MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Maybe it was the pressure of a $50 million price tag and being billed as European soccer's next big thing. Maybe it was the early injury setback. Or maybe it was adjusting to a new country and culture at the age of 20.
Whatever the reason, it took Leroy Sane half a season to really stand out at Manchester City.
Now, he's proving unstoppable.
Sane is the lively winger with big hair — and even bigger bunch of tricks — who is proving to be a key factor behind City's resurgence as a potential Premier League title contender with three months left of the season.
Starting for the fifth straight game in City's 2-0 win at Bournemouth on Monday, the Germany international gave his opponents a tough time, leaving one on his backside with a darting run and the crossbar shaking with a fierce shot after another dribble. The son of Regina Weber, who won a bronze medal in the rhythmic gymnastics all-around competition at the 1984 Olympics, the left-footed Sane was a joy to watch with his balance and graceful style.
It was the latest impressive display from a player who has the qualities City manager Pep Guardiola wants in a winger — pace, strong work rate and the ability to stretch a defense.
To Guardiola, Sane is like a new signing.
"The people say in the winter transfer window one guy arrived (in) Gabriel Jesus," Guardiola said. "I think we had two arrive."
That's because Sane was barely a factor for City in the first months of the season after his transfer from Schalke in August on a five-year deal for an initial 37 million pounds (then $50 million), a fee that could potentially rise by a quarter through performance-related add-ons.
Upon joining, Sane said he would "need a bit of time" to get used to English soccer. A hamstring injury initially held him back, causing him to miss the start of the season, and he was tentative in his early performances following his debut against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Comments from Guardiola in November suggested Sane was lacking self-belief.
"Sometimes you need a bit more time to adapt," the coach said, "to know the way that we play, to feel, 'OK, I am here, I am good enough to play.'"
The turnaround came when Sane was handed an unexpected start against Arsenal on Dec. 18, a huge call by Guardiola as City was struggling for form at that stage. He was excellent in the second half, scoring the equalizer as City recovered to win 2-1.
Sane then picked up a muscle injury but made a goal-scoring return against Tottenham on Jan. 21 and has started every game since.
"Leroy came here a little bit scared but I think after the game against Arsenal, something clicked," Guardiola said. "He has showed us a lot of things. He is so fast, his intensity helped us a lot and he helped us defensively, too.
"He is only 21 years old. I am so happy for Manchester City. We have a good player for the next years."
Sane is part of a new-generation front three — also comprising Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling — that is thrilling the Premier League and has Guardiola's seal of approval, in terms of goal output, work rate and intensity. Sergio Aguero, City's star striker since 2011, has been dropped as a result and may end up leaving in the offseason, although he could have a key role for the rest of this season after City said Tuesday that Gabriel Jesus broke a bone in his foot against Bournemouth.
City is reported to have beaten Real Madrid and Bayern Munich to Sane's signature, making him the club's sixth most expensive signing in its history.
Now that he's injury-free and in his best form this season, it's easy to see why.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80