The absence of Leroy Sané undoubtedly played a factor in Manchester City’s decline this term, despite coming off the back of a campaign in which Pep Guardiola somewhat underused the German.
Following a majestic 2017/18 season which saw Sané register 25 goal contributions in the Premier League as the Cityzens became the first ‘centurions’ of English top-flight football, the winger saw his minutes dwindle in an injury-free 2018/19 season – by a whopping 557 in fact.
Nevertheless, Sané was still able to put up tremendous numbers. He was one of just three players – Eden Hazard and Raheem Sterling being the other two – to notch at least ten goals and ten assists in the league.
While he might not yet have played his last game in a City shirt as a result of the three-month Covid-19 hiatus, the 24-year-old looks destined to leave the Etihad at the next given opportunity with Bayern Munich seemingly the inevitable destination.
And on the surface, this seems like the ultimate example of the rich getting richer.
Since his November arrival, Hansi Flick has put the middle finger up to Bayern’s supposed transitional period following 18 months of Niko Kovac in Bavaria, instead reforming an unravelling Die Roten unit into the most potent outfit on the planet.
Flick’s rediscovery of Pep Guardiola-esque positional play and incredibly well drilled high and counter presses has led to spellbinding results, as he became the first Bayern manager to win at least 22 of his first 25 games in charge since 1965, following a 5-0 victory over Fortuna Dusseldorf.
And now you’re telling me they can add a talent like Sané to their ranks?! It’s just not fair.
With the German’s gazelle-like gallop, ghostly off-the-ball movement and killer instinct in the final third, Sané is set to be a hit in Flick’s system which preaches fluidity, third-man runs and pure speed.
However, it won’t be all plain sailing for the 24-year-old. It won’t be a simple case of Sané becoming an immediate superstar. He’ll have to adjust.
First off, there’s no guarantee he’ll play on the left. Serge Gnabry has often been deployed down that flank as an inverted winger who occupies the half-space – a phrase common in German football which describes the vertical zone between the centre of the pitch and the wing – to draw opposing full-backs narrow and allow ‘roadrunner’ Alphonso Davies to exploit the space in behind.
The pair’s understanding of one another’s movements is almost telepathic and has been a feature of Flick’s Bayern.
If Sané was to be utilised on the left-wing in the same way he was at City, this would completely hinder the dynamic between winger and left-back. In short, Sané and Davies would often be occupying the same vertical strip, with minimal room for the Canadian to overlap.
It’s the primary reason as to why marauding left-back Benjamin Mendy was never used when Sané was in the side, with Guardiola opting for an inverted full-back in the form of Fabian Delph instead – allowing Sané to isolate his marker one-on-one.
Either the City man or Davies would have to adjust; Sané needs to be more comfortable at drifting inside, using his right foot and taking up positions in the half-space, or underlapping runs will have to become more prominent in Davies’ game; the 19-year-old Canadian has already proven to be adept at receiving and driving with the ball in more central areas, mind.
Thus, if Flick decides to keep Sané on his favoured left, Gnabry will switch over to the right at the expense of Kingsley Coman, with an imperious Thomas Müller retaining his place as the number ten.
An alternative, however, is moving Sané over to the right – a position he’s played just 19% of the time in his career so far.
If this was to be the case, there would be greater onus on Sané to beat defenders one-on-one as a result of the more conservative Benjamin Pavard behind him, providing he stays at right-back.
While technically proficient, the Frenchman is certainly a less prolific overlapper compared to Davies, thus creating fewer two-v-ones and overall dilemmas for defenders. In addition, combinations with Raumdeuter Müller and Robert Lewandowski – who both like to overload the right half-space – will be prominent, and somewhat similar to Sané’s combination with David Silva.
However, the methods in terms of goal and assist production will be altered with a switch to the opposite flank. As opposed to bursts in behind and drilled crosses across goal, combination play in-field, deft through balls and Arjen Robben-esque finishes following a jink inside could evolve into three notable facets of Sané’s game.
If deployed as an inverted winger, expect the German’s production, especially from a creative standpoint, to surge in the Bundesliga.
The other notable adjustment is his output in the defensive phase, with Guardiola previously leaving Sané out of matchday squads due to an attitude issue. These problems arise following a City turnover, where instead of capitalising on the opportune time to counter-press, Sané is often seen complaining and moaning, or merely stood still.
This just can’t happen in Flick’s Bayern side, where counter-pressing – like Guardiola-coached sides – is a key principle in the German’s system. It’s Die Roten’s aggression following a turnover which allows them to play such a high defensive line and suffocate opponents in their own half.
To contextualise this, Sané between 2017 and 2019 averaged 4.87 successful pressures per 90 minutes, a figure lower than all of Flick’s current preferred attacking options this term; Müller (8.72), Gnabry (5.71) and Coman (5.33).
In terms of total pressures in the attacking third – a useful metric for not only high-pressing frequency, but counter pressing as well – Sané’s 5.39 average per 90 from his last two injury-free campaigns is once again lower than Bayern’s aforementioned trio – Coman’s 7.23 is the German’s closest rival. Sané’s number is also lower than all of Guardiola’s current attacking options at City this term.
It’s believed the 24-year-old’s sub-par defensive nous was a major factor in Guardiola favouring the likes of Bernardo Silva last season.
Nevertheless, only slight adjustments will have to be made in this department, but as shown with Philippe Coutinho since the start of the Rückrunde, Flick will quite willingly restrict Sané’s game time if lapses out of possession become a regularity.
And although it appears Sané – when you delve a little deeper – isn’t set up for immediate success when he eventually makes the switch to Bavaria, his outrageous talent combined with Flick’s coaching should see the 24-year-old moulded into the superstar he’s destined to become.