What next for Renato Sanches?
At the age of just 18, Renato Sanches had the world at his feet.
Having won the Primeira Liga with Benfica in 2016, marking a third successive league triumph for the Lisbon club, Sanches earned a big-money move to German giants Bayern Munich for an initial sum of £32million. That same summer, he was called up to the European Championships with Portugal, where he played an equally significant role in helping his nation to win its first ever major international trophy. All before his 19th birthday.
With his heroics at the Euros in 2016 added to his spectacular league season with Benfica, he earned the prestigious honour of being named that year's Golden Boy winner, an award given to the best young European player of the season, allowing him to join an illustrious list of previous winners such as Sergio Aguero, Cesc Fabregas, Mario Gotze and Lionel Messi.
What followed was a frustrating but far from awful inaugural season at Bayern Munich, where he featured in 17 Bundesliga games in total. While on the surface appearing a very respectable opening season at one of the biggest clubs in Europe for the nineteen-year old, most of those appearances came from the bench, and as such he only featured on average 35 minutes in each of those league matches.
His lack of consistent game time meant he was left out of Portugal's first ever Confederations Cup squad, only a year on from his glorious Euro 2016 campaign, and instead went to the 2017 U21 European Championships, which overall proved to be an equally disappointing tournament for the young star.
Training with some of the greatest players in world football at Bayern Munich would no doubt have been a great opportunity for Sanches, but one cannot help feel that the lack of regular match opportunities made this a year wasted in the development of one of Portugal's brightest prospects, and it raises the question as to whether he took the step up too soon and would have been better served staying with Benfica for at least another season to continue his development.
A Premier League lifeline
A much-needed loan move was then in store for Renato Sanches, joining up with former Bayern Munich assistant manager Paul Clement at Swansea, a move seen as an incredible coup for Swansea and an ideal fit for Sanches himself.
However, what was supposed to be a fresh start for the Benfica graduate and a great chance to prove himself in the English Premier League turned into something of a nightmare spell; an injury-hit season in which Sanches never found his true form saw the youngster struggle significantly and not have anywhere near the type of impact Benfica fans know he is capable of having, triggering mockery from rival fans and harsh suggestions that he is vastly overrated in the footballing world.
Paul Clement also went on to say that Sanches was "far more damaged" than he assumed and has become embroiled in a "vicious cycle of poor choices", arguably starting with his decision to leave Benfica while still only a teenager.
Swansea, managed by Sanches' compatriot Carlos Carvalhal towards the end of the season after Paul Clement was dismissed, were relegated to the Championship at the end of the season, with Sanches playing just 12 Premier League fixtures in the process. That marked his second disappointing seasons in a row, leaving him left out of Portugal's 2018 World Cup squad and fans of the national team increasingly concerned that the development of one of their biggest future assets had halted entirely. As such, Sanches' next step is increasingly difficult to pinpoint - and, more pertinently, increasingly crucial for his future prospects in the sport.
However, while Sanches' next move may be the most important career decision he will ever make, it's difficult to imagine that he will be short of suitors should Bayern decide to let the 20-year old go.
A return to where it all began?
Benfica, for example, are particularly keen to bring Sanches back to the club, a season-long loan the most likely option, and, throughout the summer, negotiations have been carried out to try and bring the central midfielder back to the Estadio da Luz, with Benfica very familiar with the true capabilities of their academy graduate.
Strong on the ball and direct with his dribbling, Sanches is, in many ways, the ideal central midfielder, with his power and energy second to none when he is on top of his game and playing with freedom and confidence, as he was at Benfica only two seasons ago. His all-round game, despite not showing it with Swansea, is very impressive for a young player, not afraid to take on his man and battle it out in the centre of the park. It is therefore no surprise that Benfica are keen to bring him back.
However, it is also understood that Bayern's new manager, Nico Kovac, wants to work with Sanches over the summer and has had him continue to train at Bayern this pre-season in order to observe his capabilities and establish whether he will be part of his plans for the upcoming campaign.
Indeed, only yesterday Kovac gave Renato Sanches a great opportunity to prove himself as his Bayern side took on PSG in a pre-season meeting for the International Champions Cup. Starting the game and playing 70 minutes in total, the Portuguese midfielder scored an incredible free-kick just before his substitution that put the German outfit in the lead, a match they ended up winning 3-1, with Sanches more than holding his own against very prestigious opposition.
Kovac even said after the match: "Renato Sanches was very motivated to come to training (with us) and I have seen that every day. He has had his foot on the accelerator for the last 3 weeks. I'm very happy about the game he had against PSG, with a great goal."
With newfound confidence and motivation, playing under a manager renowned for getting the best out of young players, Sanches' career at Bayern suddenly looks like it could be undergoing a revival, and may not be coming to the premature end so many had anticipated after all. But a move to Benfica, who are not willing to give up the chase, is still certainly a real possibility.
Even then-Swansea manager Carlos Carvalhal revealed at the end of last season that a move to Benfica would be the ideal solution for Sanches after "a very bad season", indicating that Benfica "is the best step for him" at this point in his career.
However, being a Jorge Mendes and Gestifute client, Wolves are also a highly plausible destination for Renato Sanches, although no approach for the player has been made for him by the club and, as such, is nothing more than speculation at this point. However, with the Portuguese contingent being built at the Premier League side, it is easy to imagine Sanches wearing Wolves' gold and black next season, particularly with Wolves expected to be in the hunt for an additional central midfielder. And the prospect of a powerful, strong, creative Renato Sanches playing alongside Ruben Neves in central midfield is very exciting.
The summer window is still young and plenty of transfers will still be conducted, especially now the World Cup is over, and Renato Sanches' next career move is certainly one to watch out for. It would be devastating if he, with all his talent, never fulfilled his potential, and the next step in his footballing career may be the 'make or break' moment for one of Portugal's biggest prospects.