#ISSUE 18: The Resurgence of Leroy Sané
From a €60.00m flop to a leading-light in one of the best attacks in world football. This is how Leroy Sané turned his Bayern career around in a mere 4 months.
From FC Köln’s charismatic coach Steffen Baumgart, to Greuther Fürth’s disastrous Bundesliga return, the 2021-22 Bundesliga Hinrunde has been filled with eye-catching storylines from top to bottom.
Though Bayern look like favorites to run away with their 10th consecutive Meisterschale, fans can take some solace in the fact that we’re gearing up for a scintillating race for top four, and a relegation battle going down to the wire.
Nevertheless, today’s first newsletter of the year isn’t about European dark horses or a nail-biting relegation scrap. Instead, we kick off 2022 by taking a closer look at one of the biggest individual revivals of last year.
After leaving the pitch on gameweek 2 to a chorus of boos, Leroy Sané had officially hit a new-low in his Bayern career. After failing to set the world alight following his 2020 transfer from Manchester City, the €60.00m price tag seemed to become an ever increasing burden for the 25-year old winger playing far below his best.
His reluctance to participate in defensive transitions made him a constant target for criticism. His woeful showing at the European Championships only compounded these issues. And the odd-goal contribution he provided was quickly forgotten by his tendency to go missing on the big occasions with disinterested body language and an indifferent attitude.
With a once glistening career beginning to spiral out of control, Leroy Sané was forced to confront reality.
He could either continue on the path of mediocrity and fizzle out far below his talent-ceiling, or make the necessary changes to truly leave a legacy on German football.
Ultimately, the former Schalke and Manchester City winger took the road less traveled: refusing to accept the developing narrative and allow his Bayern career to wither away.
In the space of a mere 4-months, Sané has turned critics into admirers, whilst playing an integral role in a Bayern side which leads Europe’s top five leagues in goals and points per game.
Now a figurehead of Hansi Flick’s new-look Germany and with 10+ goal contributions in both the Bundesliga and Champions League, Leroy Sané is not just beginning to repay FC Bayern’s patience and investment, but he is also displaying a new side to his character - one which even the most optimistic supporters couldn’t have hoped for.
For a start, the listless defensive displays are a thing of the past.
Not only has Sané become a hard-worker in transition, but the 25-year has begun to appreciate the high-pressing system at the core of Julian Nagelsmann’s philosophy. This fundamental change on Sané’s behalf is creating fewer defensive gaps when Bayern are able to condense the pitch out of possession, and has even allowed the left-footed winger to become more selective regarding when and where he makes his important contributions.
Despite making fewer total pressures compared to last season, Leroy is focusing his pressure almost exclusively in the opposition’s final third - areas where a successful recovery can directly lead to a goalscoring opportunity for Sané or his teammates.
Such suffocating pressure has created goals against RB Leipzig & Barcelona, and even when it doesn’t lead directly to a shot on target, it dismantles the opposition’s counter right at the source. This allows Bayern’s attackers to remain high up the pitch instead of contending with difficult 80-meter sprints to get back behind the ball.
Though Sané’s defensive improvements have created fewer areas in the German’s game for critics to latch onto, it is his production in the final third which has seen pundits, players, and managers alike all consider him a shoe-in for the Hinrunde’s best XI.
Score count alone does not reflect the true impact of a player, particularly in a Bayern side which regularly annihilates opponents by a sizeable margin.
Despite ending last season as the Bavarian’s 4th top scorer, only 1 of his 22 goals and assists (in all competitions) came as either the opener in a match, or as a game winner. Instead, it was often the 5:1 or 4:0 which Sané supplied - otherwise known as meaningless strikes against already demoralized opponents.
This season, Sané has flipped the script, already topping his output from all of last season, and popping up in the crucial moments. Of his 23 goal contributions, 6 have either opened the scoring or have been the game-winner - amounting to a colossal 22% improvement compared to last season! Not only does this make him one of the best goalscorers at Bayern, but also one of the most effective, coming in just behind Lewandowski (32%) for the % of goals which opened the scoring or won the game.
