Who’s Next? Portugal’s Talent Machine Powers On
Only last month, Portugal’s Primeira Liga moved temporarily ahead of France’s Ligue 1 in the UEFA coefficients for 2021-22 to become the fifth-highest ranked league in Europe. Ligue 1 has since moved back ahead, but the Portuguese league has continuously provided players that have eventually become some of Europe’s best. Who will be next?
Nuno Mendes is the latest name to be propelled into stardom following his last-minute move from Sporting CP to Paris Saint-Germain. The 19-year-old’s rise has been meteoric, in his first and only full senior season, he helped Sporting to their first Liga title since 2002 and has now moved to Paris to rub shoulders with the likes of Messi, Mbappé and Neymar.
The Alvalade faithful could very quickly see that this player was the real deal. Defensively astute and a constant threat in the final third, he coupled his technical ability with a tactical awareness and maturity that is very rare to find in someone so young.
Europe’s elite are queuing up to shop at the seemingly endless talent factory that is the Primeira Liga. In addition to the conveyor belt of talent in Portugal, the country boasts three teams in the Champions League group stages for the first time since the 2016-17 season, Ronaldo has returned to the club where he became a superstar and Portugal’s new ‘Golden Generation’ recently made it to the U21 European Championships final, where they narrowly lost to Germany. We are indeed experiencing a very significant period in Portuguese football.
In the Premier League in particular, there has been an influx of players arriving from Portugal and making instant impacts, Rúben Dias and Bruno Fernandes being two of the most recent.
Dias completely transformed Manchester City upon his arrival from Benfica, winning the Premier League Player of the Year award, as well as becoming the first defender to win the FWA Player of the Year award since Steve Nicol in 1989. Fernandes’ impact on the red side of Manchester was equally seismic. From his debut on February 1 to the end of the 2019-20 season, Fernandes helped Man Utd to a league-high 32 points. Such were his talismanic efforts on the pitch during 2019-20 that Fernandes was crowned Manchester United’s Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year, becoming the second Portuguese player to win the award after – yes – Cristiano Ronaldo. Since its inception in 1987-88, no player has won the award having played as few games in a season as Fernandes’ 22 in all competitions in 2019-20.
But Fernandes’ story has been told. Here, we examine five current players from Primeira Liga – players at different periods of their career and with differing experience who we believe could go on to be the next star to leave Portugal.
When Bruno Fernandes left Sporting for Manchester United midway through the season in 2019, Sporting and their supporters feared the worst. The club was in a tumultuous state and now Bruno, their talisman and their beacon of hope, had departed.
Sporting’s fourth manager of the season, the young but talented Rúben Amorim, arrived at the club hoping to bring some much-needed positivity to the Alvalade. His appointment caused an upturn in results, finishing his first season in charge with six wins, three draws and two defeats and with the best points-per-game ratio of any of the four managers at the club that season (1.91). However, for all the positivity surrounding Amorim’s arrival, there was still grave concerns regarding the quality of the squad going forward. This lack of quality was perhaps most telling when Fernandes ended the season as the club’s top scorer in both the Liga (eight) and in all competitions (13) despite leaving in January. It was clear that Amorim needed a new talisman.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old Pedro Gonçalves, or Pote, had just enjoyed a brilliant first season in senior football at newly promoted Famalicão. The highly rated youngster was back in his native Portugal for the first time since 2015 after spending the last five years of his youth development at Valencia and then Wolverhampton Wanderers. Pote, who was reportedly homesick whilst in England, left the country with just one senior appearance at Wolves to his name: 28 minutes as a substitute in an EFL second-round tie against Sheffield Wednesday in August 2018.
At Famalicão, he was instrumental in their success during their first season back in the top flight, guiding the club to sixth place in the league and helping them to finish just one point behind the Europa League places.
Playing predominantly in central midfield – a deeper position than the one he would later take up at Sporting – Pote frequently ran the show for his side. His statistics in comparison to his teammates illustrate just how influential Gonçalves was. He provided the most assists (five), created the most chances (49) and found himself on the ball more often than any other player with 1,583 touches.
This strong first season back in Portugal prompted Amorim to sign him, and it is at Sporting where Pote has gone from a promising young talent to undoubtedly being one of the best players in Portugal.
His first season at Sporting was simply mind-blowing. At a time when the club needed someone to step up and replace the seemingly irreplaceable Bruno Fernandes, Pote went above and beyond. He scored an exceptional 23 times – more league goals than Bruno ever achieved in a season at the club, whilst also providing four assists, as he helped his club to defy all odds to win their first league title since 2002. His penchant for scoring extraordinary goals is highlighted by his expected goal overperformance in 2020-21: His 23 goals came from an xG total of just 11.6, overperforming by 11.4, which was more than any player across Portugal or the big five European leagues last season.
