MSR Awards 20/21 Season: newcomer of the season
Sané as the signature signing
Born in Essen and reared at FC Schalke, Sané last season in the second attempt signed for FC Bayern at a €45 million valuation from Manchester City. He was supposed to be the missing link in the team to complete the succession of long-time winger duo Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben.
The uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 meant that the European transfer market was more subdued in the late summer of 2020 than in recent years. This was also noticeable at FC Bayern, who, apart from top signing Leroy Sané, invested mainly to strengthen the depth of the squad. Alexander Nübel, Tanguy Nianzou and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting were signed on a free, Douglas Costa and Tiago Dantas on loan, and Marc Roca and Bouna Sarr for €9 and €8 millions respectively (as per transfermarkt.de).
Role in the squad
Three-way battle for two places
Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman had become first team regulars over the previous season due to consistently good performances. Now with Sané and Costa two more wingers joined the squad. While Costa had been earmarked as a squad filler from the start, the competition between Gnabry, Coman and Sané for two places in the starting eleven was eagerly anticipated.
Over the course of the season, Flick chose an equitable approach regarding the first XI starts. Coman was in the starting eleven 30 times, mostly as a left winger, Sané was in the starting eleven 27 times, usually as a right winger, and Gnabry shuttled between left and right and also made 27 starting appearances. Costa and other substitute wingers such as Choupo-Moting, Müller and Musiala made sporadic appearances on the wings.
Development during the season
In the Bundesliga’s curtain raiser against his former club Schalke 04, Sané crowned a very strong debut with his first goal for FC Bayern.
Afterwards, he at first struggled to meet Flick’s rigorous pressing demands. Sané seemed a little too sloppy in his defensive work at times. Hansi Flick openly addressed this in the autumn, citing the player in public for his less than enthusiastic efforts at working back. Sané’s integration into Bayern’s attacking game also did not run smoothly during this phase of the season.
As a result, Sané in most games had to settle for a role as a second half substitute. However, he did not let himself be discouraged by the temporary low, but waited for his chances, which rotation needs and the packed game calendar would automatically bring him.
He had his best phase in February and March of this year, when he played strongly against Dortmund, Stuttgart and Lazio, among others, before he ran out of steam towards the end of the season.
At Manchester City under Guardiola, Sané was still predominantly used as a left winger, sometimes even as a left wing-back. Sané had his strongest phases at City when Guardiola managed to create spaces for him on the pitch. Spaces that he could then use for his tempo dribbles, driving the ball towards the goal.
At FC Bayern, Flick had other plans. He consistently used Sané as a right winger and was not willing to adapt his system to Sané, but expected Sané to adapt to Flick’s system.
Paradoxically, some of his best games show that Sané never entirely flourished in Flick’s standard setup. It is no coincidence that Sané’s best performances included the game at Lazio and the game against Stuttgart, when Bayern were a man down. The two games had one thing in common: Sané had a lot of space. Space that he could exploit for his speed dribbles. Space that opposing defences do not ordinarily give him.
In 44 appearances in all competitions, Leroy Sané scored ten goals and made twelve. His 22 scorer points mean fourth place in FC Bayern’s internal club ranking behind Lewandowski (57), Müller (39) and Coman (23).
With 122 dribbles in Bundesliga games, he leads Bayern and sits in 6th place in the league. His success rate of 61% speaks to a well measured risk-taking as well as his skills in one-on-one situations.
If you look at some of the defensive values, Flick’s admonishing words in the fall seem to have paid off.
According to the data analysts at Statsbomb, Sané ranks third in the league for successful tackles in the attacking third. Thomas Müller and Haidara are the only Bundesliga players who won more defensive tackles in the attacking third last season.
He also ranks a decent 28th in the Bundesliga for triggered pressing situations in the final third (Weghorst, Müller and Lewandowski top the ranking), with the actions he triggered resulting in Bayern winning the ball 36% of the time. His 36% success rate means 3rd place among offensive players in the Bundesliga behind Musiala and Sancho.
Outlook: good debut season with room for improvement
Sané’s first year was good, but not yet outstanding. Flick’s understandable attitude of not adapting the system specifically to Sané’s best playing profile and the lack of time to rehearse automatisms explain why one could not expect even more from Sané in his first year than he has shown so far.
The aforementioned Robben remains the benchmark for Sané. In his first season at FC Bayern, Robben scored 31 points in a team that was much less brilliant offensively than the current Flick team. Above all, Robben succeeded in making a mark on the team.
This development has yet to happen with Sané. If Nagelsmann manages to put him in good situations more often, he can make the leap to world class in the next few years.