"City need more. City will find more..." - Leroy Sane: The Irreplaceable Illusion

Ryan Corless

10 September 2016 - It was the first time Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City had faced off against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. A Kevin De Bruyne special, Kelechi Iheanacho’s tap-in and a consolation goal from Zlatan Ibrahimovic dominated the headlines, but the game also marked the arrival to Manchester of a young German superstar-to-be from FC Schalke.

Leroy Sane, signed for roughly £40million in the summer of 2016, came off the bench for his debut after an hour. Fans everywhere, who had heard of the youngster’s potential, eagerly anticipated his arrival.

It would be fair to say that prior to City’s interest, few in England would have had much knowledge of Sane. He’d made his debut in April 2014 in a match against Stuttgart and spent the next two seasons breaking through into the first-team. Sane’s most notable career moment before his move to Manchester was perhaps in the Santiago Bernabeu, where he scored a well-taken finish in a 4-3 win (5-4 loss on aggregate) against the might of Real Madrid. Bar that, his rise in Germany in the two years prior to his move to City went relatively unnoticed by those in England, except German-football fanatics or professional scouts of course.

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Fast forward to the 3 July 2020 and Leroy Sane’s relatively short time in England had all but ended; his return to Germany had been coming for the better part of a year and nobody was all that shocked. Despite City’s attempts to renew Sane’s contract, he had opted for a return to Germany with Bayern Munich, the steamroller of German football.

With Sane’s departure imminent though, you could be forgiven for wondering just how big the impact the loss of the explosive winger will be. After all, City have played pretty much every minute of 2019-20 season without him (due to his ACL injury), though it’s been our least successful league campaign of the last three years by some distance. Would Sane have changed City’s fortunes this season? Was his head already in Munich? Were we destined to a slow defence of our title regardless of his injury? They’re probably impossible questions to answer, but perhaps one that isn’t is the question of whether or not Sane is irreplaceable.

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(Photo via FCBayern)

Irreplaceable you say? Seems a bit ‘much’.

Whether you’re a Leroy Sane fan or not, Bayern Munich have made no secret of making him their number one target for over twelve months now. That kind of attention doesn’t come from nowhere. He’s a player that’s divided a little bit of opinion in Manchester for the last few years, but clearly in Bayern’s boardroom, there are no such reservations. A strong case could also be made that it’s the first time since City’s recent success started that they’ve ever lost a player that they didn’t want to lose. Does that suggest that they’ve just sold an uncut diamond? Perhaps so.

So, what makes Sane so desirable for a side who have huge pulling power and could arguably target any player in world football? The answer is the same answer to the question: what makes Sane such a big loss for City? Unlimited potential. The truth is that from day one, all we’ve heard about Sane is the unbelievably high ceiling that he possesses, how one day he’s going to be one of the world’s best, maybe even the best. It’s probably the reason that City were desperate to tie him down to a long-term contract. However, was Leroy Sane that good in the time he spent at City? Has he shown enough of that world-class quality to suggest that he’s going to be a truly huge loss to City? In short, no.

Sane is a player whose poor performances at City were often masked by phrases like, ‘…but he’s got incredible potential,’ and, ‘…he’ll be the world’s best left-winger one day.’ By 2018-19, Sane was producing one world-class performance every five games, whereas the likes of Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva were producing top quality performances almost every week.

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When City splashed the cash on Sane in 2016, it’s fair to say that he was bought for the future, but City weren’t buy a 16 or 17 year-old, they were buying a 20 year-old with two years of experience in the top flight of a high-quality European league. His start at City was slow. He struggled for regular game time, and when he was playing, looked a little bit out of his depth. There were flashes of brilliance, but they were fleeting. Then, in December 2016, he scored his first City goal against Arsenal. The confidence had appeared, and Leroy’s second half of the season was much more productive and consistent than his first. He ended up with nine goals and eight assists in all competitions, a very decent return for a player of his age.

