Leroy Sane's electrifying pace and dazzling runs have lit up the English Premier League this season, and despite the fact that he won't be at the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Russia, the youngster can be sure that he will be in the squad in 2022 should his performances continue.
The Manchester City winger played a starring role as his side swept to the English title with an eye-watering 100 points, but it was back in the Bundesliga that Sane honed the skills that have transformed him into one of the world's deadliest wide men.
bundesliga.com traces the rapid rise of the Schalke youth product, who – at the age of just 22 – already has the footballing world at his feet…
Sport in the blood
Sport is very much a family affair for the Sanes. Leroy's father Souleymane was also a professional footballer who grew up in France but represented Senegal at international level, winning 55 caps for the Lions of Teranga and even naming his son after former head coach Claude Le Roy. Souleymane was also one of the first Africans to play in the Bundesliga, enjoying stints with Nuremburg and Wattenscheid after starting out in the second tier with Freiburg. As for Leroy's mother Regina Weber, she was a professional gymnast who won a bronze medal for West Germany in rhythmic gymnastics at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
"I inherited pace from my dad," Sane admitted to the Daily Mail. "And in terms of the physical side, especially balance, I got that from my mum. I've always had a lot of family support."
Leroy and his two brothers ended up following in their father's footsteps, rather than their mother's. His older brother Kim progressed through the Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke academies and went on to play for Wattenscheid, while younger brother Sidi – still just 15 – remains on the Royal Blues' books to this day. Leroy himself had spells with all three clubs as a boy, but it was at Schalke that he really began to stand out from the crowd.
Singer, model or professional footballer?
Though Sane has come on leaps and bounds under former Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola in Manchester, the man who arguably had the biggest influence on him was renowned Schalke youth coach Norbert Elgert. The 61-year-old – who also launched the careers of Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, Julian Draxler and Leon Goretzka – helped Sane make the most of his gifts with a shrewd mix of encouragement and tough love.
"Leroy has always been willing to listen," Elgert explained to 11Freunde. "But it's hard for a good-looking 16 or 17-year-old to be idolised and cope with all the hype. It's even harder to be prepared to go beyond the limit every day, because talent is not enough. Guys like Leroy need help from us. Luckily, his parents – who both came from competitive sport – did a fantastic job supporting and preparing him."
During his time under Elgert, Sane was undeniably one of the Schalke U19s' star performers, but his coach also taught him a few useful lessons along the way. He once substituted Sane off after 32 minutes against Wuppertal, and even threatened not to play him for the U19s again after a dismal first-half showing against Sporting Lisbon in the UEFA Youth League in November 2014. The future Germany winger responded by scoring two second-half goals to secure a 3-2 win.
"After the final whistle, I told him he could come back again," Elgert recalled with a grin. "Players – especially the most gifted ones – sometimes need a kick up the backside. I once said to him, 'Leroy, you have a decision to make. You can either become a singer in a boy band, a model, or a professional footballer. What do you want to do?' He wanted to become a footballer."
Sane rounded out his career with the U19s in memorable fashion, coming off the bench to inspire Schalke to a 3-1 win over Hoffenheim – then coached by Julian Nagelsmann – in the final of the U19 Bundesliga in 2015.
A rapid rise to the top
It was during the summer of 2015 that Sane was officially promoted to the Schalke first team squad, although he made his Bundesliga debut as a late substitute against VfB Stuttgart as early as April 2014, just three months after his 18th birthday. He also made 13 top-flight appearances in 2014/15, scoring memorable goals against Cologne, Hertha Berlin and Wolfsburg.
The football world really began to sit up and pay attention after his remarkable UEFA Champions League cameo against Real Madrid in March 2015. Trailing 2-0 from the first leg in Germany, Schalke travelled to the Santiago Bernabeu with rather faint hopes of reaching the quarter-finals, but Sane came off the bench to score a stunning goal as the Royal Blues pushed the holders all the way, winning 4-3 on the night but losing 5-4 on aggregate. Their twinkle-toed winger had certainly announced himself on the big stage.
Sane continued to go from strength to strength in 2015/16, registering nine goals and seven assists in 42 appearances across all competitions. His boundless energy and turbo-charged runs earned him the nickname 'The Forrest Gump of Schalke', while a first appearance for Germany in November paved the way for a surprise call-up to Joachim Löw's squad for UEFA Euro 2016.
"For me, his emergence is one of the stories of the season," Löw admitted. "He's quick, carefree and technically strong, he's always looking for the one-on-ones. We see huge potential in him – he's got a special gift and plenty of finesse."
In the end, Sane only made a fleeting appearance at the Euros, coming on as a late substitute for captain Bastian Schweinsteiger in the semi-final defeat to hosts France, who he could have represented through his father. Even after his excellent campaign with the Royal Blues – including a couple more superb goals against Stuttgart and Eintracht Frankfurt, not to mention a Revierderby effort against Borussia Dortmund – the newly minted international insisted that he was not yet the finished article.
"I have to improve in the tackle, make better use of my body and be stronger," he explained. "These are all things that are required of you in the Bundesliga, much more so than in the youth leagues. I know that I've not had my breakthrough yet."
Watch: Sane's top five Bundesliga goals
Enter Guardiola. Having switched the Allianz Arena for the Etihad Stadium in the summer of 2016, the Spanish technician made Sane one of his attacking priorities, and Manchester City accordingly swooped to make the then 20-year-old the second-most expensive transfer away from the Bundesliga, after former Wolfsburg man and new teammate Kevin De Bruyne.
"One of the reasons I decided to join City was Pep Guardiola," Sane acknowledged. "I know I will learn a lot under him and now I can take the next step in my career. I followed Pep at Barcelona and at Bayern where he achieved a lot and worked really well with young players. I think he can make me a more complete player."
The transformation didn't happen overnight. Sane would later admit he was overwhelmed and even "a little scared" by his early months in England, but during the 2017/18 campaign he emerged as one of the best wingers in Europe, notching up 10 goals and 15 assists as City romped to the Premier League title. He also helped them lift the EFL Cup before being named PFA Young Player of the Year.
"City make excellent use of their speed," analysed Elgert, who still keeps a keen eye on his former protégé. "Though they like to have lot of possession, they also have a strong counter-attacking mentality. If they win the ball, and Leroy sets off, hardly anybody can stop him. He is brilliant at setting up his teammates and scores even more goals than before. Leroy has developed and improved enormously in Manchester."
The latest in a sparkling collection of young gems to emerge from the Gelsenkirchen mines, Leroy Sane was shaped in Schalke and polished by Pep before becoming a champion at City. The 22-year-old will now want to take the next step with Germany on the biggest stage of them all – the World Cup – in 2022 at the earliest. By that time, he'll surely be looking to add to an already overflowing trophy cabinet.