The Primeira Liga’s Latest Stars: Who Will be the Next Export?
The Portuguese top flight has continuously provided players that have eventually become some of Europe’s best. Who will be the next export from the Primeira Liga to burst through?
At the start of 2021-22 we looked at five players we thought could potentially move from the talent machine that is Portugal and make a big impact in Europe. FC Porto’s Luís Diaz was one of those five. We all know the impact he’s had at Liverpool since his signing in January, with the Colombian helping his new side to a domestic cup double and a UEFA Champions League final.
Who could be the next in line to move on from the Primeira Liga and make waves within the top five European leagues? Here are five players we think could make that jump sooner rather than later.
Having just returned from a loan spell at Wolves when we did the original five to watch back in September, Vitinha was left out that time around. We aren’t making the same mistake on this occasion. He’s an obvious choice for anyone that pays attention to Portuguese football.
An intelligent, diminutive midfielder, he’s had to be patient for chances in the Porto first team, but after a relatively unsuccessful loan spell in the Premier League under Nuno Espírito Santo, starting just five Premier League matches. He’s since come back to Portugal in the summer with fire in his belly and a point to prove.
He quickly got to work, dictating games and establishing himself as the beating heart of this Porto team. Their first five league games saw him appear for just thirty minutes overall – all as a substitute in one game. His progress was being closely monitored by Sérgio Conceição and the Porto staff, and Vitinha was being developed and managed very carefully. That all changed following his first start – a 5-0 drubbing of Moreirense on 19 September, where he dictated the play, completing a match-high 71 passes.
Vitinha would then go to become one of the first names on the team sheet, playing in every one of their final 29 league games and ending 2021-22 with 2,262 minutes of action – a total only bettered by four Porto players.
His exceptional work from midfield was recognised regularly too, the Jogador do Mês (Player of the Month award) – which in Portugal is chosen by the coaches of each Primeira Liga team – was given to Vitinha on three separate occasions, in December, January and March.
He was simply at the heart of everything good that Porto did this season – an incredibly successful one for the Northern club. The Dragōes had a fantastic league campaign, winning 29 of their 34 league games and losing just once, while they also lifted the Taça de Portugal trophy, beating Tondela 3-1 in the final, with Vitinha grabbing himself a goal.
With the departure of Luís Diaz in January, Vitinha’s creative output became even more important to Porto’s quest for success. Of players with at least 1,600 minutes played, he was the second-most involved player in open-play attacking sequences per 90 minutes across the whole competition – his 6.2 involvements per 90 were below only that of Pedro Gonçalves at Sporting CP (6.7).
The fact that he averaged the most touches (92 per 90) and successful passes (67 per 90) of any Porto player is a testament to just how vital he was to his side. Whether it be to get on the ball in a creative sense or to simply bring the game down to his tempo and keep it ticking over, Vitinha can do either with ease. Overall, he was involved in 55 open-play sequences per 90 minutes across 2021-22. Of players to play at least 2,000 minutes in the Primeira Liga, only Benfica’s Alejandro Grimaldo (57 per 90) was more integral in his involvement.
While not standing out for his open-play creativity as the player with the final pass before shots or goals – he only assisted three goals and his 23 chances created in open play were lower than six team-mates – his importance in the build-up is further illustrated by having 35 secondary chances created (the pass before the chance created/assist), which was only bettered across the entire league by fellow Porto star Otávio (41).
His ball-carrying ability is another superb aspect of his game, often collecting the ball at an almost walking pace, before quickly moving through the gears, using body feints and clever movements to evade opponents and to get himself into a dangerous position in the final third. No central midfielder to play at least 1,000 minutes in the Portuguese top flight this season averaged more progressive carries per 90 (9.7) or carried the ball upfield farther per 90 than Vitinha (103.3m).
A testament to how strong his domestic season was at Porto, he received his first call-up to the Portugal senior squad for the 2022 World Cup qualification play-offs. He made his debut as a substitute eight days later, in the victory over North Macedonia to take them to Qatar 2022.
Still only 22 years old, Vitinha is just getting started.
