Wolverhampton. A city nestled in the greyness that is the Black Country has become somewhat of a haven for Portuguese talents over the last two years.
In total, Wolves boast six Portuguese players in their ranks: Rúben Neves, Diogo Jota, Ivan Cavaleiro, Roderick Miranda, Rúben Vinagre and Hélder Costa, and are managed by former FC Porto player and coach Nuno Espírito Santo.
Four of the above-mentioned Portuguese natives are regular starters for the West Midlands outfit and have been instrumental in propelling Wolves to the summit of the Championship with a six-point lead.
How have these young Portuguese footballers who took a chance in the second tier in England to further their careers performed thus far?
Rúben Neves made his way to the Black Country this past summer in a transfer that had fans and footballing experts alike scratching their heads. When the midfield maestro was just 18 he became the youngest club captain in Champions League history. The feat propelled Rúben Neves onto the world stage and onto the radar of Europe’s most prestigious clubs. Although still a teenager, Neves’ rise to the very top of the game seemed inevitable.
However, as so often is the case in football, his predestined rise to stardom was not a smooth journey as he struggled to get into a Porto side stacked with quality, resulting in the youngster having to watch the majority of the 16/17 season from the bench.
Since arriving in England, however, Neves’ numbers have been impressive to say the least. The midfield maestro has four goals to his name – each of which have been scored in spectacular fashion (see below). In addition to his goal-scoring prowess, Neves has averaged 0.8 key passes per game, 84% pass success average and an impressive 7.9 long-balls per game.
Viewer discretion advised:— Marino Peixoto (@Marinovpeixoto) February 6, 2018
The footage below features four utterly filthy strikes from Rúben Neves. pic.twitter.com/BPNqdX3AFq
Displaying a Paul Scholes type swagger in the middle of the park, Neves has predominantly operated as a central midfielder in a 3-4-3 formation – dictating the tempo of the game with his composed, elegant poise when in possession. Showing such technical prowess in a league renowned for its physicality, Neves has also shone when going toe-to-toe with the Championship’s heaviest hitters. The former Porto captain has averaged 3.9 tackles per game, exemplifying he is turning into the complete all-action midfielder.
Rúben Neves has undoubtedly been one of the Championship’s finest players in the 2017/18 campaign. His otherworldly goals, the effortless 50-yard passes and his composure have made the youngster stand out from the crowd. Should Wolves secure promotion to the Premier League, I have no doubt the positive performances will not only continue, but Neves’ all-round game will improve as he fine-tunes his game among a higher standard of player.
Atletico Madrid’s loanee was without doubt one of Liga NOS’ most exciting up-and-comers in the previous two seasons before this one. The versatile forward wowed spectators with his nose for goal and exemplary technique. Diogo Jota is the epitome of the modern day second striker.
Despite also being able to play as the most advanced of three centre-midfielders, or even as a narrow winger, Jota is suited to a role where he has licence to roam in search of the ball, although his predatory instinct in and around the 18-yard-box is not to be overlooked. Such instincts explain the twelve goals he has contributed for Wolves this season, in addition to four assists. The former Porto forward has averaged 2.9 shots, 1.3 key passes and 2.6 dribbles per game, illustrating that his involvement goes far beyond scoring goals.
Much like with Neves, when Jota first arrived on English soil the big question was whether the forward could adapt to the physical way the not-so-beautiful game is played in England’s second tier. He has adjusted wonderfully, utilizing his attributes to deadly affect. As is the case with Neves, Diogo Jota has been one of the standout players in the Championship this season, and with Wolves’ promotion looking increasingly likely and the club confirming Jota’s loan move will be made permanent in the summer, the future bodes well for the youngster.
Despite being just 23 years old, the Seixal academy graduate has played for four different clubs in four different countries. As was often the case for Portuguese youngsters at Benfica with Jorge Jesus at the helm, Cavaleiro saw little game time and found himself pin-balling from club to club. That was until August 2016, when Cavaleiro was snapped up by Wolves for £7 million – a move he certainly has not regretted.
