Watford vs Manchester City: The unorthodox secret to unlocking the real Leroy Sane
It was not the finish that you would expect, when Riyad Mahrez spotted Leroy Sane’s run in behind Kiko Femenia and clipped a cross in from the right. Rather than jumping or hunching to head the dipping ball, Sane changed his body shape, arching his back, to chest it beyond a surprised Ben Foster, and to give Manchester City the lead at Vicarage Road last night.
It was a surprise execution, but it was in its own way classic Sane. The perfect control of every part of his body. The ability to move faster than anyone else, think faster than anyone else, and to earn himself time in a busy penalty area when other players are scrambling and skidding around.
In that sense it was reminiscent of his first goal at the London Stadium last weekend, even if that one had more traditional grace to it. Then, Sane received a pull-back from Raheem Sterling, feinted as if to shoot with his right, sending Fabian Balbuena and Lukasz Fabianski the wrong way, span back inside and rolled the ball into the empty net with his left.
Take those two goals together, and another tap in at West Ham, and Sane has three in City’s four games. He did not score either in the 3-1 defeat of Bournemouth, but he played brilliantly, and Pep Guardiola identified him for praise after, telling him that he played like that every week he would never be out of the side. It has been a difficult few months for Sane, not least given his ludicrous exclusion from Germany’s World Cup squad by Joachim Low, and then not impressing Guardiola at the start of this season either.
But now the fastest, most exciting wide player in the country looks close to his best again. Although the difference also owes something a player who was absent last night. Because it is impossible to judge Sane’s performances for City without reference to Benjamin Mendy.
Put simply, Guardiola does not like to start them both together. Even though Mendy is nominally a left-back and Sane a left-winger, they occupy a similar space on the pitch, that corridor close to the touchline, outside the opposition right-back. City only need one man doing that job, and to play Mendy and Sane together is to have two men running into the same space.
It makes more sense for City to partner Mendy with Raheem Sterling in an inside-left position, who will cut inside onto his right foot, leaving the space outside for Mendy to attack. And to partner Sane with a left-back like Fabian Delph or Oleksandr Zinchenko who does not get up and down in the same way.
This is proven by the numbers. This season Mendy has started 10 games and Sane 11, but the pair have started just twice together, for the most routine of home wins over Burnley (5-0) and Southampton (6-1). Even last season, when Mendy only started five games before his cruciate knee injury, only one of them he started alongside Sane. And that was another routine home win by a familiar scoreline, 5-0 against Crystal Palace.
It suggests that Guardiola is only ready to play Mendy and Sane together in games when the opposition pose so little threat to City that he can afford to take risks and have some fun.
The problem with this approach, effectively alternating between Mendy and Sane in all but the easiest games, is that Sane has not been able to get into the rhythm that he showed at his best last season.
It has only been since Mendy suffered another knee injury, that Sane has got a proper run in the team. Mendy went for knee surgery on November 14 and is not expected to be fit again until late January or early February. But before Mendy’s surgery, Sane had never played more than two consecutive games all season. Now he has played four in a row.
This run may not last forever, but there is no doubt that this Sane’s best sequence of games for months. For as long as Mendy is out, City have no one else who can do what Sane does.