30th June 2017. By Edward Stratmann.
After a challenging season under Nuno Espirito Santo at FC Porto, Ruben Neves’ performances for Portugal at the U21 European Champions offered a timely reminder why he’s one of the most coveted youngsters in European football.
Having enjoyed a remarkable breakout campaign in 2015/2016 at the Dragons under the watchful eye of Julen Lopetegui, who’s now the Spanish national team manager, where he became the club’s youngest ever goalscorer and the youngest Portuguese player to play in the Champions League, things fell away drastically in 2016/2017.
Nuno clearly wasn’t won over by the gifted 20-year-old like Lopetegui was, as the fiery manager only granted him six Liga Nos starts, in a term where he played just 909 minutes in all competitions. Indeed, a stark contrast to the previous campaign, where he amassed a whopping 2243 minutes of action.
The U21 Euros offered an ideal distraction from his frustrations at club level, and Neves hasn’t disappointed, although Portugal were cruelly eliminated at the group stage despite winning two of their three matches.
From his central midfield post, he was the heartbeat of Rui Jorge’s men, dictating the tempo of his team’s offensive phases with his brilliant passing skills, while also acting as an intelligent, reassuring presence on the defensive end.
Neves’ astute variations in his positioning when Portugual had possession were key for both he and his teammates to progress upfield smoothly. Neves would alternate between dropping deep to receive or staying higher. But with his adversaries often intent on marking him in build up passages, he’d smartly choose to operate in traditional central midfield zones. This successfully pinned his marker, who were always very man oriented towards him, to create plenty of space for Portugal’s centre backs to dribble upfield.
Once in midfield, the plan was then to provoke an opponent midfielder into pressing one of the centre halves so a free man could be created in midfield. Neves was regularly the man to benefit in such instances, where he could then get on the ball and use his vast repertoire of passing to unlock the opposing defence or progress attacks.
In addition, the fact he’s so comfortable at obtaining possession in high pressure situations and has such superb vision and awareness enabled him to still execute his passes with precision to animate his team’s work in the final third.
Meanwhile, on the defensive end, his application was equally important. He pressed with intensity, showing great timing, judgment and energy in his efforts here, making sure to use his cover shadow to block passing lanes to force his enemies into low risk long balls up-field.
Other ways he aided the cause defensively came through his selflessness to shift over or get back to cover his teammates, plus when he had to support a colleague who’d blown a marking assignment.
Oozing class, leadership and determination, the classy midfielder has unquestionably been one of the stars of the tournament. His former coach at Porto B in Luis Castro summed up Neves aptly, explaining: “People talk about his technical and tactical talent, but Ruben Neves has extraordinary talent in terms of his mentality. He plays the game with incredible calmness and knows what each passage of play asks of him.”
Attention will quickly shift for Neves towards his future at club level now, for he has a host of prestigious clubs including Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Juventus all vying for his signature. He won’t come cheap, however, with Porto setting the price at an astronomical £35 million for the twice capped senior international. Having the infamous Jorge Mendes as his agent, who’s in charge of some of the biggest names in football’s dealings such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho, should make any potential move a fascinating one indeed.
Seeing as Sergio Conceicao has been named as the new Porto boss, Neves might be best served staying put and hoping he can start afresh under the tutelage of the former Nantes coach. Another year in the familiar environment of his beloved Porto could just do his confidence the world of good, with the key caveat being, if he can regain his starting spot.
Although he had his struggles last term, Neves’ immense output at the U21 Euros in Poland only reinforced what a tremendously talented player he is and what a bright future he’s destined for.
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