Leroy Sané analysis: Unique strengths for FC Bayern
Sané’s positive development is not a first this time around. In the first half of the season, he was named Player of the Month several times by the Miasanrot editorial team – and quite rightly so. The following aspects of his development have been the main focus of reporting:
- His change of position from the wing to the left attacking half-space
- His greatly improved defensive work
- A position change that seems to have acted like a kick starter waking up his dormant qualities
By moving closer to the center, Sané’s number of ball contacts increased and his integration into the game greatly benefited. The half-space position also has an effect on his defensive work, as he has shorter gegenpressing distances, Nagelsmann explained after the match against Benfica.
In combination with his initial speed, he regularly wins the ball. Overall, the change in position allows him to enjoy more moments of succces. He needs that to gain confidence in himself and his abilities. More actions, better integration into the game, more (opportunities for) success, stronger self-confidence. That has been Julian Nagelsmann’s calculation, which has worked out so far.
But let us take a closer look. What individual skills, which only came through in rare moments in the previous season, has the critical position change so clearly brought to light?
It is hard not to notice Sané’s speed (especially over the first few meters). His explosiveness and acceleration have often been talked about in the media, yet he is not even among the ten fastest players in the Bundesliga. Granted, he’ is not far off the top speeds, but still: There are enough other players who reach similar speeds on the pitch.
What Sané does exceptionally well, however, is to change his pace at the right moment. Due to his very good timing for when to speed up suddenly, he is the often mentioned to be the “decisive step” ahead of his opponents. Sometimes he starts explosively from a trot, sometimes he already moves at what is supposed to be the highest speed, but then manages to shake off opponents by decelerating briefly before immediately going up to his previous speed again.
Sané often uses this ability for give-and-go situations: He passes the ball and immediately launches into dangerous space (often deep) to initiate a follow-up action for himself. An example scene of this is the assist for the 4:0 on Matchday 3 against Hertha BSC (from 3:48).
It is not just Sané himself who benefits from his purposeful combination of pace and deep runs. His runs suggest “danger ahead” to opponents, which is why they often follow him. This, in turn, means that his explosive runs, in addition to initiating dangerous ball circulations, repeatedly free up space for teammates.
Sané’s knack for changes of pace has now made him something of an engine for Bayern’s game. Just how important his pinpoint changes of pace have become can be seen in situations where he does not use them.
Just as he is able to use his changes of pace at exactly the right moment, Sané is able to break free from his opponent’s cover at the right time. He waits to adjust his (body) position until it gives him an actual head start. He often achieves this by making minimal opening feints: He hints at a short countermovement or turn, which sometimes cannot even be seen in real time, but which give him the fractions of a second needed to break away from an opponent.
Sané’s other regularly used deceptive maneuvers include short, barely perceptible movements – often, a “twitch” with his foot is enough to throw opponents off. These subtle movements are often only recognizable in slow motion – a good example is the assist for the 4-0 win at Cologne on Matchday 19 (from 8:30).
Also important are his passes over the standing foot, which he plays again and again on vertical passes from a previously horizontal movement. He does not play these passes along the orientation of his body, but orthogonally to the direction he faces. This makes the pass difficult for opponents to calculate, since it is difficult to anticipate the passes over the standing foot by looking out for directions or body postures. Here, too, the assist for the 4-0 win against Cologne on Matchday 19 serves as an example.
It is exciting to watch the natural ease with which Sané moves with the ball. It often seems as if he intuitively solves situations correctly. In fact, he prepares this “intuition” by frequently and situationally looking around and directing his attention to relevant aspects for his next action (e.g., recognizing potentially dangerous spaces) and resulting anticipation. He needs less time to perform actions because he already knows in advance what he wants to do next.
At the same time, this means that he is able to filter out the most probable possibilities from a plethora of anticipated ones and make a quick decision for his next action based on this selection. In addition, Sané’s technical and physical abilities mean that he is well placed to implement actions.
No matter how good his perception, no matter how well he anticipates his follow-up actions and no matter how quickly he decides on a course of action, these skills are of little use if his first touch is loose or a pass is played into nothingness.
In addition, Sané shows signs of very good inhibitory control: he is able to revise decisions in an instant. If he recognizes that a situation does not turn out to come about as expected, he can adjust his decision in a fraction of a second and find an alternative solution that is more suitable for the current situation. If he succeeds in maturing this potential into a science, we can look forward to a more stable and consistent performance with fewer careless mistakes.