In 2017-18, Sane’s potential started to show. Flashes of brilliance became consistent, high-quality production, especially in the first half of the campaign. After 10 Premier League games, Sane had contributed to 12 goals already (six goals, six assists). After January 2018, his numbers dropped off a little bit but Sane’s place as an important first-team member was secure. The world began to talk, what could he become?

The problem with Leroy, for me, is that I don’t think he’s ever really recreated the form he showed in the first three or four months of the 2017-18 season. My feeling is that, at times, our memories of that unstoppable version of Sane has allowed us to give him a little of a pass at times. In plenty of games since, I’ve sat and questioned his contribution to the defensive phase of City’s game. Going forward, he usually managed to look alert and seem interested, going the other way – not so much. Lots of comparisons are, and always have been made between Sane and Raheem Sterling, but it’s in that very department that I think Sterling trumps Sane every single time. Sterling’s head never goes down, his willingness to receive the ball never falters, his determination to run back and at least attempt to defend is always existent. Does that make Sane a poor player? Absolutely not, but for Guardiola, it’s the minimum expectation.

Clearly, there were question marks surrounding Sane’s performances and/or attitude with regards to the national side too. Germany manager Joachim Low opted not to take Sane to the 2018 World Cup. To many, it seemed like a surprising decision, but perhaps to those who see Sane train every day, and scrutinise the very finest aspects of his game, it was a decision that was easier to make than it seemed to the wider football community.

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In 2018-19, it was a similar story for Leroy, though this time, the consequences of his inconsistency became much more severe. Up until the end of January, Leroy had scored eight goals and registered 12 assists in the league. He was showing more glimpses of that potential, but as seemed to be often be the case with Sane, it dwindled. Following a hugely significant away defeat to Newcastle in January, he lost his starting XI place and never really regained it. For a player of his apparent quality, Sane showed next to nothing for the next five months of football. When he played, he looked poor and uninterested; of course there were exceptions, but that sums Leroy up in a nutshell.

During City’s vital 14-game winning streak, which eventually saw them pip Liverpool to the title by just a point, Sane was an unused substitute on five occasions, he started just five games and completed 90 minutes just once. He managed two goals and just one assist, but it wasn’t just the statistics that looked out-of-sorts; Sane’s entire demeanour seemed different. He didn’t look like his head was in it. Perhaps Bayern had already planted the seed of doubt or maybe Sane wasn’t quite as good as many claimed him to be.

The question now is whether or not City have lost an absolute gem, or whether a £50million+ transfer for a player who’s just spent a season out injured is actually a fantastic deal. Sane hasn’t been signed by Bayern to be an up-and-coming youngster, like he was for City; he’s the marquee man now – he has to produce. Based on what we saw during his time at City, I think that Sane will find life at Germany’s top club harder than many are expecting. He has a history of looking disinterested when things aren’t going his way, and he won’t benefit from the luxury of ‘untapped potential’ forever. Competition for places will be rife too, add this year’s ACL injury to the mix and Sane might have his work cut out.

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At City, for every game he looked like he’d be a futute Ballon D’or winner, there were three more where he looked like a misfit. A poor player? Not all. On his day, Sane is unplayable, absolutely impossible to stop, though if City are going to regret his departure for years to come, he’ll need to make himself hard to play against every week. There are players all over Europe who can play well for half a season and then tail off. There are players all over Europe who’ll only contribute to the defensive phase of play every now and then. There are players all over Europe with ‘outstanding potential’ that end up living on that tag for two or three years. City need more. City will find more. City need players who are up for the fight and want to play for the club and I’m sorry Leroy, but that isn’t you, so Auf Wiedersehen.

Leroy Sane’s time at City was a success but a smattering of world-class performances don’t make you the one. The idea of his irreplaceability is nothing but an illusion.

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You can follow Ryan on Twitter here: @RCorless33

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