The first thing that strikes you about Leroy Sane as he walks into a side-room at Manchester City’s training base, moments after being interviewed elsewhere for television, is just how tall he is. “That’s also what they said in there,” City’s Germany winger says, smiling. “It’s not just the hair.”
If it is the afro that makes Sane instantly recognisable, it is his skills that single him out as one of the most exciting young talents in European football, one third of an attacking trident with Raheem Sterling and the fit again Gabriel Jesus that Pep Guardiola paints glowingly as City’s bright future. And as Arsene Wenger tries to navigate a path through the storm engulfing the Arsenal manager, finding a way to stop Sane will be central to his thoughts in Sunday afternoon’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.
That is easier said than done, of course. After a slow start in England following his £37 million summer move from Schalke, when he was used sparingly by Guardiola, Sane has not looked back since a heart-to-heart with the manager in the lead up to the league game at home to Arsenal shortly before Christmas had a liberating effect on the 21-year-old. Or as Guardiola puts it, he “unlocked” the youngster.
The former Barcelona coach’s message was simple: play with the freedom of Lionel Messi or Neymar and the rest will fall into place. It has. He scored against Arsenal in that 2-1 win and has averaged a goal every other game since. He also scored at Arsenal three weeks ago and will be out to make it a hat-trick against the Gunners on Sunday. Sane in full flight has become a bewitching sight.
“It was the week before the Arsenal game in December when I scored my first goal,” Sane recalls. “It was a good week in training, it went very well. That was like the time to say, ‘Yes, now is the time to carry on’. The coach told me the same, to play free and with confidence.
“I was young and maybe when I played against bigger clubs at the beginning here I was thinking, ‘Okay, they are better than me’. Maybe I was a bit scared also, because I was with a new team in a new country and you don’t know anything about the league. But then at the end Pep told me, ‘Play how you played at Schalke because you were free there’. The other players are all normal human beings so just play your best and play free.
“He is able to help me with things because he knows how Messi plays, how he trains because he saw him every day and that’s why he tries to help me - to give me the confidence to say, ‘Yes, try this – try maybe to do it like this, like Messi does or Neymar does’.”
Given his genes, Sane’s gifts should probably come as little surprise. His father, Souleyman, played over 50 games for Senegal and could run the 100 metres in 10.7 seconds. His mother, Regina, won a bronze medal at gymnastics for West Germany at the 1984 Olympics.
Football runs in the family. Sane’s older brother, Kim, 22, plays for Wattenscheid in Germany’s fourth tier while 13-year-old Sidi is on Schalke’s books. He has been able to lean on his parents for advice and in his quieter moments will watch clips on YouTube of his dad playing but he never felt overly pressurised. Mum and dad will be at Wembley.
“It is like a normal family,” Sane says. “For sure my parents knew what I had to eat and how to prepare for training sessions, and what behaviour was needed in order to be serious about my football. But they weren’t pushy, like you had to be a certain way.
“They gave me the choice. If I wanted to do something, they said they could help me if I asked any questions. But they didn’t make a lot of pressure. They were quite easy. If I wanted to go to McDonald’s, they said ‘Okay’. It wasn’t like I couldn’t eat certain things. It was normal. Sometimes I went to McDonald’s!”
The values Sane was taught growing up shine through. He is relaxed, confident and engaging. At one point he looks playfully bemused when asked if his dad now works as a confectioner.
Is he faster over 100 metres? “Maybe I am now!” Sane jokes. He speaks with a strong German accent but has clearly worked hard on his English and has to call upon the translator only twice during the interview. Good looking and oozing cool, it is no wonder he has recently replaced Gareth Bale as the face of the Sony Xperia phone but more commercial activity can wait. “I want to improve more and maybe when I am older I can do more endorsements,” he says.
Regina spent time helping to Sane settle in Manchester but that process has been aided by a close friendship with Sterling, another young winger who had also arrived for big money 12 months before the German. That bond is evident on the pitch.
“I think it’s because we are nearly the same age and have the same interests in some things, yeah,” Sane says. “He knows how it is to be young and play in a big club. He knows how difficult it is to feel comfortable and to get confidence and we have that in common.”
Sane will come into direct contact at Wembley with another friend, albeit one playing on the opposite side. Sane and Mesut Ozil went on holiday together to California last summer after playing in the European Championship finals with Germany, and while the Arsenal playmaker is seven years Sane’s senior, they are close and try to meet every few weeks.
“He is older than me but sometimes he is also like a kid,” Sane says. “It’s good to have some older friends, they have a lot more experience than us young ones. Mesut has helped me a lot. He taught me that if I need some help I should always ask him.
“We talk about my career, how my season is going, how I am playing. I meet him in London as a friend sometimes every couple of weeks. We call each other regularly, too. We went to America last summer. We enjoyed the good weather, did the tourist attractions, tried not to speak about football.”
It will be all about football on Sunday afternoon, though. And Sane will again hope to be a thorn in Arsenal’s side.