The oldest player on this list at 27 years old, Ricardo Horta is a man who is currently at the peak of his powers.
His spectacular form this season saw him hit the back of the net 19 times in league competition, meaning he finished with more goals than any other Portuguese player across the top six European leagues. His reward for his achievement was receiving his first senior international call-up in eight years with last Friday’s Portuguese squad announcement. Even with the wealth of attacking options at Fernando Santos’ disposal, some will argue that this call-up for Horta is long overdue.
The Braga captain typically played on the left-hand side of a front three in Carlos Carvalhal’s 3-4-3 system, although he is also more than capable on the right-hand side and he can also operate more centrally, playing alongside a more traditional forward, which is something he did especially in Braga’s Europa League games this season.
Scoring 19 league goals for a club outside the ‘big three’ is no mean feat – only Darwin Núñez (26) and Mehdi Taremi (20) scored more in 2021-22. However, it was Horta who led the rankings for chances created, both overall (92) and from open play (60), displaying his ability to also play in team-mates and not always be selfish in front of goal.
Seventeen of his open-play shots this season saw him both involved in the build-up and attempt the shot – that was a league-high tally for a player and five more than the next best. Horta also attempted a league-high nine open-play shots following a one-two with a team-mate, further displaying his ability to pass and move quickly between opponents.
With five assists to add to his 19 goals in the top flight last season, Horta’s 24 goal involvements for Braga mean he contributed to 46% of their 52 goals in league competition. With Carvalhal now gone as coach and replaced by former player Artur Jorge, the club will hope that the new man can also get the best out of their star player.
He has already forayed outside of Portugal once in his career, moving from Vitória FC to then-La Liga outfit Málaga. He played over 50 times for the Spanish club before returning to Portugal, and he has been with Braga ever since.
In recent years, he’s been linked to Arsenal and Liverpool as well as a host of others, and after six years with Braga with him currently in his prime, Horta may once more set his sights on a new challenge outside of Portugal.
Here’s a name that will be familiar to those who follow Tottenham Hotspur. Once likened to Lionel Messi by then-Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, Marcus Edwards has forged himself a terrific career in Portugal since arriving in 2019.
A dazzling winger who is just as comfortable on either flank and with a keen eye for goal, Edwards is the type of player fans pay money to see perform. Quick, dynamic and skilful, and it feels like he is only just getting started on fulfilling his early promise.
A move to Vitória SC saw Edwards playing abroad for the second time in his career, the first being a loan spell in 2018-19 with Excelsior in the Eredivisie while at Spurs.
Renowned for being a tricky wide man with world-class feet, his attacking ability has never been in question, but it’s the other areas of his game which Edwards has polished magnificently in recent seasons to the point where he has developed into a mature, technically gifted player. As a result, Edwards earned himself the type of move he will have been yearning for since arriving in Portugal, a move to one of Os Tres Grandes and a chance to play in the UEFA Champions League. In Edwards’ case, it is at Sporting under Rúben Amorim.
To emphasise the loss for Vitória SC with Edwards’ departure, between his debut in September 2019 and his final appearance in January, the winger led their team rankings across the league for goals (17), assists (eight), chances created (79), shots (117) and expected assists (11.9).
Across his 1,806 minutes in 2021-22 between both Vitória Guimarães and Sporting, Edwards averaged 3.1 chances created or secondary chances created every 90 minutes – the fourth-highest average of all Primeira Liga players to have played at least 900 minutes.
At Sporting CP, the Englishman’s minutes were being closely managed by Rúben Amorim, but it was towards the end of the season that Edwards began to get consistent game time and the chance to show what he is capable of. In his last four league matches, he contributed two goals and two assists, including a superb strike on the last day against Santa Clara.
With a full pre-season under his belt and a chance to integrate himself in the Sporting style of play, Edwards could very feasibly become the main man for Sporting next season.
David Carmo’s name generated a lot of buzz back in 2020 and early 2021. The young SC Braga defender was excelling on a consistent basis despite being just 21 years old at the time. His performances had many pondering whether the Portuguese national team had their answer as to who would partner Rúben Dias going forward. Braga president António Salvador even admitted that Carmo had “one foot and a half in Liverpool,” with the young defender looking set to make a move to the Premier League.
