Before the infamous World Cup snub, Pep Guardiola told Leroy Sané to “play like Messi.” After a long summer off, the German winger is ready.
The instruction was simple enough: “Play like Messi.” Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola told Leroy Sané one day after training in the autumn of 2016. Sané, who had grown up idolizing the Argentine maestro (as well as Cristiano Ronaldo) in Wattenscheid, a nondescript suburb of the German rust-belt metropolis Bochum, greeted the suggestion with an incredulous laugh. “No one can play like Messi,” he protested. “Only Messi himself.”
The Catalan agreed. But he also calmly explained that the 22-year-old should adopt the same mind-set as Guardiola’s former Barcelona protégé, a sense of “freedom” and “fun” on the ball. Sané understood. Individual sessions with City’s video analysts and intense tactical drills designed to perfect his positioning and running patterns had begun to unlock his considerable talent, but he could become the player he was meant to be only if his psychology changed as well. The pressure to do something special in the final third, which had so often held him back at Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga, had to give way to serenity on the ball—a state of supreme, blissful immersion in the moment that only true masters of the game achieve. The key to getting ahead, Guardiola explained, was to let go.
“It wasn’t easy for me, coming from the Bundesliga into the Premier League,” Sané told Welt am Sonntag earlier this year. “The game in England is faster and tougher. I was in awe of the big teams, the big names, the new language.”
A few months into his career at City, it looked as if the doubters had been right. While all agreed that Sané—the son of Souleymane Sané (a former Senegalese international and popular striker with Bundesliga sides SG Wattenscheid 09 and SC Freiburg) and Regina Weber-Sané (bronze medal winner in rhythmic gymnastics for West Germany at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles)—had all the physical attributes to develop into a wonderful footballer, the timing of his move to City brought criticism. Only 20 at the time, he was seen as too inexperienced and erratic to make the step up to the Premier League when, in the summer of 2016, City paid €50 million for his services.
“A young player needs to decide whether he wants to plan his career along sporting or financial terms,” Bayern Munich executive chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said dismissively. In truth, the German champions had been keen on signing him too and might have if Guardiola hadn’t moved to the Etihad that same year.
“As soon as Pep called me and said that he wanted me to join his new team, I knew I wanted to play for him,” Sané said. “I had played against his Bayern Munich [with Schalke], and I saw how they could play. It was amazing; it was not so comfortable to play against them.”
Playing for them was not so comfortable either, at first. Guardiola used him only sporadically, implying that he needed to work harder in training to master the intricacies of the Catalan’s game plan. Fortunately, there was no rush. “The team and the manager were patient with me,” Sané remembered.“They said, ‘Believe in yourself, Leroy!’ Now I’m unburdened inside my head.”
Free your mind, to misquote Funkadelic, and the assists will follow. The goals did too. Sané’s powerful, darted runs, ingenuity on the ball, and superb eye for a well-positioned teammate were a huge factor in City running away with the Premier League this season while playing the kind of football that had pundits scrambling for “best ever” superlatives.
“He takes your breath away,” gushed the Guardian. “Leroy has got the abilities to be world class,” Guardiola said, comparing his devastating thrust and acceleration in the tightest of spaces with you know who. “As the former coach of Messi, the best player in football history, I can say that. I also know that he can still get better. With his skills, it would be a pity not to try to realize his potential.”
Guardiola’s famous attention to detail has done much to turn the versatile attacking midfielder into a star. “He has improved me a lot since day one that I was here,” Sané said. “My complete game—how I play, how I have to move in the space when I don’t have the ball, when I have the ball. It’s quite impressive how he can help you to improve—it’s very good for the player and for the team.”
When Raheem Sterling called Sané “the German Harry Potter” on social media last year, the England international was gently ribbing his Man City teammate about the school-uniform-type outfit he wore in a fashion shoot. The dig has since become even more fitting: Sané has developed into one of the sorcerer’s keenest apprentices at the Guardiola Football School for the Magically Gifted.
Germany manager Joachim Löw also is enchanted by his mesmerizing runs and bewitching trickery. [Editor’s Note: Not enchanted enough to bring Sané to the World Cup, apparently. This piece was first published in Issue 13 before Löw declined to bring the winger to Russia.] “He’s got a special talent and finesse: pace, paired with intelligent movement,” Löw said before Euro 2016, where Sané stood out in Germany’s 2-0 semifinal loss to hosts France in Marseille. His lightning-fast progress since then has him threatening to displace more experienced performers in the World Cup holders’ starting lineup in Russia this summer.
Of the many young, up-and-coming attacking prospects at Löw’s disposal, no one has played at the exalted level Sané has achieved at the Etihad this campaign. And there won’t be many wingers who’ll be as exciting to watch in the competition, zigzagging through defenses like a Tron light cycle.
Deep into extra time of the World Cup final in Brazil in 2014, Löw famously told winning goal scorer Mario Götze to “show Messi that you are better than him.” Four years on, the Germany manager is unlikely to echo Pep’s “play like Messi” instruction from the City training ground.
A simple “play like Sané” should do the trick.