Benfica‘s Gonçalo Ramos is one of the most sought-after young strikers in European football this summer. He’s been linked with a move to Manchester United, but what qualities would he bring to Old Trafford?
The 2022-23 season saw Gonçalo Ramos reach worldwide notoriety. Portugal manager Fernando Santos made the brave choice to replace all-time record men’s international scorer Cristiano Ronaldo with a 21-year-old with just 33 minutes of international experience under his belt. In a World Cup knockout stage match. It was even braver considering Ronaldo had started in Portugal’s previous 31 games at international finals since 2008.
But his bravery paid off. Ramos scored an incredible hat-trick against Switzerland in what was his first ever start at full international level. In doing so, he became the first player to score three goals in his first World Cup start since Miroslav Klose in 2002, while Ramos was the fifth youngest to score a treble on the biggest stage in football at just 21 years and 169 days old.
Santos knew he had brought in a player who could find the goal – Ramos had already scored 14 goals at club level for Benfica by the World Cup in November plus a goal on his Portugal debut against Nigeria less than four weeks before the Switzerland game.
As is often the case with World Cups, the noise around Ramos came and went quickly. He was linked to Manchester United in January, but no move transpired. Those rumours are back this summer.
With Ramos carrying on post-World Cup how he began the season, Benfica’s president Rui Costa last week added fuel to the fire by suggesting Man Utd would be willing to match the striker’s price tag – reported to be in the region of £70m according to Portuguese newspaper Correio da Manha.
Benfica lost star striker Darwin Núñez to the Premier League last summer, following a £64m transfer to Liverpool in June. Could they be about to lose another top forward to an English club, a year later?
Gonçalo Ramos is a goalscorer – there’s little doubt about that. An out-and-out box striker is rare to find at the top level in football nowadays, so when they come about, they undoubtedly attract a lot of interest.
Of his shots in league action last season, 87 out of 98 (89%) were from inside the box – with none of these from the penalty spot. Of the 33 players to attempt at least 75 non-penalty shots across the top five European leagues in 2022-23, only two – Erling Haaland (93%) and Marcus Thuram (92%) – attempted a higher proportion from inside the box.
Ramos is particularly deadly from inside the six-yard box, with his ability to disguise his runs and deceive opposition defenders with his movement, meeting the pass or cross with perfect timing a key strength. One such example can be seen with his crucial goal in the 2-2 Derby de Lisboa draw against Sporting CP in January.
Across the top seven ranked European leagues in 2022-23 (adding Portugal and Netherlands to the traditional top five), only Haaland (12) scored more league goals from inside the six-yard box than Ramos’ 10. Of the 10 players to score seven or more goals from this area of the pitch, only two – Brentford’s Ivan Toney and PSV’s Luuk de Jong – scored a higher proportion from inside the six-yard box.
Quite obviously, playing for one of the ‘big three’ in Portugal should be considered here, too. Benfica dominate the vast majority of their matches, even more so in their successful 2022-23 campaign under Roger Schmidt. Across the top 10 ranked European leagues last season, Benfica had the highest non-penalty xG per game rate of 2.32, while they were in the top 10 (of 176 clubs) for shots per game (16.7), touches in the opposition box per game (32.7) and average possession (63.6%).
Nevertheless, Ramos’s ability to get into great scoring positions shouldn’t be disregarded. His non-penalty xG per 90 of 0.80 was not surpassed by any single player to play 1,500 minutes across the top seven European leagues in 2022-23, while he sustained an incredible 0.21 xG per non-penalty shot across the whole season. None of the 109 players to attempt 70+ shots averaged as high as this, with Ramos just ahead of Haaland’s 0.20 during his record-breaking season at Man City.
Not only is the quality high, but the quantity, too. Only 11 players to play 1,500 minutes across the top seven European leagues last season averaged more non-penalty shots than Ramos’ 3.8 per 90 – the same average as Haaland.
That shot average is near identical to Núñez in his final season at Benfica in the Primeira Liga before his move to Liverpool (3.7), but Ramos’ 0.80 non-penalty xG per 90 is much higher than Núñez’s was (0.67) in 2021-22. Interestingly, the Uruguayan has near sustained that xG per 90 average at Liverpool in the Premier League across 2022-23 (0.64), and even increased his shot tally (4.4 per 90). So maybe there’s good reason to believe Ramos could transfer his ratios from the Primeira Liga to the Premier League at a big club, too.
But that will come down to the service he would receive, and if it suits a style that Ramos has proved he can feast upon. No player in the Portuguese Primeira Liga in 2022-23 was successfully found by teammates’ crosses from open play more often than Ramos (43). Of those, six led to him scoring a goal – so that’s not including the crosses that indirectly led to his goals, following deflections or flick-ons; only those that were directly assisted.
Now it’s clear that Ramos is a striker that thrives off low crosses into the corridor of uncertainty between the penalty spot and the six-yard-box but Manchester United aren’t really a side that have utilised open-play crossing as a tactic for goalscoring under Ten Hag so far. Only three sides in 2022-23 were successful with fewer than United’s 78 open-play crosses. Should Ramos be a player they feel could be an ideal number nine at Old Trafford, you feel that would have to change.
Across the 2022-23 Premier League season, just 30.5% of United’s open play penalty area entries from any type of pass came via a cross, with only Arsenal (29.9%) relying less on crossing for getting the ball into the penalty area. Benfica’s proportion in league action across 2022-23 was 42.2%, while no side made more successful open play crosses than the Primeira Liga champions (154). They also led the Portuguese league rankings for cut-backs from the byline (41).
United’s main attacking threat came via central through balls, something they attempted a league-high 104 times in 2022-23. Most of these came via Bruno Fernandes, who attempted 34, which was six more than any other player in the Premier League. Of the 37 different players to attempt more than 60 open-play crosses in the competition last season, only one of those played for Man Utd – again, Bruno Fernandes (84) leading the club in this metric, but only creating a scoring opportunity with 10 of these.
Therefore, something will have to give. Either United would have to change their style to attack the box from wide areas more often, or Ramos would have to adapt quickly to a style he’s not been used to – or successful under – at Benfica under Schmidt. Quite obviously, it would have to be the latter, but evidence points to Ramos being talented enough as a box striker to adapt to different service from teammates.
Ten Hag has already conveyed his belief that Marcus Rashford can be a 40-goal a season striker at United, but the general feeling is that a central striking position is unsuitable to a player that seems at his best drifting in off the left side of the pitch.
Ramos could certainly be that central figure, supported by Rashford’s talents. The England international’s blistering pace and trickery out wide could help add a more creative dimension out wide to serve the 22-year-old striker, but United would need to improve creative and crossing outputs from full-back positions.
One thing Ramos was not for Benfica last season was a fantastic linkup player. Often used as the central attacking figure in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Ramos’ main responsibility has been to get on the end of attacks and be the finisher of moves. Of his open-play shots in 2022-23, just 9% saw him also involved in the build-up to that move, while he was only involved in the build-up or creation of a chance for a team-mate in 32% of his open play shot sequence involvements for Benfica.
Having scored 27 times at club level across all competitions in 2022-23, Ramos became the youngest Benfica player (21 years, 286 days) to reach 25 goals in a season since the legendary Eusébio in the 1962-63 season. With Ramos the next in line to succeed Ronaldo as Portugal’s lead goal threat, there’s every chance he could end up being considered among the pantheon of great Portuguese footballers should he make the right move, at the right time.
Ronaldo made that jump from Portuguese football to Manchester United at the age of 18 and the timing proved perfect. Ramos’ time could be now.