Positionally, it’s difficult to pin Pote down, and that is what makes him so difficult to play against. On paper, he starts most games as the right-sided attacker in a 3-4-2-1/3-4-3. However, during the match he is allowed the freedom to fluidly move, coming infield to get close to the central striker or pulling off to the edge of the box in very Bruno Fernandes fashion. Despite being deployed on the right, there isn’t a great need for him to move wide as the width is given to Sporting through their marauding full backs who look to overlap and stretch the pitch.
He has started the 2021-22 season where he left off last time around, scoring three league goals in four appearances, from an xG of just 1.3. His versatility, technical ability and eye for goal when playing farther forward are what make him one of the most wanted men in Europe. For Sporting this season, besides defending their Primeira Liga title, keeping hold of Pote will be their most difficult task.
Since the late 2000s, Porto has been a hotbed for Colombian talent. Many young Colombian players have arrived at the Dragão with the hope of establishing themselves in Europe before eventually moving on to pastures new, usually bagging Porto a nice profit in the process. In 2009, Porto bought Radamel Falcão for €4 million before selling him to Atlético Madrid for an initial €40 million just two seasons later. A year after Falcão’s arrival, Porto yet again went searching for Colombian talent, this time bringing James Rodríguez to the club. Securing his signature for just €5.1 million, James established himself as one of the best players in Europe before leaving Porto for AS Monaco for a fee of €45 million, a huge sum of money for a Portuguese club.
Fast forward to 2021, and it is once again a Colombian who is by far and away Porto’s best player. Luis Díaz signed for €7 million from Junior, with Zenit St Petersburg also strongly interested at the time. When it came to making a decision as to where to go, Díaz claimed it was conversations with both Rodríguez and Falcão that convinced him to choose Porto as his first European destination.
In his first season he was in and out of the team, starting 20 out of 34 league matches and showing glimpses of his quality throughout the season, especially in European competition where he scored goals against Bayer Leverkusen, Rangers and Feyenoord. An aggressive yet skillful attacker, he finished his debut season in Portugal with 14 goals and seven assists across all competitions – a great start, but it was towards the end of the following season that Díaz really kicked into gear.
He started the last five league matches, scoring two and assisting one before going to the Copa América where he made international headlines for his standout performances for Colombia. He scored four goals and finished as joint-top scorer with Lionel Messi, won the Revelation of the Tournament award and was the only Colombian to make the Copa América Team of the Tournament. His international performances fueled links to other clubs across Europe, with strong rumours of Everton being interested. Fortunately for Porto, the deal never materialized, and they were able to keep hold of their star man for another season. Díaz, now an undisputed starter, looks hungrier and more potent than ever.
With five goals already in the Primeira Liga this season, Díaz is only one off his seasonal league tallies in both 2020-21 and 2019-20 (six). This campaign has seen him vastly improve his shot selection with his goal return more frequent as a result. So far in 2021-22, he’s attempted shots with an average xG per shot of 0.24 – simply put, an expected conversion rate of 24% by the ‘average’ player – which is double that of both 2020-21 and 2019-20 (0.12). Instead of trying speculative efforts from outside the box or looking to go wide to provide a cross, he is consciously making the decision to move centrally, both with and without the ball, to play closer to goal.
Keeping hold of Diaz will be incredibly difficult, but if Porto can negotiate a good price for the 24-year-old come the end of the season we’ll likely see him join one of Europe’s elite.
Fábio Vieira is already on the radar of many clubs around Europe – including the likes of Liverpool – despite being just 21 years old. Before breaking into the first-team setup at FC Porto, he came through the club’s academy and was part of the same U19 side as Fábio Silva and Diogo Leite that won the UEFA Youth League – the first-ever Portuguese side to do so.
At the U21 European Championships this summer, Vieira won Player of the Tournament award despite seeing Portugal lose to Germany in the final. He is the player on this list with the fewest senior minutes under his belt and as a result he’d possibly be a year or two further away from leaving Portugal, but don’t allow that to make you think he’s any less talented. A naturally gifted midfielder, confident in the No. 10 but also deeper in midfield, he possesses a great passing range and a tactical understanding of the game.
