Salif Sane contested and won more aerial duels than any other Bundesliga player in 2017/18. - © © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA
Salif Sane contested and won more aerial duels than any other Bundesliga player in 2017/18. - © © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA

Salif Sane: Schalke and Naldo’s dream defensive arrival

Schalke’s signing of Salif Sane means the club has the two strongest defenders in duels throughout the 2017/18 season. Sane joins Naldo in the centre of the Royal Blue’s defence to form a beastly back line the likes of which have rarely been imagined, let alone seen.

Imagine for a moment that you're the sporting director at a top-flight club and your team needs a new defender. You don't just want someone good, you want excellent; someone experienced but still young enough to play for a while yet, a beast of a player who'll make strikers wish they were on the bench. The chances are you'd end up trying to sign Schalke's new centre-back: Salif Sane.

If you've never really heard of the 27-year-old, you will do soon. Schalke coach Domenico Tedesco and sporting director Christian Heidel are rarely wrong when it comes to identifying elite-level players for the Royal Blues, with their other summer transfers – including Mark Uth, Suat Serdar and Omar Mascarell – pointing at savvy judgement once again.

Salif Sane was in a league of his own in the air during the 2017/18 season. - © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA

Schalke's glee, then, was understandable when the ink dried on the defender's four-year contract. "Salif is a flexible defender who has experience in the Bundesliga,” said Heidel. “We’re delighted that he’s decided to join Schalke.”

Born in Lormont, in south-western France, Sane was something of a late developer and did not make his professional debut until he was 20, having signed on with the region's biggest team, Bordeaux, whom he joined in 2010. Four appearances in one year later he was on loan at AS Nancy before Hannover took a gamble on the raw but promising defender in 2013.

Salif Sane provided Poland and Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski with one of his toughest tests at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. - © imago

Gradually Sane, whose older brother Lamine is also a professional footballer - formerly of Werder Bremen - now at Orlando City in the MLS, began to find his feet. Some inconsistent early displays meant he only played in half of Hannover's league games in his first two seasons at the club, but as he matured the mistakes disappeared and he has only missed nine Bundesliga matches in the last three seasons.

The 2017/18 season was arguably his best yet. The 6'4" defender was instrumental in keeping promoted side Hannover in the Bundesliga, marshalling the team's backline, bringing the ball out of defence and chipping in with four goals – the second only to Naldo in the league for a defender - (three of which were headers) and an assist at the other end of the pitch.

Watch: Sane said goodbye to Hannover in perfect style!

Furthermore, he contested and won more aerial duels than any other player in the league (225 of 277). To put that into context, that tally of 81.2 per cent is far better than Bayern Munich's best defender in this regard - Jerome Boateng – who 'only' won 75 per cent.

That his departure is a blow to Hannover is clear. "I deeply regret Salif leaving," said head coach Andre Breitenreiter. "He's won a place in my heart. He's a great guy and developed into one of the Bundesliga's best defenders last season. We're losing a tremendous amount of quality, and it won't be possible to find a like-for-like replacement for him."

His gifts were brought to the attention of a wider audience at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia where, although he also holds French citizenship, he represented Senegal. Sane did not miss a minute of group stage action for the 'The Lions of Teranga', who only missed out on reaching the knockout rounds by virtue of receiving more yellow cards than Japan.

With that disappointment now firmly behind him, Sane is focused on helping the Royal Blues compete on three fronts in 2018/19, embarking on his first experience of UEFA Champions League football in the coming season.

"Schalke is the next step for me to take my game to a higher level." Given his current form, that is a very ominous warning for the rest of the league.

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