Now or Never? Leroy Sané’s “Year of Truth”

To say that Leroy Sané’s arrival at Bayern caused quite a stir would be an understatement. A player of his distinction signing for what was at the time the best team in the world inevitably sent media and fans alike into a frenzy. A year on, however, the narrative has been turned on its head and excitement has been supplanted by mithering. With the 25-year-old failing to have the desired impact in his first season in Munich – and also underwhelming when given the chance on the international stage – the pressure has been palpably turned up to eleven ahead of the new campaign.

While a record of six Bundesliga goals – regressing to the mean in terms of finishing after overperforming his xG at City quite a bit – and nine assists would be considered a decent enough season for most wingers, Leroy Sané is decidedly not your average wide player. There is certainly an argument to be made that expectations of him have unfairly been set astronomically high – bordering on unattainable – but unfortunately, that’s the game. When you command a fee that could potentially crack the €50m mark (and it could’ve been much, much higher!), you will inevitably come under intense scrutiny – especially at FC Hollywood – and failure to live up to the hype will invariably beget overanalysis and sensationalism. The fact that his five-year contract is reportedly worth an eye-watering €85m only makes him an even bigger target for the vulturous media.

Case in point: after Die Mannschaft’s game against Hungary, everyone’s least favorite German pundit, Mehmet Scholl, told everyone’s least favorite German newspaper, Bild, that Sané, “haunts us, he’s our running gag.” Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic, meanwhile, offered a more considered assessment when speaking to Kicker, describing the upcoming campaign as a “year of truth.”

“Leroy missed a year after his cruciate ligament tear,” he continued. “In his first season with us, he slowly got back into the groove, showed his undeniable talent, and played some good games. But now, we expect him to become a key player and to carry the team, even. The year of stabilization has concluded.”

The imminent summer break could be the perfect chance to hit the reset button. Yes, he likely won’t get as much rest as he would have wanted due to recent Germany commitments, but with a new coach coming in at Bayern and a quasi-full, injury-free (hopefully) preseason under his belt, we may yet see a renaissance of sorts next term. However, keep in mind that there’s also the very distinct possibility of him faltering what with the heightened pressure and zugzwang.

Obviously, any prospective revival is entirely predicated on what system Julian Nagelsmann decides to employ and it will be very intriguing to see how the young coach utilizes Sané considering that he hasn’t really worked with a player of his profile before. Nagelsmann is unquestionably an incredibly flexible manager, but so far in his career, he’s shown himself to be a staunch proponent of operating with a system that eschews the use of wingers/inverted wingers in the more traditional sense; i.e. you’ll rarely see his teams line up in a 4-2-3-1 or anything of that ilk. In lieu of wingers, width is provided by wing-backs, who, naturally, have to cope with more defensive responsibilities; although, admittedly, the phrase “defensive responsibilities” is used rather loosely here because, well, these nominal “defenders” have license to maraud forward whenever the opportunity arises, as evidenced by the fact that Angeliño turned into a veritable goal machine at Leipzig.

So, does that mean that we’ll see Sané at wing-back? Well, no. Actually, on second thought, maybe it does, who knows? But I think the more likely scenario is that Nagelsmann will simply tweak his system to better fit the players at his disposal (duh). I suspect that he’ll stick with his favored 3-4-2-1, but taking into account that Sané is a different type of player to the likes of Dani Olmo and Emil Forsberg, the 25-year-old will surely look to float outside and occupy wide spaces rather than the half-space. In that case, perhaps someone like Serge Gnabry, who could conceivably deputize at right wing-back (he’s played there before under JN), can then underlap to fill the gap in said half-space.

Alternatively, everything I just stated could be way off the mark and Nagelsmann will end up playing a 4-2-3-1, ha! Only time will tell, ultimately. Either way, it’s clear that the 33-year-old will be busy this preseason trying to conjure up a way to get the best out of his star winger. An added headache, besides how he suits his new coach’s style, could be Sané’s defensive work – or supposed lack thereof. Back in his City days, the German was occasionally derided for his ostensibly perfunctory defending. Looking at his stats, though, it actually tells a different story.

He’s no pressing machine by any means – he doesn’t have to be when he’s got the likes of Kimmich and Goretzka behind him, mind – but to label him as indolent is downright disingenuous. Pressures aren’t the be-all and end-all of defending, of course, but the fact that Thomas Müller was the only regular fixture in Bayern’s side more prolific in applying pressure than Sané last season certainly dispels the myth of any laziness. That being said, Nagelsmann’s “entrapment” and intense press is known to ask a lot of his attackers and midfielders, so worries about whether a player like Sané, who’d much rather be on the ball than chasing it, can properly execute what the coach will demand of him are perhaps justified. On the flip side, the counter-attacking opportunities that this system engenders could potentially suit him to a tee.

In any case, the rumors of Leroy Sané’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, but 2021/22 is nevertheless shaping up to be a massive, make-or-break season for him. At 25, he isn’t a raw youngster anymore and he needs to start contributing consistently or run the risk of losing the considerable faith (investment) Bayern have placed in him. The Bavarians aren’t known to tolerate failure – or even mediocrity – and if Sané continues to flounder, you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be looking to get him off the books before long.

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