The 2018 Golden Boy nominees are, as you may expect, an über-talented group of young footballers.
So talented, in fact, that last year’s winner Kylian Mbappé, whose electrifying performances fired France to the World Cup, is currently outside the top five.
That Mbappé does not feature gives you a clear indication of how hotly-contested the award is.
It also offers an insight into the depth of disappointment at Swansea City when 2016 recipient Renato Sanches sleepwalked his way through a nightmarish loan spell in south Wales.
In October 2016, Sanches – having caught the eye during Portugal’s triumphant European Championship campaign in France that summer – edged Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford to clinch the prestigious gong.
Ten months later, Paul Clement pulled off what was seen as a monumental coup when he brought the gifted midfielder to the Liberty Stadium.
Clement knew Sanches from their time together at Bayern Munich and, with the Bundesliga kings keen for the 20-year-old to gain first-team experience, it seemed like an inspired move, supporters excited by the prospect of this dreadlock-sporting baller lighting up the Liberty.
Then the football happened.
His debut against Newcastle United, unfortunately, served as a grim portent for the bafflingly ineffective performances that lay ahead.
In a 1-0 home defeat, he conceded possession 23 times and struggled badly with the pace of the game.
While Swansea hoped that he would acclimatise, Sanches continued to befuddle. Then, shortly after losing his job in December, Clement described the player as ‘damaged.’
Sanches, who at one stage thought he was signing for Manchester United or Paris Saint-Germain, was reportedly less than enthused at the prospect of joining Swansea, an idea hardly debunked by his listless travails on the pitch.
With his confidence shattered and fans rounding on him, Sanches returned to Bayern with his tail between his legs and many predicting a spell in the wilderness.
The consensus seemed to be that it had all happened too fast; from his rise at Benfica to an expanding role in the national team through to a big-money move to a European giant like Bayern, it had been a whirlwind, with the crushing nadir arriving when he inexplicably passed the ball to an advertisement board during a woeful display against Chelsea, prompting Clement to hook him at half-time and shield him from the rising ire of disgruntled Swansea fans.
However, slowly but surely, Sanches has convalesced following a harrowing introduction to the Premier League and is showing signs of a rebirth at Bayern.
Now, let’s not get carried away. Sanches has not magically engineered a spectacular turnaround since returning to the Allianz Arena. He has, however, done enough to suggest that, in time, he can become a regular fixture in the Bayern line-up.
His first involvement under Niko Kovač came back at his old stomping ground: Benfica’s Estádio da Luz. The Portuguese received a warm welcome from the home supporters but Sanches was in no mood for a sentimental reunion. No, in his first competitive club outing in eight months, he was keen to send out a statement.
He did just that. Deployed in the holding role alongside Javi Martínez in Bayern’s 4-2-3-1, Sanches was impressive. He was the game’s most accurate passer – with 93 per cent – and demonstrated a renewed confidence with four attempted take-ons, completing two.
He capped a productive night back in Benfica with a goal, starting and finishing the move which sealed three Champions League points for Bayern.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) September 25, 2018
His rediscovered confidence is reflected in some startling stats, too. He tops the Bundesliga charts for players in his position when it comes to scoring attempts and successful take-ons per 90. He also ranks fifth for open-play xG per 90 with 0.16. Nothing seismic, but indicators of his gradual renaissance.
Trailing Borussia Dortmund by seven points in the Bundesliga, it’s been a trying season for Bayern.
One suspects that Sanches has been at least partially motivated by Dortmund’s own golden boys, with Jadon Sancho and Jacob Bruun Larsen, 18 and 20 respectively, attracting praise. That Sanches has started just three games for Bayern, however, suggests that there remains a long road ahead before he re-establishes himself as one of European football’s elite youngsters.
However, having elbowed his way back into the frame for both club and country (he was, unsurprisingly, excluded from Portugal’s World Cup squad) there is a glimmer of hope surrounding Sanches once more.
With the darkness lifted and the spotlight less intense, Sanches can focus on his football; over the past year or so, that’s beeen much easier said than done.