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Renato Sanches Could Be the First Signing of the Mourinho Era

Once one of the best prospects in the game, Sanches’ star dimmed with Bayern Munich but it's back on the rise after a solid two-year run with Lille.

Portugal v Azerbaijan - FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar Qualifier Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Thanks to the explosion of social media, the omnipresence of Football Manager scouting reports, FIFA FUT mode, and the general ease with which fans can consume football content 24/7/365, football players become celebrities, if not outright commodities, at increasingly younger ages. Due to these developments, players like Stephan El Shaarawy—who only just turned 28-years-old—feel like they've been on the scene for decades.

But more than just altering our perception of elapsed time, this premature exposure tends to warp the entire developmental process, skewing our perception of what normal progress looks like for young footballers. If they achieve anything remotely noteworthy before their 21st birthday, that developmental clock accelerates—rapidly.

And the failure to convert those early achievements into a Messi-like career can lead to undue criticism. After all, if an 18-year-old kid can score a golazo on their debut, keep Robert Lewandowski in check for an evening, or just get on a hot streak for a few weeks, then they're destined to be a world-beater, right?

It sounds absurd when you phrase it like that but this accelerated timeline of expectations has caused many fine players to receive unnecessary scorn and derision. And Lille midfielder Renato Sanches, who is rumored to be a Roma transfer target, is a prime example of this phenomenon.

A Benfica academy product (who was purchased for €750 and 25 footballs), Sanches initially impressed at the youth level, making 34 appearances and scoring three goals for Benfica B between 2014 and 2016, when he was still only 16 and 17-years-old. Thanks to his impressive run with the B team, Sanches was soon promoted to the senior club, making his debut in the fall of 2015.

So impressed was Benfica with his rapid climb up the ladder, they signed Sanches to a new deal in December of 2015, one that included a €45 million release clause—for a kid who just turned 18 a few months earlier. Fueled by this new deal, Sanches carved out a niche role with Benfica, logging nearly 2,000 minutes during the balance of the ‘15-’16 season.

Sanches wasn't exactly redefining the laws of the game, but the hype he generated during his debut season (two goals and one assist in 24 league appearances and even a teenaged Champions League debut) threw his entire career trajectory out of whack.

In May of 2016, undeterred by that €45 million price tag, Bayern Munich laid out a cool €80 million (€35 million fee plus €45 million in potential bonuses) to sign the then 18-year-old midfielder. Facing language barriers and a loaded Bayern roster, Sanches struggled to acclimate to life in the Bundesliga, garnering only 621 league minutes that season. Despite a rough rookie year in Germany, then Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti insisted that Sanches remained in the club's plans for the future—a status Sanches cemented with an epic run through Euro 2016.

A surprise addition to Portugal's squad—he was the youngest player ever named to an international tournament in Portuguese football history—Sanches made six appearances for Portugal that summer, including three starts, while his goal against Poland made him the youngest player to ever score in a knockout match at the European Championships. For his efforts that summer, Sanches was named the Young Player of the Tournament.

But the plaudits stopped there. Despite his Euro 2016 heroics, Sanches struggled to gain a foothold with Bayern Munich and was loaned to Swansea for the 2017-2018 season, for whom he made 12 Premier League appearances before returning to Bayern, where he managed all of 583 Bundelisga minutes over the next two seasons.

Desperate for more playing time, Sanches was able to engineer a €20 million move to Lille in August of 2019. And with 57 appearances, five goals, and four assists for the French club, it's safe to say that Sanches’ career isn't as woebegone as the press led you to believe. This season alone, Sanches has set career highs in appearances and assists while featuring in virtually every midfield role imaginable.

From an intriguing Benfica academy product to Bayern's €80 million boy to Euro 2016 standout to complete “bust", Sanches has already endured a career's worth of praise and pity, despite only turning 23 last August.

And, with my sincerest apologies for burying the lede, he may be the first purchase of the José Mourinho era. According to multiple sources, Roma is weighing up a move for the Portuguese midfielder, whose versatility has reportedly made him a priority for Mourinho.

While none of these sources, including the Corriere dello Sport (who seem to be driving this story), mention any price points, considering that Lille just paid €20 million for him two years ago (a club record), we can safely assume that the bidding begins at €25 to €30 million.

With an already crowded midfield, Roma will likely have to make a corresponding sale before acquiring Sanches, but for someone who has drawn comparisons to Dutch legend Clarence Seedorf, that might be a small price to pay. Players like Sanches, who have survived the slings and arrows of accelerated expectations, can often make great purchases for a club like Roma, who, let's face it, wouldn't have even been invited to the Sanches party five years ago.

Renato Sanches isn't looking to resurrect a wayward career or atone for some misspent youth. No, he's simply trying to prove that the Sanches party was premature, to begin with.

And if Roma can help him in that quest, they'll be rewarded with a young, versatile, and incredibly intriguing midfielder—the glue The Special One may need to keep his Roma project from coming apart at the seams.