21st June 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
Less than a year ago, Renato Sanches appeared to have the world at his feet. The Portuguese teenager had just turned down Manchester United to sign for German champions Bayern Munich from Benfica in a headline-grabbing €35 million deal, potentially rising to as much as €60 million with conditional add-ons.
He also starred at last summer's European Championships in France, helping Portugal overcome the odds and upset the home nation, claiming their first ever major international honour.
Now, though, the 19-year-old midfielder, having started only six Bundesliga games during his first campaign at the Allianz Arena, faces the very real possibility of having to play his football elsewhere next season.
Bayern's public stance is that they would be reluctant to allow Sanches to leave the club as things stand. But their recent €35 million purchase of energetic French midfielder Corentin Tolisso, coupled with manager Carlo Ancelotti's insistence that promising German playmaker Joshua Kimmich will remain with the Bundesliga champions all points towards the Portuguese youngster being pushed out, be it on loan or a permanent transfer.
It all seems a far cry from the euphoria that Sanches must have experienced at the end of 2015/16. Not only had he broken through to the first-team at Benfica, helped the Eagles claim yet another Primeira Liga title, secured a dream move to Bayern and tasted international glory with Portugal, he was also recognised individually with the Euro 2016 Young Player of the Tournament crown and the FIFA Golden Boy Award.
On his decision to join Bayern over United, Sanches said: "Manchester United made an offer. I think it was well known.Â But I had other offers as well."
"I chose Bayern Munich becauseÂ it's a great club. They have a 65,000-seater stadium and an atmosphere similar to Benfica. I'll win titles."
He certainly has won a title too, with the Bavarian giants romping to a fifth successive Bundesliga triumph, but Sanches will be far from happy with the bit-part role he played in it.
Having initially struggled to produce his best form, the teenager appeared to lose the confidence of his manager. Carlo Ancelotti, in his first season in charge at the Allianz Arena, filling the sizeable shoes of Manchester City-bound Pep Guardiola, surely felt under immense pressure to continue the era of success the club has been experiencing. It was perhaps unfortunate timing for Sanches, but the Italian tactician had little leeway for allowing a young player to develop and learn from mistakes; he needed instant results.
This meant that more experienced heads such as Xabi Alonso, Arturo Vidal and Thiago AlcÃ¢ntara were the preferred options in midfield. Sanches finished the season with a paltry total of 618 Bundesliga minutes under his belt, no goals, no assists.
During the winter break, Ancelotti spoke of the Portuguese prodigy's struggles in Germany, and backed the former Benfica star to eventually come good.
"I am sure the second half of the season will go better for him," the manager said, appearing to show patience with the 19-year-old.
"He's only young and has come to a new club, and had to speak a new language."
But Sanches started just two more games between when Ancelotti spoke those words of assurance and the end of the season a 1-0 defeat away at Hoffenheim in April and a 1-0 victory at home to struggling Darmstadt in May.
The fact that his dream move to one of Europe's biggest clubs was beginning to resemble more of a nightmare was not lost on the player himself, either, as he remarked to the Portuguese press in March: "Things are not going as I expected."
With Alonso having retired at the end of the campaign, Bayern are in need of a deep-lying playmaker to sit at the base of their midfield and dictate play with the authority and technical mastery of the erudite Spaniard.
Chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge believes that Sanches is the man for the job. "What we want is for Renato to follow in Xabi's footsteps," the former Germany international said last season. "That's why we bought him."
However, that's not necessarily a role that suits Sanches' skill set. The Portuguese star, who is currently on international duty at the European Under-21 Championships in Poland, is at his best in a box-to-box role, bursting forward, engaging in midfield tussles with opponents and creating opportunities with his vision and incisiveness, rather than sitting in front of the back four and pulling strings from deep.
Furthermore, in addition to Tolisso, FC Bayern have also brought in experienced central midfielder Sebastian Rudy on a free transfer from Hoffenheim. The 27-year old, who has been capped 16 times for Germany, is unlikely to be the sole replacement for Alonso, but he will be a rotational option in the position, while 22-year-old former RB Leipzig standout Kimmich is perhaps best suited to the role stylistically.
This, again, points towards Sanches potentially being surplus to requirements at Bayern. With the club reportedly planning a big-money move for want-away Arsenal forward Alexis SÃ¡nchez, there must be a temptation to sell the reigning Golden Boy to balance the books a little.
If that proves to be the case, Juventus are believed to be interested in acquiring his services, although competition for a starting place in Turin will not be much less fierce than it is in Munich.
Manchester United, too, are reportedly monitoring the situation, and may look to make another play for the man they failed to sign a year ago. With Pogba's status on the left of JosÃ© Mourinho's midfield three assured, Sanches' arrival could see Ander Herrera permanently pushed back into a defensive midfield position a role in which he thrived last season.
His energy and tenacity could make Sanches the perfect foil to Pogba, unleashing the gifted Frenchman's creative powers in advanced areas.
A sale to United would also see Bayern recoup their initial €35million outlay on the player, and perhaps even turn a profit in the current inflated market. The fact that Sanches and Mourinho share an agent in Jorge Mendes would surely help smooth negotiations too.
However, Bayern may yet elect to hold onto Sanches and give him another year at least to prove himself. And that would be a wise move from the German club, who rarely make transfer missteps, as the 19-year-old remains an immensely talented prospect.
What Next for Renato Sanches, after a difficult first season at FC Bayern?
21st June 2017. By Ryan Baldi.