Then, disaster struck.
In a meeting with FC Porto on 11 February 2021, Carmo was on the end of a nasty yet accidental challenge from Luís Diaz, in which Carmo had done exceptionally well to block Diaz’s shot. The Colombian caught Carmo on the ankle and it resulted in Carmo leaving the field in an ambulance. It was as bad as first feared, and Carmo would spend a long period sidelined with a serious ankle fracture.
However, as the saying goes, ‘The comeback is always greater than the setback.’ Carmo returned to action midway through this season and quickly reminded everyone of just how fantastic of a footballer he is.
A year and nine days after suffering his injury, Carmo made his Primeira Liga comeback on 20 February in a 1-0 win over Tondela. From this game on, he started all 12 league games for Braga until the end of the season, with them winning seven and keeping seven clean sheets across that period. It was no fluke that Braga’s best form coincided with Carmo’s return to action. With Carmo, only champions Porto (six) conceded fewer goals across the last 12 matchweeks than Braga (eight).
Um verdadeiro exemplo! 💪 Depois de uma lesão grave, voltou forte e está na Seleção! 🇵🇹
Parabéns, craque!#sporttvportugal #NAÇÕESnaSPORTTV #uefanationsleague #nationsleague #ligadasnacoes #portugal #fpf #espanha #suiça #republicacheca #DavidCarmo pic.twitter.com/tFDStlCZsY— SPORT TV (@SPORTTVPortugal) May 20, 2022
Just last week, Carmo’s fantastic performances at the tail end of the season were rewarded with a senior Portuguese call-up by Fernando Santos, who named the 22-year-old in their squad for the upcoming UEFA Nations League matches.
Standing at just over 6-foot-4, Carmo cuts a commanding figure at the centre of defence, so there’s little surprise that his aerial duel success of 64% is above the league average for defenders (56%).
Over the last few days, Atlético Madrid have been strongly linked with him, looking to pounce early and snap him up. Atlético won’t be the last club to declare interest in him, and following his Portugal call up, his name is only going to ring out louder and louder.
Carmo may have lost nearly a year of his career to injury, but he’s quickly working to make up for lost time.
The second Portuguese defender on our list, Gonçalo Inácio is a player who very quickly came to prominence during the 2020-21 season. The youngest of Sporting CP’s back three, Inácio was part of the side that won the Primeira Liga under Rúben Amorim.
He initially began that season in and out of the team, playing a game or two here and then missing the next few, with Amorim able to rely on the experience of Luis Neto, Sebástian Coates and Zouhair Feddal. However, Inácio couldn’t be kept out of the team for long.
His impressive performances and obvious talent meant that from Matchday 17 onwards, he only missed one game he was available for, missing a further two games through suspension and injury as Sporting romped to their first title since 2002.
This season, Inácio was one of the first names on the team-sheet and looking to build on his impressive debut season. A modern defender in the truest sense, smart with and without the ball and never afraid to try to launch attacks from deep.
The only defender in the league to average at least 70 successful passes per 90 minutes (70.3) while one of only four centre-backs to be involved in at least 50 open-play passing sequences per 90, Inácio likes the ball at his feet and is more than comfortable building attacks. Inácio also likes to drive forward with the ball – no player in the league made more progressive carries in 2021-22 than he did (333), while only Arouca’s João Basso (3,590m) progressed a greater distance with carries than the Sporting CP defender (3,578m).
It’s no surprise that a plethora of top European clubs are reportedly interested in Inácio, a player who continues to go from strength to strength and is still just 20 years of age yet plays with a maturity far beyond his years.
He’s yet to make his debut for the senior Portuguese national team, but it surely won’t be long until he does. He’s already won the Taça de Portugal twice, the Primeira Liga and the Supertaça with Sporting, and with several clubs sniffing around after him, Inácio – who is contracted until 2026 – could be tempted into a new challenge abroad.
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