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SSFC Spotlight: Philippe Sandler showing early signs of success in return to Netherlands

The oft-injured defender scored a big goal last weekend.

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Dutch Eredivisie”NEC Nijmegen v Go Ahead Eagles” Photo by ANP via Getty Images

An injury can be devastating for development, while a player’s career can be completely derailed by a series of health issues. Only those with significant underlying talent and a strong mentality can survive the setbacks in order to stay the course and continue to perform. Despite enjoying early success as a teenager, Philippe Sandler has endured his fair share of struggles and lacked experience as a result. Now 25, the trial-national NEC Nijmegen defender is looking to establish consistency and make good on past promise.

Born in Amsterdam to an American mother and South African father, Sandler spent time in the Ajax Academy before moving to PEC Zwolle at the age of 19 on a three-year contract. He made his professional debut with the Blauwvingers (Bluefingers) in August of 2016, playing 23 minutes in a 3-0 loss to Sparta Rotterdam. In his first season, his time was split between the senior squad and the reserves in the Eerste Divisie, lining up at center back and defensive midfielder.

The following year, Sandler made 26 total first-team appearances and scored his first goal in the second round of the KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup), a 3-2 victory over Kozakken Boys. Despite dealing with a few injuries, including a collarbone fracture, hamstring problem, and ankle issue, his play drew the attention of no less than Manchester City. During the winter transfer window, the English giants purchased him for a reportedly record fee for Zwolle in the range of three million euro, beating out domestic powers AZ Alkmaar and PSV Eindhoven, with the move scheduled for the following summer.

The young defender about to embark on a “fairy-tale” transfer was touted as another potential Virgil van Dijk. “He’s a complete player: he is certainly not slow, physically strong, and has a good appearance,” said analyst Arno Vermeulen. “Last year he broke through a bit, but he was also known as a broken pilot: a defender who occasionally slips. But this season, he [was] a different player. He makes very few mistakes and is very important in the build-up.”

After recovering from a knee injury, Sandler stuck mainly with the reserves, appearing in the Premier League 2 and EFL Trophy. In January, he received his first chance at first-team minutes, playing in an early FA Cup fixture against Rotherham and starting in the second leg of the EFL Cup semifinals, registering a shutout in the 1-0 victory over Burton Albion. Pep Guardiola was impressed with his play, describing the newcomer as “awesome” in training and promoting him to the Champions League squad.

The next season, Sandler was sent on loan to Anderlecht with the reasonable expectation of being familiar with Vincent Kompany’s tactics. His time in the Belgian First Division A started well, quickly grabbing the starting center back role and “making a good impression.” Unfortunately, he injured his knee in October, which kept him on the bench until December. His return to the lineup came in the Belgian Cup Round of 16, only for him to now require a surgery that sidelined the defender until the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancelation of the remainder of the schedule.

Upon heading back to Manchester, Sandler resumed training but went under the knife to “repair ankle ligaments” and endured an extended rehabilitation period. His April return included few appearances with the City reserve squad, although his age precluded inclusion on cup rosters. The next season, he was sent on loan to sister club Troyes in Ligue 1. The defender made two early appearances, suffered yet another injury (this time, the thigh), and saw his loan prematurely ended in January.

Despite the trajectory of his time in England, he doesn’t rue his ill-fated tenure at the Etihad. “I’m positive and happy in life, that helps me a lot,” shared Sandler. “I have zero regrets about the choice I made and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. If you know what I’ve learned, especially in the second half of the first season, I could never have experienced that anywhere else.”

His odyssey continued, prematurely departing Manchester City and moving home to sign with Feyenoord on a short-term deal through the end of the season with an option to buy, hoping to prove himself with regular minutes and stay fit. Despite having become “physically stronger,” Sandler was out of the match-day lineup for a few months but made two appearances close to the end of the season. However, the club elected to not extend his contract.

As a free agent, Sandler stayed in the Netherlands, signing a three-year deal with NEC Nijmegen last summer. After a few months of training and overcoming a minor hamstring injury, he made his debut in the Dutch Cup against Fortuna Sittard, a brief introduction with the intent to bring him along slowly. His follow-up performance was a substitute appearance last weekend in a 3-3 draw with Go Ahead Eagles, scoring a dramatic goal in the 95th minute to clinch the point. The defender ghosted into the back post and casually nodded home a cross from Oussama Tannane into the back of the net.

His Nijmegen tenure appears to be off to a solid start, although there are still some familiar struggles. “I must confess, the balls usually go five or six meters off the goal when I head,” he told the media after scoring. “This one was good, but it was also a perfect cross. It’s going in the right direction, but not yet the way I want it. That takes time. I would [have] been in the selection against Utrecht, but the day before the match, I had a relapse. That sucks, but I know better than anyone how to deal with that.”

As an international, Sandler is eligible to represent the Netherlands, South Africa, and the United States. Thus far, he has appeared for the Oranje at the U-20 level, making four appearances in Europe’s U20 Elite League in 2017. Of course, any future call-ups or national team interest would require consistent performances and regular clean bills of health that have eluded him thus far in his career.

The technical Sandler possesses ideal size for a center back at 6’2” and can also line up at defensive midfielder, described as “big, fast, elegant, intelligent, headstrong, and excellent.” He is an aggressive tackler, particularly well-timed sliding, with good passing and an “easy way of defending,” noted by Guardiola for his “quality with the ball, vision, and cleverness.” As stereotypically expected from a player raised in the Netherlands, his strength is operating from possession and building out of the back, capable of picking out teammates across the field. His innate ability to win aerial duels is also useful, properly directing his headers which can spring the counter-attack.

Sandler is at an interesting spot in his career, lacking the experience of a veteran yet no longer young enough to be given chances on his potential. His talent has never been in question, as the market determines value and he is continually brought in by top-division clubs. While yet to stay healthy for any long stretch, any measure of future success could land him on the radar of multiple national teams, particularly the USMNT and South Africa. Center back is the crucial position in the static tournament competition, with the pursuit of serviceable depth a constant priority.