When he is in the team, Porto usually look more vibrant and more creative. Don’t let his lack of assists since the start of last season (four in 23 appearances) fool you, as he’s averaged the highest expected assists per 90 for Sérgio Conceição’s side since 2020-21 in the league (0.32) across his 497 minutes. Conceição is a coach who in the past has prioritised safer options in midfield over the likes of Vieira and fellow creative spark Vitinha, but such is his impact when he does play, many Porto supporters have been vocal about their desire to see him feature more.
In their most recent match against Moreirense, Vieira was handed his first league start of the season and he was magnificent. At the heart of everything, he provided a hat-trick of assists in a 5-0 rout. In doing so, he became the first player to assist three goals in a single Primeira Liga match for Porto since Alex Telles versus Braga in February 2018.
The more Vieira forces his way into Conceição’s team, the more his name will continue to ring around Europe.
Galeno is a name that many will be familiar with. Despite being just 23 years old, he’s already made well over 150 senior appearances. At 18, he made the journey to Portugal from Brazil, initially joining up on loan with Porto B. Playing predominantly as a winger or second striker, he impressed for Porto B, prompting the club to sign him permanently. However, he struggled to break into the first team, and even after a strong loan spell at Rio Ave, Porto opted to let Galeno depart for Braga.
It is at Braga, where we have seen Galeno develop and evolve both technically and tactically, particularly under the management of Carlos Carvalhal. He started his career predominantly as a winger, a player comfortable operating on both the left and the right, and before Carvalhal’s arrival, out wide is where Galeno used to play.
Under the former Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea City coach, Braga switched to a back three and Galeno was deployed as a wing back. To go from operating as a wide forward – at times as a second striker – and to a wing back is a drastic change but the data before and since his transition emphasizes why Galeno is vital to Braga’s system.
Over 2020-21, no player was involved in more attacking sequences in open play than Galeno (167) in the Portuguese top flight. His importance to Braga’s attacking output is clear from the data shown in the graphic above, but this isn’t the only metric where he’s excelled.
Since transitioning into a wing back, we have seen his defensive attributes become even more polished. Last season, he won a monumental 184 duels and made 182 recoveries, using his speed to cut out poor opposition passes and win the ball back for his team. The beauty of having someone who is by trade, a natural forward player at wing back means that once he has won the ball, that is when he really begins to shine. Since the start of last season, no player in the league has carried the ball progressively up field more than Galeno (3,987m), but his end-product from these is also clear to see with a league-high 44 shot involvements (27 shots himself and 17 creating chances for a teammate) from his ball carries.
He’s also first in take-ons in the opposition box (20) in the Primeira Liga since the start of 2020-21, which won’t be surprising having been previously made aware of his confidence in running with the ball, but more surprising is his ability to win the ball back from the opposition and start attacking sequences for this side. Since the start of last season, only Porto’s Otávio (14) has started more open-play sequences through winning the ball back from the opposition that have led to a shot than Galeno (13), with four of these ending in a Braga goal.
Galeno is a player who may not necessarily end up at one of Europe’s elite clubs, but because of his versatility he would be a very valuable asset to most teams playing in the Europa League or competing to qualify in the Champions League.
Still technically a Manchester City player, Pedro Porro is entering his second season of a two-year loan with Sporting CP. The Lisbon club have an option to buy at the end of just €8.5 million which, if reports are believed to be true, they will meet. If his performances continue this trajectory, it won’t be long before he leaves and helps Sporting make a healthy profit on that payment to the Premier League champions.
The 22-year-old Spanish full back has had spells at Girona and Valladolid in his native Spain, but it has been at Sporting where he has really blossomed into one of the most exciting full backs in Europe. At Girona, he played predominantly as a right wing back in a system like the one they play at his current club, while at Valladolid, he played in a back four as a more conventional right back.
Since the start of last season, the only defender to have played 1,000+ minutes in the Portuguese top flight and average a higher expected assists per 90 figure than Porro (0.20) is Benfica’s Álex Grimaldo (0.28), while Porro’s importance to the way Sporting play is shown in that he’s been involved in more unique open-play sequences for the club in the league dating to the start of 2020-21 than anyone else (1,573). His freedom to push forward in this Sporting side means he has fired in the third-most open-play crosses since the start of 2020-21 (120), behind only Ricardo Quaresma (161) and Ricardo Esgaio (144).
As he continues to develop, many top clubs around Europe will have their eye on him, the fact he is now capped at senior level and part of the Spanish national team setup will only exacerbate this interest. Whilst it may seem that Manchester City dropped the ball with Porro, another top club across Europe will surely be picking him up in the not-too-distant future.
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