Boasting impressive athleticism and an increasingly keen eye for goal, Ivan Cavaleiro’s contributions for Wolves this season have perhaps gone under the radar somewhat. The former Benfica man has scored eight goals and contributed ten assists – meaning he has been involved in scoring or assisting every 0.75 games.
His robust physique allows the forward to get in behind defences with relative ease. Five of his eight goals this season have come from balls played in behind the opposition’s back-line. His strength and athleticism have propelled his form and end-product to another level, but his physique is by no means his sole forte. Cavaleiro’s technical prowess coupled with his long-range shooting ability have been a revelation this season.
Ivan Cavaleiro scores a belter in Wolves' 1-0 win over Ipswich leaving Wolves 7 points clear at the top of the Championship.— Marino Peixoto (@Marinovpeixoto) December 23, 2017
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With Rúben Neves and Diogo Jota hogging most of the headlines for Wolves’ success, Cavaleiro is an unsung hero. Like Jota, he has terrorised defences and has certainly not lacked end-product, contributing more goals than his strike partner and compatriot. Yet, should he maintain his form, and should Wolves get promoted, I have no doubt that he can thrive in the Premier League.
This time last season, the stage appeared to be set for Hélder Costa to continue to produce exhilarating performances amidst countless rumours of Premier League interest. However, injuries took their toll as his form and consistency dwindled and he found himself struggling for game time at Molineux.
Like his compatriots and fellow forwards, Costa boasts both pace and trickery in abundance. What sets him apart, however, is the ambidexterity he possesses. Costa can thrive on either flank or through the middle, jinxing his way through the opposition defences like a knife through butter before unleashing a venomous shot with either foot. Despite only having 13 appearances this season, Costa has managed three goals and four assists. His offensive stats highlight that his end-product is lacking, as he has only averaged one shot per game and 0.8 key passes per game. These numbers are far lower than his compatriots in an offensive sense and perhaps highlight why he has been given such little game time this season.
His performances and contributions have been some disappointing given the fabulous form he displayed last season. With the likes of Diogo Jota, Ivan Cavaleiro and Léo Bonatini ahead of him in the pecking order, I believe Costa will continue to struggle for starts unless he rekindles his consistency.
The six-foot-three centre-back has had a mixed bag of fortunes thus far in his career. He has played in Portugal, Switzerland, Spain and now plies his trade in England with Wolves. His most successful spell came at Rio Ave where his solid, rugged performances caught the eye of Seleção coach Fernando Santos no less, only to then get injured.
His fortunes at Wolves had been up and down, too. He started the season off in relatively good form, starting regularly and performing adequately. However, his last appearance for the Championship highfliers was back in December and was only a 22-minute cameo. Miranda does the simple things well. The big former Rio Ave man is surprisingly astute when in possession, which is evident in the 2.4 long balls he has averaged this season, and executes his defensive duties admirably, averaging 5.7 clearances and 2.3 tackles per game. Despite the positive these numbers, Miranda’s performances simply have not been up to par to merit a starting berth when given the opportunity.
Various rumours circulated in the January transfer window suggesting that Miranda was on his way back to Portugal, and given his lack of playing time of late I think that a move back to his motherland is the best-case scenario for both parties.
The announcement of Rúben Vinagre’s loan move to Wolves came as a surprise to many, even those who follow Portuguese football religiously. The Monaco loanee had no professional appearances under his belt. Yet Nuno evidently liked what he saw and signed the inexperienced youngster on a one-year loan.
Since his arrival at Molineux, the left-back has made nine appearances, scoring one goal and notching one assist. There have been moments of promise, most notably versus Burton Albion when he scored, completed two dribbles and conjured up two key passes. His defensive stats were good too, as he completed six tackles at left-back. Despite showing promise, the 18-year-old has a way to go before securing a place in Wolves’ starting eleven.
With the technical ability he has displayed when venturing forward in addition to executing his defensive duties well, he may well become a key figure for Nuno’s men in the future, should Wolves choose to make his stay a permanent one. I believe under the guidance of Nuno Espírito Santo, Vinagre can become a solid left-back.
by Marino Peixoto