Following his impressive performances for Portugal at the Euros this summer, Renato Sanches is already being linked with sides such as Liverpool. I had Sanches in my final shortlist of central midfielders that Wolves should’ve been looking at during this transfer window, but things change quickly in football, and realistically it would be difficult for Wolves to compete both financially and with regards to player aspirations with a club such as Liverpool.
I remain convinced, however, that Sanches fits the profile of player Wolves should be looking to sign this summer. So if we can’t get the man himself, it’s worth looking for similar players to him. I’ll be using data to highlight a couple of options, and video (sadly I can’t display this here) to give a more in depth analysis of those the data does eventually throw up.
Something I do think that’s worth bringing up here – Sanches is quite a unique player. His numbers might well be replicable to a certain extent, but the reasons he’s able to do what he does can sometimes be down to his physical profile. The Portuguese is only 5ft7, has a low centre of gravity and is incredibly strong, that can mean he’s able to turn, accelerate or outmuscle a man in a way that other players aren’t able to. That’s not to say the data won’t come up with alternatives, but this is a unique skillset and physical profile combination.
I’m keen to focus on the individuals this time round, so expect a short explanation of the graphs, followed by more individual depth later on. Before we go any further though, let’s establish the basics:
What does Renato Sanches do well?
I think this is well illustrated by a graphic I posted on Twitter a while back:
That’s a lot of green. Sanches is an extremely forward-thinking player, keen to progress the ball wherever he receives it, whether that’s by passing, or more importantly via carrying. I’ve harped on about it for too long by this point, but carries from deep, central positions are what this Wolves midfield have lacked for a long time now. His defensive output leaves a lot to be desired, but – if rumours are to be believed – Wolves will be selling Ruben Neves and replacing him with Joao Palhinha this summer, a player who ranks extremely well in defensive numbers.
So using this graphic, we’re looking for a good passer and carrier of the ball who looks to play a role in the final third. Here’s the boring part you’re probably all used to by now – I’ve already applied key criteria:
26 years old or younger
£30m value or less (this is based on the assumption that Neves will be sold)
Cannot play for a direct rival
For the first time as well, I’ll be including midfielders from both the Portuguese Primeira Liga (for obvious reasons) and Brazil’s Serie A, given that Wolves appear to be pivoting their recruitment policy to target Brazil. The Brazilian data will be from the most recent completed season.
Let’s start with dribbling and ball carrying, something Sanches does extremely well from central areas.
Whilst Progressive Runs isn’t the exact same metric as Progressive Carries (Statsbomb definition), it ultimately highlights the same thing, a player’s ability to carry the ball forward. Brentford’s Josh Dasilva is a serious outlier when it comes to this area, but other than him there are a cluster of strong carriers from across the leagues. For full context, Renato Sanches featured just slightly above Jean Bellegarde.
Let’s move on to see which of these midfielders are good long-range passers as well as being progressive. The choice to go with long-range passes seems arbitrary, but I believe the technique needed to be able to find a man from range tends to suggest good technical ability, and also opens up the option of switching the play when needed. I’ll also offer an NBA equivalent for those interested – a strong three point shooter tends to also be a good free-throw shooter because the fundamentals are similar. I like to apply that logic to players who frequently complete long range passes – on the whole they’re good technically, though there are of course some exceptions. Anyway, the graph:
Two visualisations in and we’re seeing some names pop up on both. Oliver Torres of Sevilla and Matheus Henrique of Gremio in particular so far, we’ll come on to both later. I’ve already written pieces highlighting Bruno Guimaraes so I won’t spend too much time singing his praises, Benfica’s Julian Weigl looks good here for Progressive Passes, but if it really is a Sanches type player we’re looking for, Weigl won’t be it.
Finally, let’s find out who ranks well for Passes into the Final Third and Smart Passes. Wyscout define a Smart Pass as one that breaks the lines of defence to gain an advantage in attack. Essentially the players who are able to thread passes through to onrushing players. This final graph should give an idea of who’s frequently breaking the lines and/or finding teammates in advanced positions.
I’m not aiming for a final shortlist of five this time, so the players I’m focusing on, based on what the data has told us so far are: Matheus Henrique and Oliver Torres. Honourable mentions should go to Hidemasa Morita and Thiago Maia who only really missed out because their ball carrying numbers didn’t stack up, and Aleksandr Golovin, whose numbers might be slightly skewed due to playing some minutes in attacking midfield for Monaco last season. On the topic of minutes – everyone included here played at least 1000 minutes in their league’s last season respectively. Here are the final two:
Matheus Henrique, 23, Gremio
Whilst not being the focus of this piece because it isn’t one of Sanches’ strengths, it’s important to highlight that Henrique is strong on the defensive side of the ball. He’s somewhat of an all-rounder of a midfielder, happy to muck in off the ball and work hard, but also adventurous enough to take his man on in deeper positions. Something else that struck me while watching him was that he was keen to break the lines with passes looking for onrushing fullbacks. We know that’s something Bruno Lage values, and Henrique offers it from central positions. Whilst I’m wary of getting too carried away by someone who’s 23 and not played outside of Brazil yet, Henrique does look an excellent prospect, and despite trying too much at times, he’s mobile, wins fouls smartly and is extremely comfortable on the ball.
Oliver Torres, 26, Sevilla
Sevilla’s Oliver Torres is slightly more in the mould of Ruben Neves when it comes to his passing. Perhaps not quite as mobile as Henrique, the Spaniard makes up for it with his outstanding range of passing. His ability to switch play quickly and accurately is a key weapon in Sevilla’s arsenal. He’s less physical than Henrique in the sense that the Brazilian is more of a stocky build, but at 26 he’s closer to the finished product and has almost 10 years of experience of playing across Europe. I’d say one of the key differences between the two is the manner in which they carry the ball forward. Torres has quicker feet which helps him to beat his man, Henrique is keen to let his marker get closer to him, before using his physicality to help progress the ball. Torres’ dribbling is, in general, cleaner and more precise, but crucially they’re both capable of receiving the ball with their back to play, taking the pressure, turning their man and driving forward. Torres is perhaps the safer option, but Henrique is probably higher ceiling choice in the long term.
So those are the two options I think best fit Wolves based on the data, video and a bit of Wolves’ recruitment policy too. Thanks for reading, and if you’ve got any questions get at me on Twitter @dbutleranalysis.
Data, video and market value all taken from Wyscout, accurate as of 10/07/21.