Becoming such a versatile threat is a product of talent and more than a decade of hard work on the part of Germany’s number 19, but the fact that Sané has finally risen to such prominent heights this season owes a lot to Julian Nagelsmann’s tactical layout.
Though Hansi Flick’s sextuplet of trophies left a lasting legacy on Der Rekordmeister, one thing the 56-year old failed to grasp was how to unlock the potential of his marquee signing.
Handed the number 10 jersey previously adorned by Arjen Robben, it seemed clear from the offset that Flick was looking for a like-for-like replacement to the flying Dutchman, positioning Sané on the right in the hopes that he would cut inside to unleash that famous far-post curler.
In 44 appearances last season Sané played 33 as a right winger, and never truly looked comfortable in this foreign environment. Throughout his entire career, Sané has primarily operated as a left-sided goal threat, and it was very apparent that he struggled with the difficulties of playing on his weaker foot for both club and country.
Though we’ve primarily focused on his shortcomings at club level, perhaps the most glaring example that Sané was failing in his reschooling as a right winger came in the European Championships last summer. In a must-win match versus Hungary Sané earned his first start of the tournament, and despite playing the full 90 minutes, the winger did everything but provide a case for more playing time.
Without a single defensive intervention and more failed dribbles than any other player on the pitch, the scathing reviews from Germany’s leading sports outlet almost seemed kind when reflecting on Sané’s disastrous performance. A lack of drive, agility, motivation, and any other positive adjective were all thrown out to explain why Sané had fallen so short of his performance peak, but in many ways the answer could be found in the simplicity of Sané’s left-footed bias.
When positioned on the left Sané can allow the ball to cross to his front-foot while in possession, but on the right, he instinctively slows the game down by cutting possession backwards to keep the ball on his dominant foot.
This didn’t just slow both Germany and Bayern down in transition moments, but it also meant Sané was an entirely one dimensional threat, negating his key strength of explosive speed and dynamic dribbling.
On the right Sané didn’t seem comfortable driving down the line if it meant he would be forced onto his sub-optimal right foot, so his typical response was either to cut into central areas where the opposition defense could more easily look for a double team, or he would completely stop the forward movement and recycle possession.
Bayern’s 5:0 thrashing of Kiev in late September was a prime example of Sané’s value as a left-sided goal threat. By allowing the ball to cross into his front foot, he maintained the pace of the counter and narrowly missed out on extending Bayern’s lead. This was rarely, if ever, seen in his game as a right winger
Nagelsmann’s decision to bring him back to the left wing position has not only borne fruit in Sané’s output, but it’s also made the entire Bayern attack more lethal.
With the Bavarians setting up in a 3-2-4-1 in controlled possession phases, Sané will often tuck into the left attacking midfield role to give Alphonso Davies license to roam forward. This fluidity creates absolute headaches for opposition fullbacks, forced to either sacrifice the wings and give Davies room to maneuver, or stay with the Canadian and offer Sané a license to create.
With a goal or assist every 79 minutes this season, Leroy Sané is well on his way to paying back every penny of his €60m price tag. Despite stark competition from the likes of Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry, Sané has imprinted his name on Nagelsmann’s best XI, and is an integral part of a Bayern side gunning for another European title.
Now with just 317 days separating the start of the Rückrunde and the opening match of Qatar 2022, Sané is beginning to come good on his promise as a first-choice starter for Germany as well. No player has started more games since Hansi Flick took over in early September, and the 25-year old's impressive goal return (4 goals, 1 assist) is no small feat regardless of the inferior opposition during qualifying.
Whether the Schalke graduate can spur Germany on to their 5th World Cup remains to be seen, but one can bet their house on the fact that Leroy Sané will be burning to imprint his mark after the disappointing saga at Euro 2020, and his complete omission in 2018.
Cover Photo: Gabriel Foligno