I’m gonna come clean here. This article is about Renato Sanches and how he would fit as a potential replacement in the midfield for Georginio Wijnaldum. This article, has been 5 years in the making in my head. I have wanted him since the second I saw him in the 2016 Euros helping Portugal through that run. He is one of my favorite players to watch. So, I’m laying my cards out on the table and my bias right here. I love this dude.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Sanches has been a poster boy for the player who got too much too quickly and has wasted it. He failed at Bayern, he completely flopped at Swansea the last time he was in England. And it was so bad that he even passed the ball to a red advertising hording at one point when Swansea was in their red kit. He was horrible. In addition to that, he’s been a sulky teammate and that’s been problematic.
On the other hand, I’ve been 19, 20, 21 years old. I wasn’t given anything and yet I still managed to be a jerk during those years. Imagine being an introverted kid who is told how great they are. We can all play amateur psychologist but what I will say is that in his two years at Lille, they have been a very good team, he has played extremely well for them and been a great teammate and helped lead them to a league title over wealthy Paris Saint-Germain. The evidence shows his maturation so I think we can put some of that behind us.
We all know I love him, great. But what do the numbers say? That’s what’s really important.
For this analysis, I’m going to be pulling data from two sources with fact checking done from a 3rd. FBRef is a fantastic place for raw data. SmarterScout has some scouts that they use and they help analyze data and make some decent data viz which we’ll see below. And finally ScoutCharts – they have a nice radar builder that helps visually see how the two compare.
Let’s start with the SmarterScout chart and see what Sanches brings to the table.
There’s a lot going on here so I want to focus on just a couple items. Let’s start with Ball Retention. The site identifies Ball Retention as “the likelihood that a team will keep possession after a player touches the ball. “ As we look, the number shows that when Gini has the ball, Liverpool are keeping it. And our eye test shows this. Gini is very good at shielding players off the ball, is an excellent passer and doesn’t pass into spots where it gets his teammates in trouble. This means he doesn’t take many high risks but it does mean when he’s on the field and involved in the play, Liverpool will continue to keep the ball. As we look at Sanches, what we see is that while he’s above average, he’s not anywhere near what Gini is. He won’t be as safe with the ball. We’ll dig into why a bit more later. The takeaway though is that while Gini is far better for possession long term through a game, there are limitations because of the style of play.
Next, let’s look at the radar. While they play similar roles, you are getting a different type of player. Where Gini excels at linking up play between the defense and offense, he’s usually getting the ball to someone else to move the ball up the field. And with him rarely passing toward the goal, it’s usually sideways passes. Again, that’s not a knock on him, sideways passing changes attack angles, there is a lot of value when done right and Gini does it right. With Sanches though, he is going to change attack angles on his own. He is a dribbling machine. Once he gets the ball, he’s going to move the ball up the field by himself. Players who dribble regularly take more risks because they can run themselves into trouble. We see this in the Ball Retention number.
But when you have a player like Fabinho in the midfield and another player like Thiago, a guy who moves the ball on his own might be a great idea. Thiago is a world class passer. While it took a bit for him to get going after getting hurt, we saw his passing and it’s amazing. Fabinho is one of the top 5 defensive midfielders in the planet and we don’t need to analyze that here. So a guy like Sanches would be a very different wildcard. When he gets the ball, he’s not going to pass it sideways. He’s either going to progress the ball dribbling it or passing it toward goal. This will give Roberto Firmino a ton of help in the middle. Firmino often plays the role of the guy who dribbles out of midfield. But that leaves the middle open because there’s no one up top since Firmino is dropping back. Sanches could be helpful in making Firmino a better number 9.
As we look at this radar, we will see something that needs to be addressed. In the SmarterScout analysis, they have a model where they normalize the leagues so the information we saw from there is how they would compare if they were in the same league. This chart does not do that so we do need to take it with a bit of a grain of salt but I think it identifies some things that Sanches does well.
The place where Renato jumps out on this is his dribbling and passing statistics. He averages far more key passes per game than Wijnaldum does – which lines up with what we said earlier about him passing the ball forward more. In addition, we see in raw numbers his dribbling stats, he is an excellent dribbler for a midfielder and not just compared to Gini but compared to midfielders across the big five leagues. Finally, one other place where he really stands out is that he wins far more duels. So his physicality allows him to win duels and win the ball back.
The numbers regarding his passing bear this out. Sanches averages 6.81 progressive passes per 90 while Gini sits at 2.84. He’s averaging 1.28 key passes per game versus 0.68. In addition, he averages 2.91 shot creating attempts per game whereas Gini is at 1.62.
Liverpool got stuck often when teams decided to go full Mourinho and park all kinds of busses everywhere. Things got better when Thiago entered the game. But still, Liverpool found it very difficult to break teams down. If Liverpool’s midfield has a passing maestro like Thiago partnered with a good passer who can dribble well in Sanches (averages 4 dribbles per game and is successful on 2.7), that could really unleash the offense. If Sanches can pick the ball up in the midfield and progress the ball, Firmino doesn’t have to do that, allowing him to progress further up the field and act more like a striker instead of both an attacking midfielder and a striker.
As always, things come down to price. Currently, Sanches is valued at €30mm. If that remains the case, to me, that’s a fantastic price to pay to make the midfield far more dynamic. He has his limitation for sure – he isn’t as good aerially, his ball retention isn’t as good, and hes more injury prone. Gini was an Iron Man whereas Sanches misses 10 games a year the last few years with muscle injuries. Plus, Gini will always be a Liverpool legend, not just for his personality and his play on the field to win all those trophies, but that Barcelona game alone makes him a legend.
He’s gone now and where Liverpool are now, they can’t buy perfect players that are finished products because they can’t compete financially with City, United and PSG. A player like Sanches, with a few blemishes, fits Liverpool’s recruitment strategy perfectly. What do you think? You like Renato? I do, we know that!