It is no secret to football scouts that Sporting Clube de Portugal has spawned some of the world’s greatest players. The Lisbon outfit is the only club in the world to have produced two Ballon D’Or winners in Luís Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, and an authentic conveyor belt of top talent has rolled out of its renowned Alcochete Academy.
Although known primarily for its propensity for producing outstanding wide players (Futre, Figo, Ronaldo, Nani, Quaresma, Simão) Sporting have also nurtured top class footballers in other positions such as midfielder João Moutinho and goalkeeper Rui Patrício. However, with eighteen-year-old Nuno Mendes, we could be looking at the most talented defender ever to grace the academy.
Media outlets in Portugal and beyond have been reporting that numerous elite clubs around Europe have been running the rule over the left wing-back, including Juventus, Real Madrid, Manchester United and AC Milan.
Little wonder therefore, that in December Sporting renegotiated Mendes’ contract, inserting a €70 million release clause into a deal that runs until 2025. Nobody in Lisbon is under any illusions though. Sporting will struggle to keep Mendes at Alvalade beyond the current season. But with so little experience – only one professional season under his belt – why are the best teams on the planet all chasing the player?
When new coach Rúben Amorim took over at Sporting a little over a year ago, he vowed to make use of the young players coming through the Alcochete Academy. Remarkably, and despite the fact Sporting have produced a plethora of homegrown talent, chronic instability and an unclear policy at the club had led to disinvestment in the academy over a number of years, as rivals Benfica and Porto took over the mantle as the best producers of young Portuguese football talent.
Amorim was as good as his word, and immediately blooded a host of young Sporting players in the first team. One of those players was Nuno Mendes, who was given his full debut the day before his eighteenth birthday. The transition from youth football to senior football can often be problematic, but Mendes immediately showed he belonged to elite-level football, exhibiting none of the nerves one might expect and all of the dynamism that characterises his game. He has been a mainstay of the first team ever since.
Not a bad 24 hours for Nuno Mendes. Yesterday he made his full debut for Sporting and played very well indeed. Today he signed a renewed contract until 2025, buyout clause of €45 million. Oh, and today's his 18th birthday. https://t.co/GawGUohJUv— Tom Kundert (@PortuGoal1) June 19, 2020
Mendes has everything you want from a modern-day full-back: strength, speed, defensive solidity, propensity to attack with purpose and a tireless engine that enables him to patrol the entire left flank from the 1st to the 90th minute.
On top of all those qualities, it is perhaps his mature decision making and football intelligence that makes him truly stand out from the many other promising peers in his age group. Mendes has the pace, power and the skill to strike fear into his direct adversary, but he does not exaggerate on individual plays, and is content to opt for the simple pass when that is the most sensible option.
He has fitted perfectly into Amorim’s 3-4-3 system and is a big reason behind Sporting’s sensational season. The Lions are 10 points clear at the top of the table and are set to win their first Portuguese title for 19 years. A common tactic has seen Mendes regularly receive the ball when it is pinged to him from 50-plus yards by one of the three centre-backs, with the Number 5’s instant control regardless of the velocity or angle of the pass leaving him perfectly oriented to attack the flank, pass, or move infield to keep Sporting’s offensive momentum going, or simply make sure possession is retained.
“He’s very strong in one-against-ones, has excellent crossing ability and it’s very easy for him to throw the opposition off balance,” says Diogo Gonçalves, the former youth coach of Despertar de Casal de Cambra, where Mendes first began getting noticed, triggering a race for his signature among Portugal’s three biggest clubs, with Sporting getting there first. “He frequently surges into the box and into shooting positions. He’s more than a full-back.”
These qualities were in evidence for Mendes’ first goal in senior football, a wonderful strike against Portimonense that showcased his anticipation, speed of thought and a level of skill and composure that any seasoned goal-scoring winger would have been proud of:
That goal at the start of the 2020/21 season cemented Mendes’ status as one of Sporting’s most important players. He has since been among the first names on the team-sheet for a side that is running away with the title – no mean feat when you consider he will still be 18 years old when the campaign comes to an end – and this week Mendes received his debut call-up to the full Portugal squad.
“Nuno Mendes plays in a different system for his club to us, but for the Portugal U21s he has played in a four-man defence and he is a quality player who will have no problem adapting,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos. “Our full-backs usually contribute to our attack, and Nuno is very adept at going forward.”
It is a good bet Mendes will remain in the squad when Portugal defend their European Championship crown in the summer. If I were a betting-man on a betting site, I’d also gamble on the notion that Mendes will be playing for one of Europe’s biggest clubs before too long.
by Tom Kundert
Name: Nuno Alexandre Tavares Mendes
Date of birth: 19 June 2002 (18 years old)
Place of birth: Lisbon, Portugal
Current club: Sporting Clube de Portugal
Position: Left-back / Left wing-back
Portugal caps: 0