In some respects, god-given talent is a myth. Mozart, for example, wasn’t born a genius. Yes, he wrote some of the greatest classical symphonies that the world had ever heard (apparently). But he started at the age of four, and mastered the piano before that; his parents were both accomplished musicians and encouraged that kind of behaviour. He wasn’t born with the gift of music flowing from his fingers, as such. He was predisposed to be good at penning a phat concerto, and simply built on that with years of graft.
It’s strange that so many football fans see talent and hard work as completely different circles of a venn diagram; Özils in one, Drinkwaters in the other, with the occasional Stevie Gerrard in the central segment. It’s what “Yer da” jokes have been born from. It’s a facet of the Ronaldo vs. Messi debate (the theory that Ronaldo worked so much harder than Messi on the way to being a star, for some, makes him more admirable), and it’s the most common trait of the football media to tear lumps out of Raheem Sterling for assisting yet not putting in the effort across the whole ninety minutes, while praising a steady but unspectacular, workhorse performance from Mark Noble. We’re almost scared of talent if it looks effortless. It’s the years of hearing our Sunday league managers telling us to playing safe that did it, most likely.
Renato Sanches is a hybrid of what English football fans want in a midfielder, combined with the creative spark that would prompt a club like Bayern Munich to spend a sum of over £30m on him. A complete midfielder, if you’d like. Like Koke at Atlético Madrid, Sanches is an ever-present force in a midfield and more disciplined than his years suggest. Like Paul Pogba, he has an effervescent urge to carry the ball through midfield. He intercepts more than your average attacking midfielder and provides more threat around an opposition box than your average holding midfielder. He loves to win. He loves to be involved in everything. Naturally, that’s the kind of player that pulls attention into his orbit; luckily, he has the talents of two or three differing players, and the energy to match.
But Sanches wasn’t born to be this kind of player. Brought up in Mugueira, one of the poorest areas in Lisbon, Renato used to play street football with the older kids before Benfica took a chance on him. He started off as a striker who struggled to cope with not having the ball – think almost-namesake Alexis – but always had enough aggression to go and find the ball when out of possession. He was determined to escape his surroundings: he took the Metro to training, alone, at the age of ten years’ old.
The stories of how hard Ronaldo trained might have influenced a young Sanches. It’s weird to think that when Ronaldo was taking Euro 2004 by storm in his home country, Renato was just six. Over the years, he learned the trade of the central midfielder, bringing his never-say-die attitude, pace, stamina and eye for the wonderful to the role. At 15, he asked his coaches to move to Benfica’s training complex to avoid his neighbourhood.
When you see Renato Sanches in a Portugal shirt, taking on three or four other international footballers like an over-confident sales assistant serving on multiple tills, this background makes sense. The hunger to just play football and enjoy it, is a beautiful thing in a world where it’s easy to lose sight of just that. But more exciting than the obvious effort he puts into every game is the talent, footballers tend to learn how to boss midfields in their twenties. Renato is already showing signs that he can do it: he’s already ahead of how good Pogba was at 18/19 years of age, and is now learning at Bayern from the likes of Xabi Alonso, Arturo Vidal and Thiago Alcântara.
This is the blueprint for the perfect midfielder. As more and more sides are integrating pressing into their defensive structure, the future of midfield is someone strong enough to keep the ball, and strong enough to win it back quickly.
Someone with a mind who can make decisions as quickly as their turn of pace. A boy who can run the centre of the park against Bayern the year before signing for them. Luxury playmakers are an endangered beast, box-to-box players a common commodity. Somewhere between the two, which Renato suggests he is, is the holy grail.
Atlético have reached two Champions League finals employing the likes of Koke and Saúl Ñíguez, players as clever in possession as they are behind the ball. City built a midfield purely on the strengths of Yaya Touré; Arsenal did the same with Vieira. Castro and Weigl are working so nicely at Dortmund because Weigl dictates the play and Castro acts as the box-to-box player and an outlet from midfield. Leicester squeezed the energy out of teams last season with N’Golo Kanté’s omnipresence.
What Kanté wouldn’t do for just a drop of Sanches’s creativity, though. Sanches is a player shaped by his history but still a name of the future, and just as Renato looked up to Ronaldo, more young players should look to him. Hard work is every bit as key as the talent.