Pedro Neto lost nearly 15 months of his career to injury. After a fine start to the 2023-24 season, the Portugal international appears to be back on track.
Phil Foden and Nathan Aké probably thought they had enough between them to deal with the danger, and they were also in the relative safety of the Wolverhampton Wanderers half. But what Pedro Neto did next highlighted how he is one of the standout players of the 2023-24 Premier League season to date.
The Portuguese winger took up possession in the middle of the Wolves half and held off Foden as he made for the right flank. Across came Aké but he possessed neither the pace nor strength to disrupt Neto’s march, his tackle attempt only serving to give Wolves’ talisman the space he needed to burst into the right side of the box. Neto got lucky, his right-footed pass towards the danger zone deflecting in off Rúben Dias, but it was fortune of his own making.
Of course, Wolves went on to beat Manchester City 2-1 last weekend despite having only one shot on target, Neto playing a key role as he has done throughout the early weeks of this season.
While his emergence may not constitute a surprise given he’s been highly rated for several years, a couple of long injury lay-offs at the very least cast doubt over whether he’d come to realise his full potential.
There no longer looks much danger of him failing to fulfil his promise.
It wasn’t so long ago that Neto was struggling. Wolves beat Southampton in early September 2022 for their first win of the 2022-23 Premier League season, but their winger found the going difficult. His final pass was routinely disappointing and generally little went his way, with this being a continuation of a frustrating start to the season personally.
As Neto was withdrawn against Southampton, Wolves fans showed their appreciation of him; a very warm round of applause was met with grateful claps in response from the player, who then held his hands up in what appeared to be a somewhat apologetic manner. At the time, there were growing calls for then-coach Bruno Lage to drop him.
He kept his place for their next two games, 3-0 and 2-0 defeats to Man City and West Ham, and it was in the latter match – also Lage’s last in charge – in early October that Neto was struck down by injury. Strained ankle ligaments required surgery, ruling him out of the World Cup and a significant chunk of the Premier League season. He didn’t start again in the top flight until March.
By the time Neto did return to action, he’d missed roughly 15 months of action in less than two years. His first lengthy absence was caused by a serious injury to his kneecap in April 2021, which kept him sidelined for 10 months. Spending so long just recovering from injuries so early in a player’s career can be brutally costly; this is a key time in a footballer’s development, and Neto lost over a year simply to rehab.
This isn’t being dramatic or hyperbolic for the sake of a narrative; Wolves manager Gary O’Neil freely revealed the club’s concerns just last month, saying: “When I arrived, I didn’t know too much about [Neto] and I was told that maybe he wasn’t reaching the levels the club would expect of him.”
That clearly wasn’t always the case.
Prior to his knee injury, Neto had already established himself as a very capable winger and one of the Premier League’s most promising young players. His 61 chances created during the 2020-21 season before being ruled out was bettered by only four players, with his creativity spread across both open play and dead-ball situations; he was one of only three players to rank in the top 10 for opportunities crafted in open play (42) and set plays (19).
Of course, part of what made him such a threat was his aggressive, direct style of play; in some ways he was relatively old fashioned in that he was particularly eager to get crosses into the box, so much so that only Andy Robertson (145) registered more in open play than Neto (134) over the period in question – 23.1% of Neto’s were deemed successful, which was the fifth-highest accuracy among the 23 players to attempt at least 70 crosses.
Granted, crossing stats are also dependent on the player receiving the delivery, but it reflects well on Neto that his accuracy was very respectable despite Wolves being without Raúl Jiménez for most of the timeframe we’re looking at.
It’s worth remembering that there was more to him than simply lumping crosses into the box, though. Neto is fairly unique in that he’s comfortable playing on either flank, and in 2020-21 he was integral to Wolves’ ball progression thanks to his carrying and running capacity, with his statistical output in that regard actually pretty extreme.
Again, over that period of 2020-21 before his knee injury, Neto’s 503 carries – instances of him running at least five metres with the ball – was sixth of all players in the Premier League; it’s a metric that centre-backs and full-backs tend to rank highly in as they often have more space to carry the ball into, so the fact an attacker like Neto tallied so many highlighted his confidence and positivity. Further to that, he ranked fourth for carry distance (6,922m) and total carry progress (4,130m), putting his bravery, drive and positive mentality into numerical context .
