How Leroy Sane's Schalke Apprenticeship Shaped Germany's 'Nonconformist' Star

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportSeptember 27, 2018

Manchester City's German midfielder Leroy Sane applauds supporters on the pitch after the English Premier League football match between between Cardiff City and Manchester City at Cardiff City Stadium in Cardiff, south Wales on September 22, 2018. - Manchester City won the game 5-0. (Photo by Geoff CADDICK / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. /         (Photo credit should read GEOFF CADDICK/AFP/Getty Images)
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It was never going to be easy for Leroy Sane to keep a low profile at Schalke.

To begin with, there were his famous parents, former Senegal striker Souleymane Sane and gymnast Regina Weber, who won a bronze medal for West Germany at the 1984 Olympics.

Then there were his looks. Tall and lean, with sharp cheekbones, honey brown eyes and a shock of frizzy black hair. Sane could conceivably have become a model had his football career not taken off. Norbert Elgert, Sane's coach with Schalke's under-19s, remembers his first impression being of a "nice-looking young man with a lot of talent for soccer."

Most importantly, there was his ability as a footballer. Blisteringly quick, master of the slaloming dribble and possessing a delicately calibrated left foot, Sane did not take long to attract the attention of Schalke's supporters.

Martin Meissner/Associated Press

"He was tall and very fast with big hair, so his appearance was quite 'flashy,'" says Karsten Jahn, a Schalke fan and blogger. "Plus his father, Souleymane Sane, is very well known in Germany, so people started noticing him straight away."

Schalke's youth academy, known as the Knappenschmiede or "miners' forge" in reference to Gelsenkirchen's coal-mining heritage, is one of the best in Europe. Its list of alumni includes such sparkling names as Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil and Julian Draxler. Schalke's first team may not be able to compete with Bayern Munich, but the club's remarkable production line means fans have learnt that it pays to keep a close eye on the under-19s.

Elgert, 61, has been in charge of Schalke's U19s since 1996, aside from a brief stint as assistant coach in 2003-03. He first met Sane in 2005, when the youngster joined Schalke as a nine-year-old, but it was not until 2011, the year that Sane returned to the club following a three-year stint at Bayer Leverkusen, that the two men got to know each other.

Sane is carefree by nature, and Elgert diplomatically describes his attitude at the time as "improvable." There is a well-worn story about Sane being unceremoniously hauled off after 30 minutes of an U19s game against Wuppertal because Elgert felt the player, who had been training with the senior team, was not working hard enough.

Elgert could have used similar shock treatment at half-time of a UEFA Youth League group game away to Sporting Lisbon in November 2014. Schalke were 2-0 down and Sane had been anonymous, but some carefully chosen words from his coach prompted him to seize control of the match in the second half. He halved Sporting's advantage and then, after Felix Platte had made it 2-2, scored a stoppage-time winner.

"To motivate him at half-time, I said to him, 'This is definitely your last game for Schalke's U19s,'" Elgert tells Bleacher Report, a chuckle bouncing down the phone line from Gelsenkirchen.

"He looked at me and when we returned to the pitch, he decided the match in our favour. After the match, I said to him, 'You can come again for another match.'"

Frank Augstein/Associated Press

Sane had made his senior debut the previous April, and it was in the following season that he became a first-team player, his four goals in 14 appearances including a magnificent curling effort against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on his Champions League debut. The 19-year-old in the No. 19 jersey had Schalke's fans at his feet.

"It's hard to find another player who was perceived so positively in such a short time," says Schalke supporter Jahn.

"He was young, he was from the youth academy and he was always running. Schalke are a working-class club, so they like hard-working football. That's what they saw in Sane. He was always smiling, and of course he's very pretty, so half the supporters just fell in love with him."

Behind the scenes, however, not everyone at Schalke was satisfied with him. Roberto Di Matteo, Schalke's coach at the time, told Sky Sports last year that Sane had "a bit of a chip on his shoulder" and had to learn to become "more humble."

The winger excelled the following season under Andre Breitenreiter, Di Matteo's more attack-minded successor, but his apparent disregard for defensive duties continued to cause concern.

"Andre was always telling Leroy that his defending wasn't good enough and that he needed to improve," says Toni Lieto, who reports on Schalke for Kicker magazine. "But Leroy just said, 'No, I'm good enough. I'm an offensive player, so I don't need to worry about it.' I think that's part of his character. Sometimes he's a little overbearing."

Sane enjoyed a stellar 2017/18 season at Manchester City, in which he won the Premier League and the Carabao Cup. But despite being voted England's Young Player of the Year after contributing 10 goals and 15 assists in the Premier League, Sane endured a difficult summer. Contentiously omitted from Germany's 2018 FIFA World Cup squad, he was chided in pre-season by City manager Pep Guardiola, who felt that Sane was "far away from his best" and needed to "regain his principles in terms of playing without the ball."

Confounding expectations that, having missed the World Cup and enjoyed a full pre-season, he would come flying out of the traps, Sane started City's first three Premier League games on the bench. He then watched from an executive box as they won 2-1 at home to Newcastle on the first day of September. The 22-year-old had also taken time to get going last season, when it wasn't until late September that he nailed down a starting berth.

He has since returned to the starting XI, scoring in City's 3-0 win over Fulham and setting up a goal for Bernardo Silva in last weekend's 5-0 rout of Cardiff, and Guardiola has said that he is happy with Sane's mental approach.

For his part, Elgert dismisses suggestions of any kind of attitude problem and says that at a time when the national team is crying out for fresh impetus, Sane is exactly the kind of player Germany need.

"He's a good character: open-minded, grateful, very self-confident, but without arrogance," he says. "He's a nonconformist, and I think that's very important. We need that in German soccer."

Sane's return to the international fold earlier this month brought with it new reproaches, with Germany team-mate Toni Kroos criticising his body language and saying that he had to be reminded of his responsibilities to the team. Kroos, ironically, has previously faced criticism in Germany about his own attitude, right up to the point of his exit from Bayern Munich, per the Mail on Sunday. Elgert believes that as far as Sane is concerned, the subject is a red herring.

MUNICH, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 05: Toni Kroos of Germany , Leroy Sane of Germany , Marcus Sorg of Germany Nico Schulz of Germany looks on during a team Germany training session at Bayern Muenchen Campus on September 5, 2018 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by TF-I
TF-Images/Getty Images

"I'm very respectful of Toni Kroos, who is a great, great soccer player and a great, great human being, but I've known him [Sane] for a very long time, and it's not easy to change your body language because it's subconscious," Elgert says.

"Maybe sometimes his body language can be an advantage, like when he explodes on the pitch from a state of apparent lethargy. Sometimes Messi doesn't seem to be participating in the match, and then he explodes."

Germany's post-World Cup reconfiguration is now under way. Ozil and Mario Gomez retired from international football following the debacle in Russia, and Low has already awarded new caps to Hoffenheim's Nico Schulz, Bayer Leverkusen's Kai Havertz and Thilo Kehrer, Sane's former Schalke colleague, who is now at Paris Saint-Germain. As Low builds towards Euro 2020, Sane is expected to play a central role in the team's reconstruction.

"In general, people in Germany like Leroy. They like how he performs on the pitch," says Lieto. "Everyone wants to see him in the national team, and I think he will play a big role for Germany in the next few years."

In many ways, perceptions of Sane have not changed since he was a teenager: The 22-year-old remains a head-turner and a game-changer, but questions about his attitude persist. If he is to convince Guardiola and Low of his dependability, the coming months will be crucial. Nobody can be the "next big thing" forever.

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