For Leroy Sané, things can only get better – and better
German’s stellar rise in Manchester City won’t be affected by Sánchez’s arrival, he says
Leroy Sané: “It’s exciting and for me it’s a challenge to see how good I can be, how I can get to the best level.” Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Leroy Sané’s welcoming demeanour suggests a young footballer enjoying his stellar rise at Manchester City. There is an intelligence in his eyes and a willingness to discuss anything – including Alexis Sánchez’s possible arrival this month – as he relaxes in a chair at the club’s training complex.
Sánchez’s regular berth is on the left of attack, the area from which Sané terrorises defences. Yet there is no concern should the Arsenal forward, the subject of a £20 million bid, join City during the transfer window and threaten Sané’s place in the starting XI.
“No, it doesn’t worry me personally,” the German says. “He’s a very good player. If he comes to us – I don’t know it will happen – he can help us. No player would say: ‘Oh I hope he doesn’t come.’ Every one of us is playing really well right now and everyone has confidence. But there are so many games – so everyone is going to get games.
“If you don’t get challenged, then you can’t find out how good you are. Even if he is better, you can look up to him, learn and try to improve with him. That makes you a better player. Even if someone like that comes in and is in front of you – if he plays more – the target is to get in front of him in the first XI. So it makes you work harder.”
City are at Liverpool on Sunday and Jürgen Klopp’s side know how good Sané can be. In September’s reverse fixture he produced one of his finest displays since joining from Schalke for £37 million in the summer of 2016.
After 57 minutes he replaced Gabriel Jesus. City were 3-0 ahead, Sadio Mané had been sent off for the visitors, and Sané was ruthless in killing off Liverpool, scoring twice to complete a 5-0 win. He says: “I try, like always, to help the team, and to score two goals was very good for the team and for me, too.”
City’s title challenge is a near-procession 22 matches in. Pep Guardiola’s team hold a 15-point lead over Manchester United and are a further three better off than Liverpool. Yet Sané knows the trip to Anfield will be a battle.
“They have a very good team, good strikers,” he says. “[Roberto] Firmino, [Mo] Salah, Mané – quick players. They will look for mistakes from us and try to play counterattacks. That’s why it’s a tough game. It was an equal game at the start of the season because they also had chances to score the first goal.
“They didn’t and then Mané was sent off, that was better for us. After we got the goal, we had much more confidence, they had a player less. The coach has also said it will be a tough game; it’s against Liverpool, they’re at Anfield and that’s why we are all looking forward to it.”
Klopp is a long-time admirer of Sané. He had hoped to sign his countryman for Liverpool. “Yes, I was also talking with them,” says Sané, who made his senior debut for Schalke in April 2014. “Jürgen was calling me too, talking to me. That was before I joined City. He did a good job at [Borussia] Dortmund – I met him when he was there. He’s a good guy, nice guy – honest. He [has] worked well with Liverpool.”
Klopp, who managed Dortmund from 2008 to 2015, wanted Sané to join the German club too. “Yes, there was a time when I was still in the academy that I could have gone there from Schalke but there was no thoughts at all to move to a rival,” he says. “I have no regrets at all. I’m very happy here. I have a lot of friends here, Raheem Sterling, John Stones, Kyle Walker. I really like it – everyone is a really good person, we have fun, a laugh.”
City are flying in all four competitions. They are 90 minutes away from the Carabao Cup final at Wembley as they take a 2-1 lead to Bristol City for Tuesday week’s semi-final second leg. There is an FA Cup fourth-round date at the winner of the Cardiff City-Mansfield Town replay. And next month the Champions League challenge is resumed with a last-16 tie against Basel.
Sané, who has nine Germany caps, can look forward to an exciting summer at international level too, when Joachim Löw’s team defend the World Cup in Russia. His eyes sparkle when the notion of a clean sweep with club and country is put to him. “I think I’d retire – at 22,” he says and laughs. “One season and four titles with City and then the World Cup – that would be enough. If it happened, it would be an amazing year, but I don’t think it will happen. I hope but I don’t think so.”
Sané’s haul of nine goals means he has equalled last term’s tally. He is City’s fastest player and the sight of him burning away from defenders is a joy of watching this Guardiola team. What fascinates most is how good Sané may become. He is a first choice, but City’s manager speaks of how much Sané can improve.
He agrees. “No player at the beginning of his career knows how good he can be,” he says. “It’s exciting and for me it’s a challenge to see how good I can be, how I can get to the best level. It’s really nice to see how it will go.”
Guardiola is harnessing his talent, making Sané a far finer footballer than on arrival. It is a feat the manager has achieved with virtually all of his squad and a key to why City are so dominant.
Sané says: “He improves me a lot since day one that I was here. 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.
“I played against his Bayern Munich and I could see how they could play. It was amazing; it was not so comfortable to play against them.”
Sané struggled initially after joining City until a discussion with Guardiola. “I needed a little time to settle, to know the Premier League, the people here, how they are and to know the players. I had to find my confidence. Pep told me to play with freedom like [Lionel] Messi, not like Messi – it’s impossible,” says Sané, laughing again. “Be free like Messi, have fun, do things like he wants from a striker like the end of the space [near goal] – take the option to shoot or give an assist.”
Sané mentions “fun” more than once, and it is refreshing to hear an elite player talk of revelling in his high-pressure existence. “Of course I enjoy it,” he says. “Sometimes you’re so focused that you don’t even think about it. But you get confidence if you play well. When there’s a goal you’re happy, you celebrate. And through these things you feel much more like you’re having fun and so try to do more things, maybe score or make an assist – you feel the fun.”
Sané’s sporting parents have been crucial to his mental approach. Souleymane, his father, played for Wattenscheid in the Bundesliga and for Senegal. Regina, his mother, was a gymnastics bronze medallist at the 1984 Olympics for West Germany.
“They helped me a lot – they know the different sides of sport,” he says. “They could help me with different issues, special issues which they see similar [to their own experience] and could give me an example. It helped me to solve problems.”
But there is nothing troubling Sané and City at the moment. Instead, there is a buzz around the club. “We feel we can win some trophies so it feels special,” he says. “That’s why it’s special when you come to training. The games come around and you want to work hard, win the games. We’ve had a very good season so far. Many things can still happen and we won’t relax at all. To relax in the Premier League is not good.”
While taking nothing for granted, Sané would love to help City claim the title and then retain it, a feat only United and Chelsea have achieved in the Premier League era.
“We always say we want to keep going on – we want to go as far as we can,” he says. “The final of the Carabao Cup, the final of the FA Cup, the Premier League; we want to go through and also to be in Kiev for the Champions League final.
“It’s a dream for everyone. That’s why we are all working so hard. It’s very good for the team – everyone wants to win titles and improve.”