After Neto returned from the second injury – the ankle ligament strain – in March, it would’ve been unrealistic to expect him to quickly reach those levels again; some may have thought he never would.
There’s no denying he struggled after Julen Lopetegui brought him back into the side. In his first two starts, Neto was taken off at half-time. He didn’t play for longer than a half in a single match until 29 April, and there were four occasions he featured for less than 10 minutes.
“He has been out for a lot of months, and it’s not easy when you are talking about this kind of player,” Lopetegui said in mid-April of Neto’s slow start. “One thing is to be fit and start working with us, one other thing is to be 100 per cent in your performance, because this kind of player lives for one-against-one and his pace. In this moment, he’s improving, but we are waiting of course because he is a good player. We also have more players to choose from, so it’s about what we see here in the daily work.”
There was a decrease in Neto’s productivity almost across the board between March and the end of last season compared to his form in 2020-21. Chance production was down from 1.5 to 1.2 per 90 minutes and his expected assists average was at 0.11 compared to 0.18 each game, but the biggest deviation came – as Lopetegui alluded to – with the physical side of the game.
His dribble attempts decreased to 3.2 from 5.0 per game, while he was carrying the ball only 159m on a per-90-minute basis having previously averaged 243m; as for ball progression, that dropped to 77m from 145m, so he was progressing the ball nearly half as much after making his comeback.
This isn’t criticism, but just stating the facts of Neto’s output after his injuries. Of course, given his nightmare over the two years prior, it would’ve been astonishing if there’d not been a drop-off.
But this all serves to highlight just how far he’s come over the last few months.
Wolves’ start to the season hasn’t been great. They have seven points from as many games and find themselves down in 15th – were it not for the shock 2-1 defeat of Man City last weekend, they’d be – at best – one point above the relegation zone.
Not that expectations were especially high at Wolves this season. Lopetegui left the club just a few days before the season started, with Gary O’Neil brought in at short notice with the task of quickly getting the players onside and understanding what he required from them.
Even after the win over City, there’s still every chance this’ll be a long season for Wolves and already Neto’s form looks as though it’ll be crucial to their prospects. Thankfully for them, he’s sharp and blossoming into the star he was promising to be in 2021.
“I needed the confidence, which the coach has given to me from the beginning since he arrived,” Neto told Wolves’ official website earlier this week; whatever O’Neil’s done with respect to nurturing his winger, it appears to be working.
Neto is somewhere close to being his old self again. Those lung-busting runs are back, with Dejan Kulusevksi the only winger/wide midfielder to better his 1,657m travelled while carrying the ball, but when it comes to progressing the play up field, Neto is basically in his own lane; among the same group of players, he’s (1,053m) one of only two (with Kaoru Mitoma, 1,003m) to carry possession more than 850m up the pitch. When all Premier League players are taken into consideration, Neto is only behind four centre-backs.
Neto also ranks top among wide players for average carry distance (16.1m) (minimum 320 minutes played), and he’s fourth – behind Mitoma (76), Kulusevski (72) and Bukayo Saka (71) – for total progressive carries (66).
“His attitude and approach since I have been here has been top notch,” O’Neil said recently. “I can’t speak highly enough of him at the minute, I think he has been incredible.”
Certainly, Neto’s ability to get Wolves on the front foot with his carrying talents and positivity have been clear to see, but more importantly is the fact he’s frequently being decisive in the final third. We’ve already touched on his impact against City, but before that – which, of course, didn’t technically count as an assist – he’d already set up four goals in the Premier League this season.
Those four assists leave him level with Mohamed Salah, James Maddison and Kieran Trippier for the most in the Premier League, and have come from 18 chances created, which is fewer than only seven players – Trippier leads the way but with only four more (22) than Neto. His key passes have seen him accumulate the fifth-highest expected assists (xA) in the division (2.13), another barometer of the quality he’s providing, and he’s getting plenty of balls into the area, ranking second for open-play crosses.
But the beauty of Neto is how versatile a threat he is. His goal-creating run against City came from the right flank, as did the inch-perfect cross he delivered for Sasa Kalajdzic’s winner against Everton in August; he tallied two comparable assists against Palace from a similar distance but on the left, and then at home to Liverpool he embarked on a brilliant solo run before drilling across the box for Hwang Hee-chan to turn home. In short, he possesses a real arsenal of weapons and once again appears well on track to the top.
Aké and Foden won’t be the last players he roasts this season.