By the time Arnaud Souquet realized what had just happened, Renato Sanches was already sprinting past him.
A moment of breathtaking skill from Sanches during Lille’s recent home win signaled his return to form, following a long and frustrating lean spell since his spectacular rise to prominence at the European Championship in 2016.
Fans asking ‘’What happened to Renato Sanches?” can tune into the French league this season to find out. But if they watched last Friday’s moment of magic against Montpellier, they will already have seen for themselves how Sanches is a rejuvenated player.
One with his confidence and audacity back.
Sanches feigned to control the ball with the inside of his foot as he prepared to receive it, then cut outside, inside, and back outside again while rolling his foot around the ball and flicking it past Souquet.
It completely bamboozled the defender, who was still looking the wrong way – to where he thought the ball was going to be – by the time Sanches had twisted around him and zoomed down the left wing in one smooth motion.
It was a piece of outrageous ball skill the likes of Brazil’s Golden Ball winner Ronaldinho, or Nigeria’s flamboyant former player Jay-Jay Okocha would have been proud of. Like them, Sanches has the uncanny ability to make it appear the ball is glued to his foot.
Sanches went on to score the winning goal in the game, too, with another fine piece of skill as he cut past two defenders on the left and slammed the ball into the bottom corner with a fizzing shot.
‘’I’ve been waiting for this goal for a long time,’’ the 22-year-old Sanches said afterward.
Understandably, since it was only the fifth league goal of his career.
This is surprisingly low given his level of ability. The wider public noticed it during Portugal’s unexpected run to victory at Euro 2016, where he was named the tournament’s best young player.
His bursts of pace, allied to a devastatingly quick change of direction and strength on the ball, persuaded German giant Bayern Munich to pay 35 million euros ($40 million) to sign him from Lisbon-based side Benfica.
At the time, Bayern proudly boasted there was “big-name international competition” to sign ‘’one of the most talented young players in European football.”
That’s when things started to go wrong for Sanches, who picked up a thigh injury during the Euro 2016 final against France.
He did not start many games for Bayern, and when he did he failed to last the full 90 minutes.
Two seasons ago, Bayern loaned him out to then-Premier League side Swansea but his time at the struggling Welsh club was unremarkable.
So, when Lille spent a club record 20 million euros ($22.2 million) to sign him this summer, questions were raised. Hasty conclusions were reached when his initial lack of form led to some French media questioning his lifestyle.
‘’People talk without knowing. Sometimes I went out to the restaurant, did normal things,’’ Sanches said in translated comments during a televised interview in September. ‘’When things are not going well on the field, people who don’t really know you look for another way of criticizing … (They) say it’s because personal matters are influencing your game. But this wasn’t the case.’’
Lille coach Christophe Galtier is one of the most respected in France and has earned a reputation for his ability to encourage and nurture talent.
Forward Nicolas Pépé’s superb performances last season helped Lille to reach the Champions League and, as a result, Premier League team Arsenal smashed its own transfer record to sign him for 80 million euros ($89 million).
Under Galtier’s guidance, 21-year-old forward Jonathan Ikoné is now a France international.
Galtier is getting the best out of Sanches by astutely modifying his position on the field so as not to dilute his rare combination of high skill, upper body strength and blistering speed.
Whereas Sanches was regarded more as a central midfielder, Galtier has him switching flanks — either overlapping down the right or moving inside from the left.
It has freed Sanches from some of the more defensive aspects of midfield play, and Lille is reaping the rewards.
‘’People come to the stadium to watch this type of player,” Galtier said. ‘’I’m very happy he’s with us.”