Much of the furore in Manchester in recent days has surrounded the predicament of Marcus Rashford. But, across town, there was another young attacker facing scrutiny over his contribution and what that means for his international and club future.
Few players needed a performance more this weekend than Leroy Sane. Since winning the Premier League title as the PFA’s Young Player of the Year, the talk around the 22-year-old has taken a far more critical tone. It started when he was omitted from Germany’s squad for their doomed World Cup campaign, and Pep Guardiola turned the screw in pre-season – as the City manager did on many of his players as he sought to stop complacency creeping into the dressing room.
Guardiola, though, perhaps tested Sane’s character without foreseeing Toni Kroos’s criticism of his Germany team-mate upon the winger’s recall for the clashes with France and Peru. While suggesting Sane analyse his body language, Kroos said: “He’s a player who has everything you need to be a world-class player but sometimes you have to tell him he has to perform better.”
Having watched from the City bench for the first three games of the season, then the stands when Newcastle visited a fortnight ago while Bernardo Silva impressed in his place, Sane only added seven minutes to his season’s tally during the international break, with the winger agreeing with Joachim Low to skip the Peru clash so he could attend the birth of his first child. After the arrival of his daughter, Sane was given more good news: he was to get his first start of the season.
Perhaps wary that the screw was being turned too tightly on Sane, Guardiola attempted to alter the discourse around Sane on Friday. But the City boss still demanded a positive reaction from Sane against Fulham. It arrived within 98 seconds.
Fernandinho received a gift from Jean Michael Seri most gratefully before leading a three-on-one towards the Cottagers goal. The Brazilian squared the ball for Sane, but he had to contend with Marcus Bettinelli diving towards the line of the ball. The keeper failed to get a touch and Sane watched the ball all the way onto his right instep to make the finish appear more simple than it could have been.
There was no hint of Bebeto about Sane’s reaction; Kroos probably would not be surprised to note a rather emotionless response to the ball crossing the line, but Sane’s immediate priority was to thank his team-mate for the assist rather than head off in search of the spotlight.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 15, 2018
Sane was likely more nervous than his teammates but his opener allowed Guardiola’s unbeaten side to relax in the face of Fulham’s early fight. David Silva rounded off a sweeping move midway through the first half to double the hosts’ advantage before they scored again within 98 seconds of the kick-off when Raheem Sterling tapped home to kill off the Cottagers.
From City it was a performance with enough swagger to satisfy the home crowd without having to move up through the gears. The same could be said of Sane: his goal and all-round contribution silenced a few doubters while offering him a foundation to build upon in the coming weeks.
That is exactly how his campaign started last season. Guardiola started the winger only once in City’s first five games a year ago – they won four and drew one of those too – but Sane then capitalised on a subsequent run of starts by scoring four goals and laying on another five in five Premier League matches. That was the platform for Sane to establish himself as the Premier League’s best young player.
Guardiola has made it clear that his expectations remain as high as ever and he expects his players to share his renewed hunger. Sane’s has been tested and his first examination has been passed. But the scrutiny upon the young German is unlikely to subside, especially when the battle for his place has never required more fortitude.