A look at Benfica academy products with a big future… away from Lisbon
In January 2014 Benfica president Luís Filipe Vieira said: “My dream, which I share with all Benfica fans, is to have a first team ‘made in Benfica’.” He was part responding to criticism of the reluctance of coach Jorge Jesus to select Portuguese youth players in the senior side, and part justifying the heavy investment made in the club’s youth structure – which has yet to bear fruit.
To be more precise, it is yet to bear fruit for the Eagles. However, an array of exciting young talents are now beginning to make their mark in other teams, with André Gomes a regular for Valencia and Bernardo Silva also starting the last three games for Monaco, including one in the Champions League where he earned widespread praise after a highly promising display. Jonathan Mancini takes a detailed look at five youngsters who emerged from Benfica’s Caixa Futebol Campus academy.
André Gomes is a 21-year-old midfielder who featured regularly for Benfica’s first team in the final weeks of last season, before moving to Valencia in the summer. He is very strong physically, composed with the ball at his feet, he possesses a powerful shot, and he’s more than capable of playing long, incisive passes with pinpoint accuracy. His most noticeable quality, however, is his remarkable two-footedness. Gomes is naturally right-footed, but he is extremely comfortable using his “weaker” left foot to shoot, pass, and dribble effectively. Jorge Jesus generally utilised Gomes as both a box-to-box midfielder and as a defensive-midfielder in his preferred 4-4-2 formation, but he has also played as a holding midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, and as a more attack-minded midfielder in a 4-3-3.
Despite his obvious talent, André Gomes can be extremely frustrating to watch at times. While he is certainly capable of playing the killer “Hollywood” ball, Gomes does have the annoying tendency of trying to force these kinds of ambitious passes when a simpler, yet more effective possession-retaining pass would be the better option. Also, apart from his occasionally poor decision making, Gomes’ apparent lack of mobility and technical sharpness frequently lead him into giving the ball away carelessly in dangerous positions. In addition, he regularly makes late, clumsy challenges which have made him very prone to unnecessary yellow cards.
André Gomes has shown flashes of his brilliance (spectacular winner vs. Porto in the Taça de Portugal semi-final) but he still remains a very raw, unpolished talent. He cannot do much about his immobility, but he can certainly improve his technique and tactical discipline. Given his particular strengths and weaknesses, Gomes is probably best suited to playing as a holding midfielder alongside a more dynamic, industrious partner, but his ability to score from distance may tempt future coaches to utilise him in a more advanced, attack-minded role. The talent is undoubtedly there; he simply needs regular playing time at a high level in order to reach his potential – something he is now getting in La Liga.
Ivan Cavaleiro is a 20-year-old winger who earned two caps for the Portuguese national team in 2014 after a series of impressive performances for Benfica last season. He is incredibly quick, excellent technically, strong in 1v1 situations, and links-up very well his team-mates. He was primarily used as a right winger under Jorge Jesus, but he is also equally comfortable playing on the left where he is slightly less direct. He has also grown accustomed to playing as a mobile forward in a 4-4-2 diamond for Portuguese U-21 team - where he has scored six goals in as many games. Furthermore, his ability to shoot and cross effectively with both feet makes him particularly difficult to defend against.
However, he could certainly improve his consistency and decision-making, especially in the final third. His defensive work-rate showed signs of improvement under the guidance of Jorge Jesus, but it still remains an area in which there is plenty of room for improvement.
Cavaleiro was loaned to Spanish club Deportivo La Coruna this season, immediately making a splash in the Portuguese press when he complained about the lack of opportunities for youth players to get into Benfica’s first team.
Nicknamed “O Messizinho do Seixal” Bernardo Silva, a 20-year-old attacking midfielder is, without doubt, the gem of the current crop of Benfica-made hugely promising young talents. Bernardo is a classic #10 who oozes class with every touch on the ball. He is technically brilliant, intelligent in possession, and his close control in tight spaces is absolutely superb. In terms of his positioning, Bernardo Silva will occasionally drift out wide to link up with his wingers, but he’s at his best when exploiting the pockets of space in between the lines. He has sporadically been utilised as both a wide forward and as an inverted winger in both a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 respectively, but he lacks the pace and acceleration to excel on the flanks. He is best suited to playing in a more central role with the freedom to roam à la Iniesta.
Bernardo, however, is not without his weaknesses. He isn’t the most powerful or athletic player on the pitch, so he is frequently out-muscled by more physically imposing players. Also, his over-reliance on his stronger left-foot can make him somewhat predictable in the final third, especially when he is isolated by the corner flag.
When playing for Benfica B, it was becoming quite obvious that Bernardo Silva was too good for the Portuguese second division, and the refusal by Jorge Jesus to give him first-team opportunities is perhaps the most glaring example of what the coach’s detractors say is a prejudice against home-grown talent. Silva’s early impact at Monaco only lends weight to that argument.
João Cancelo is a 20-year-old right-back who was widely regarded as one of the most talented players in Benfica’s B-team in 2013/14. He is an extremely attack-minded right-back who looks to bomb forward at every opportunity. He has outstanding pace, he loves to take on defenders, and his ability to cross the ball effectively with both feet is impressive.
Nevertheless, due to his attacking instincts, he is regularly caught way out of position when the opposition team regains possession. At times, Cancelo can be guilty of holding onto the ball for too long when a simple pass to one of his team-mates would suffice. It’s not uncommon to see him attempt to dribble past three or four defenders as if he were a young Cristiano Ronaldo. He is clearly confident in his own ability, but if he wants to succeed as a right-back, he needs to learn how to defend properly. If he can improve his decision-making, tactical discipline, and defensive ability, Benfica could have themselves a world-class attacking right-back in the making.
Cancelo joined André Gomes in moving to Valencia on loan this season, but is yet to break into Nuno Espírito Santo’s team.
Hélder Costa is a 20-year-old left-footed winger who has featured regularly for Benfica’s B-team. He is predominantly left-footed but he has frequently been utilsed on both wings in what is typically a 4-2-3-1 formation. His most obvious strength is his fantastic pace which he uses to great effect both with and without the ball. He is usually very direct with the ball at his feet, but his reluctance to use his weaker right-foot makes him a bit one-dimensional. In addition, like many young, inexperienced wingers, Costa could definitely work on his consistency, decision-making and end product.
He certainly isn’t ready to make the step up to the first team just yet, so expect to see him remain in the B-squad this season. Will he be the one to break through to Benfica’s first team? Only time will tell.
by Jonathan Mancini