Bayern Munich. After a short spell at Derby County in the Championship on his maiden journey away from the Italian’s ear, he returned to ask for a favour as the latest Swansea manager.
Having kept them up after a shaky start under two previous coaches, Clement required a replacement for their departed playmaker, Gylfi Siggurdson. Working his contacts in Bavaria, he hobbled together a short contract that would secure the services of still one of the most sought after young players in Europe, Renato Sanches. The thing is, they had just signed a square peg for a round hole.
The reason why I think Renato Sanches has failed to make an impact in the league is due to his position in the team. He has made two bad career decisions in a row: moving too soon and then failing to challenge a tough Munich midfield, and now his current predicament at Swans.
The Portuguese isn’t a playmaker. While blessed with a hammer for a foot, he isn’t known for pulling the strings in the same way the Icelandic would. He is a box to box midfielder in the mould of a Genaro Gattuso or Arturo Vidal; combative, energetic and possessed with the range to give goalkeepers a heart attack from far away.
Sanches sets sail from Swansea
In my mind, the misconception of him being a playmaker has hindered Sanches’ development. When pushed against a wall, he often tries to carry the team and take on a higher workload than he is able. He is truly talented at what he does, but he has either lost the confidence to pull it off or Clement—who should be familiar with his skillset—is playing him out of position for a variety of reasons that don’t make sense in the case of the young man from Lisbon. In search of a big name to fill the seats and the pockets of Swansea has he been forced to play out of position? Or was he really just a one season wünderkind, for whom everything clicked in Portugal, but who is now finding himself out of his depth in the Premier League?
On paper, Swansea was the ideal choice for him to make: selecting a side that often played good football, under a manager that both his club and the players trusts, with the benefit of being a star player in a big league to showcase his talents. But it hasn’t worked out for Bulo, and it seems now that he has to either hope a purple patch is on the horizon, or he has to cut his losses and seek greener pastures somewhere else.
With various outlets reporting a swift exit after finer details are agreed upon, it seems the latter is impending and his transfer is a bust. But knowing his fighting attitude, I doubt this will be the last time he gets a shot at a great opportunity.