Renato Sanches: Behind the Biggest Fall From Grace in Recent Football History
The date was 29 November, 2017. The time was 8:17 p.m. The venue was Stamford Bridge.
Renato Sanches, one of the world's most exciting young footballers, was about to become a laughing stock.
Dressed in Swansea City's red away strip and with the scoreline at 0-0, he dropped deep in the Chelsea half to receive a pass from team-mate Roque Mesa. Sanches controlled the ball on his back foot, took one touch and then played a pass straight out of play into the hoardings. Rather than playing the ball to Martin Olsson, he had passed to a red Carabao logo.
Sanches rolled his eyes towards the sky. Swansea's management team squirmed awkwardly on the bench. Then-boss Paul Clement seemed in disbelief.
It was a moment that quickly became a hit across social media, and the unfortunate moment sums up his situation.
Sanches, the UEFA Euro 2016 Golden Boy, finds himself misplaced and in a confidence crisis. Now he has a hamstring injury too.
At 20, serious questions are already being asked of him. How has this incredible talent spiralled so quickly?
The truth is worrying signs had set in even before he arrived in the Premier League last summer.
Doomed from the Beginning?
"In hindsight, Sanches should not have started that first match against Newcastle United," one Swansea source told me this week, as I began to dissect the issue.
"He had only been at the club a matter of days, but there was so much anticipation around his arrival. Fans were expecting to be lifted from their seats the moment he picked up the ball."
The debut did not go to plan. Sanches made two horrible passing errors inside the first five minutes, giving away possession with square balls in central areas. He was substituted on 69 minutes after an unconvincing display.
He had managed a pass-success rate of 79 per cent—the lowest of the four midfield players—and mustered one shot on goal.
"It set the tone for bad things," was the Swansea insider's opinion. "Looking back on it, he should probably have been brought on [as] a substitute instead to inject life to the game late on and ease him into the Premier League."
The Boy from Benfica
His early days in the game were more promising than that Swansea debut. Born and raised in Lisbon, Sanches showed natural talent and was signed up to Benfica's youth system by the age of 10.
His upbringing had not been easy. He was brought up in a tough neighbourhood, as detailed by Bleacher Report's Richard Fitzpatrick. But his strong mind and aggression seemed to help him through those early stages when other kids found the demands of such high level football more difficult.
"He was always a big talent in Benfica's youth system, but he started to be better known in 2014," explains Luis Santos Castelo, journalist at Portuguese football news site Bancada.pt.
"He had a great Under-17 European Championship and made his debut for Benfica's B team at the age of 17. He played almost 30 games with the B team in 2014/15, but no one expected that, a year later, he would be an essential player in the conquest of the Portuguese League for Benfica's main team.
"It was only in 2015 that Benfica fans began to think that a world-class player might be there.
"His first goal in the first tier was a screamer against Academica, and then few people doubted that he would continue to be present in the starting XI until the end of the season. The rest is history."
Sanches became a mainstay of the side, featuring in 47 matches—including six in the UEFA Champions League—as Benfica won Liga Nos. Europe's top clubs were paying attention, and Sanches completed a €35 million (£27.5 million) transfer to Bayern Munich.
Becoming Europe's Golden Boy
At Euro 2016 a tremendous goal against Poland in the quarter-finals cemented his status as a rising superstar, and he was later named the tournament's best young player.
Portugal won the competition, against the odds, and then it was time to take his career to the next level, as Sanches headed off to Munich—without too much idea of what to expect. He knew little about the club's famous history but did know that the squad was capable of winning the Champions League.
People are asking why he has failed to shine at Swansea, but the truth is he started to decline within months of landing in Germany.
It was always going to be a tough transition, but those around the club believe his failure to speak the language and limited game time left him feeling anxious and unsettled.
When he was given opportunities, it seemed he was trying too hard. He would look for the more difficult pass, desperate to shine and feel at home among the stars who surrounded him. But with every pass that went astray, his confidence dipped.
In analysing of his time at Bayern, B/R's Sam Tighe commented: "Sanches has gone from being the driving, physical force of Benfica's midfield—beating players one-on-one, powering forward with the ball at his feet and smashing rasping long shots home—to being the least important cog in Bayern's, if he even plays."
"A failure to track runners is no new issue for Sanches. Even during his heady period as Benfica's shining star, playing a combative, box-to-box role at the heart of an attacking 4-4-2 formation, this was an established issue of his. He was also prone to a sulk and a mini-strop when he was failing to get his teeth into proceedings."
By the end of that first season, the German club decided it would be best to let him leave on loan. But Sanches had not anticipated he would rock up in a coastal city in Wales he had barely heard of.
"I want to regain my confidence, to be happy again as a player," Sanches said on his first day at Swansea, trying to take an optimistic stance. The truth is he only joined the club because of then-manager Clement, with whom he had worked briefly at Bayern.
Clement had retained a relationship with club chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge that made the move possible, but Sanches had told the club he favoured a move elsewhere. Club sources around Swansea were immediately unconvinced about how comfortable he felt.
He knew little about the club, the city and even the country. When he joined Bayern a year previously, he had also been linked with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, so to arrive in the Premier League on a yearlong loan with Swansea was somewhat strange.
He vowed to give it a go as he wanted to feel joy in the game once again. He took on English lessons and, by Christmas, was better able to chat to team-mates and understand instructions. But it began to become clear he was not a good fit for Swansea and that the Swans were not a good fit for him.
Clement left the club in December and admitted in an interview with Henry Winter of The Times that the player seemed broken from the offset.
"He was far more damaged than I thought," Clement said. "It was really sad. He was a boy who had almost got the weight of the world on his shoulders."
His decision-making was poor, and there seemed a need for him to try things that were unnecessary to stand out as a star. The Sanches deal is costing Swansea around £8.5 million, including his wages and a loan fee. It seemed good value at the start, but not so much by the time Carlos Carvalhal took the reins in December.
Swansea were deep in a relegation scrap, and Carvalhal's arrival could have been a perfect pick-me-up for Sanches, as well as the club. With a coach from his country coming in, many thought it would get the best from Sanches. It was not to be. Swansea's results have turned around, but the midfielder remains in a bad place.
A hamstring issue, picked up in an FA Cup match against Wolverhampton Wanderers, means he has been limited to just two full matches since his compatriot took charge.
Time for a Rebuild
There are some people back home who are revelling in the downfall.
"Everyone in Portugal wants to be informed about Renato Sanches' career at Swansea, but there are two groups," Castelo said. "In the first one, there are the supporters of Benfica, who want Renato to be successful and to reach the top of international football.
"In the second one, there are the fans of Sporting CP and FC Porto, who, in general, hope that Renato doesn't succeed. However, by now, everyone recognises that his debut season at Bayern failed to meet the expectations and that the current season at Swansea has been a failure.
"He is still quite young, so the unanimous opinion is that he still has time to be a top player. But not everyone wants this to happen because of football rivalries."
Bayern still hope he will become a top player and want him to return in the summer. They remain hopeful some positives will surface from his time in the Premier League. But Sanches must show a strong state of mind and even stronger determination to succeed and get back on track.
It could be that another loan spell is on the cards before he makes the grade at Bayern, but Sanches cannot be discounted and thrown on the scrapheap just yet. He had a tough start to life in Lisbon and knows what it takes to come through hard times.
Maybe, one day, he will look back and laugh at that pass into the advertising board.