Sané’s eye for dangerous spaces – already open as well as potentially opening up – is closely linked to his speed of thought and pace control. Randomly sprinting into space is rarely effective. Therefore, a complex cognitive process is required in preparing the next action, in which a potentially dangerous space is first perceived. Sané’s explosive run into dangerous spaces at the right time and the alignment of his body in preparation for a favourable follow-up action speak for his good and fast information processing and resulting anticipation.
This can be seen, for example, before the assist for the 0-1 against VfB Stuttgart on Matchday 16. (from 4:23):
Süle plays a pass building from the back to Sané in the center. First, Sané breaks free from his opponent at the right moment and then eyes the surrounding territory just before taking the ball. He immediately recognizes the space opening up and becoming available and, before taking the ball, adjusts his body by turning in such a way that he can accelerate as quickly as possible and gain the greatest possible amount of space.
On German TV, this action was commented with: “Again, it is Süle with a clever ball to Sané and he suddenly has a lot of space in the middle”. However, he does not “suddenly” have this space, but has carefully prepared this situation and the follow-up action through his looking around, the immediate processing of what dangerous space is opening up, and the body position adapted accordingly.
Sané’s goal for 1:0 against Eintracht Frankfurt on Matchday 24 was also preceded by his feel for dangerous spaces (from 6:15 min).
Crucial to his eighth goal of the season was the early recognition of the potentially dangerous space between da Costa and Tuta. When Musiala receives the ball in the right half-space, Sané already recognizes this space and indicates this by raising his arm.
The ability to recognize dangerous spaces early also benefits Sané in defensive situations. As a result, he has become an important factor in defusing counterattacking situations. So it is not just his closing down speed in gegenpressing that is often decisive for Bayern winning the ball, but also and above all his anticipation of an opponent’s dangerous actions with advance perception of (potentially) dangerous spaces.
For a long time, Sané was touted as Arjen Robben’s successor. He seemed to be expected to use his strong left foot in a similar way to Robben and to push inside coming from the right flank in order to finish from there. This reality, however, did not come true as expected.
However, his current development is even better, because Sané’s progress under Julian Nagelsmann has also included developing his own signature move. Sané does not need to push inside from the flanks to get himself a good finishing position.
He does not need much time to perceive his surroundings (his own position on the pitch, the nearest opponents, the goal, the goalkeeper’s position,…), process them and convert them into an array of potential follow-up actions. In addition, he needs little build up time for setting up a goal. He can also create a favorable finishing position for himself in a confined space and with high opponent pressure.
A free foot is enough for him near the penalty area. He therefore often enters a 1-on-1 duel near the edge of the penalty area, using lightning-quick body swerves and short hooks to gain a minimal time advantage for a finish with his strong left foot. He does not have to shake off his opponent for a promising finish, it is enough if the latter is no longer able to block his shot. The 1-0 against Bielefeld on matchday 13 is a good example of this. You can then see a similarity to Robben after all: Even though Sané’s signature move should be familiar to opponents by now, he is incredibly difficult to defend.
In just under 10 seconds, we can see a whole range of Sané’s individual skills in the following scene (from 7:35).
With the pass to Müller, Sané recognizes the free and dangerous space behind Müller and between the lines at the right moment because he looks around early. Sané immediately accelerates and targets this space. His running path guides Müller’s actions. After the first touch of the ball, Sané briefly slows down his pace and then accelerates immediately to get past his opponent. At this moment, he misses the opportunity to play the ball through the open gap to Gnabry.
He no longer has a promising lay-off target and has to find a new solution for the changed game situation. With a short twitch of his foot and a feint at high speed, he puts the ball in a favorable position for him on his strong left foot. However, he realizes that releasing a shot on goal would likely not be effective because he is surrounded by four opponents and has no free foot. Instead, he briefly dribbles horizontally, binds the opponents and decides to play a pass over his standing foot to Lewandowski, who finishes for the 4-0.
Long story short: Sané makes a lot of right decisions in a very short time because he combines cognitive with technical skills.
This assist makes it clear that Sané’s full potential lies only in the combination of his various individual skills. Above all, he brings a wonderfully mutually beneficial combination of cognitive skills and motor execution. Time and again, this leads to impressively quick, apparently intuitively implemented, perfectly timed passes, runs and dribbles.
This article puts a deliberate focus on several specific details of Sané’s various skills. He is by no means a “finished” player, but has been in a constant state of development since the the kick starter position change”. Sané brings many skills to the table, but he does not yet use them to best effect consistently enough. Too often still, he makes simple misplaced passes and takes the wrong decisions at important moments. Nevertheless, moments like the one described above show what huge potential lies dormant in him. We can look forward to seeing whether and how he succeeds in stabilizing his existing skills and developing his potential into abilities.