Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva have both hinted at wanting to play alongside João Neves at club level, but what sort of player is the reported Manchester United and Manchester City target?
Benfica’s academy has been the breeding ground of countless fine footballers over the years, but in the two past decades especially it’s developed talents at a rate arguably never seen before, making it a crucial source of income for the club.
The reality is, however, despite being such a remarkable talent factory, Benfica remain a so-called selling club; the great players they produce rarely reach their peaks at Estádio da Luz, instead doing so in Europe’s bigger, wealthier leagues.
João Neves appears likely to be one of the next Benfica products to fly the nest having broken into the first team earlier this year as an 18-year-old. Now a senior Portugal international as well, the future looks bright for the central midfielder and major clubs are already said to be circling.
The narrative that’s developing at the moment is around a tug-of-war between Manchester United and Manchester City, or Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva, both of whom have spoken publicly about their new Seleção teammate.
Silva, also a graduate of Benfica’s academy, suggested with a wry smile to reporters during a gala event this week that he’d “make a move for him to go to Manchester City, if I can”. That came after Fernandes said he’d “love to have [Neves] by my side because he has quality and will have a bright future”.
Of course, a lot needs to happen before Neves is even given the hypothetical choice between City and United, and he has a €137 million (£120m) release clause that might put either team off in the long run anyway. But it’s easy to see why there might be a tussle over him between various European giants in the not-too-distant future.
“He’s 19 but plays like he’s 30,” João Félix said of Neves last month, providing an insight into the teenager’s almost trademark on-pitch maturity. “I’ve known Neves for some time. He’s from my brother’s generation, so I’ve seen him play since he was 12, 13 years old. He’s always been [small], but he never loses a duel, whether in the air or on the ground.”
In some respects, though, João Félix’s appraisal of Neves arguably doesn’t do him justice. While it’s difficult to disagree with the assessment, one of his most striking abilities is actually his confidence and comfort on the ball.
Nominally a defensive midfielder, Neves possesses enormous self-belief when it comes to carrying the ball out from the back, with his close control and agility real assets in Benfica’s attempts to beat the press.
There was one particularly eye-catching instance in the recent dramatic 2-1 derby victory over Sporting CP, in which Neves scored a 94th-minute equaliser after receiving the ball as the deepest defender with two attackers in close proximity before bursting between them almost effortlessly, belying the assuredness of someone far more experienced than him.
In fact, his dribble success rate of 71.4% is bettered by only six players in the whole Primeira Liga (minimum 10 dribble attempts) this season, and he ranks sixth for total carries (movements of at least five metres with the ball) with 176 – none of those above him would be classed as defensive midfielders.
Of course, it is easier to stand out in possession-based metrics when you play for one of the league’s best teams, but the fact he enjoys prominence at the club leading the Primeira Liga despite only turning 19 in September is a mark of the youngster’s ability and the trust head coach Roger Schmidt has in him.
As such, he enjoys real influence at Benfica. His 103.2 touches per 90 minutes is the highest of anyone in the Primeira Liga (minimum 400 mins played) this term as he helps to dictate the tempo of the game. Neves also ranks in the top three for total passes (78.2), successful passes (70.9) and successful passes in the opposition’s half (41.2) on a per-90-minutes basis.
Neves is a very capable carrier of the ball and tidy in possession, but don’t think that means he can’t do the dirty work as well.
Portugal coach Roberto Martínez considers Neves’ tactical understanding and positional awareness to be “beyond the number of games played at his age”, which goes some way to explaining how he also ranks third for most successful tackles (2.4) and duels won (9.6) per 90 minutes in the Portuguese top flight this term. This is also evidence of the feistiness highlighted by João Félix.
“Feisty” will probably become among the chief terms used to describe Neves as he continues to establish himself, partly down to the fact he’s not exactly a towering presence but puts himself about to good effect without and with the ball, his shrewd shielding ability a notable aid for the latter.
“He is a footballer who will make people talk at a global level,” Martínez thinks. “He will be influential in European football in the next 10 years, without a doubt.”
Clearly, the early signs are hugely promising and there’s every chance he could be a significant force for United or City in years to come, perhaps as Rodri’s long-term replacement or a midfield lynchpin for Erik ten Tag to build around so the burden on Fernandes is lessened.
But it’s also necessary to preach caution.
Let’s not forget how inexperienced he is, which, as João Félix suggests, can be easily overlooked. He didn’t make his first Primeira Liga start until April this year, when he eventually started to cement himself as the replacement for Enzo Fernández, who joined Chelsea a few months earlier.
Many people will hope for Neves’ sake that he and Benfica can ignore the lure of Premier League cash – or of any other league for that matter – for a little while longer, allowing the player to continue growing in an environment that’s stable and reliable in the development of promising young players.
It could be argued João Félix made the wrong decision in leaving Benfica for Atlético Madrid four years ago and that should serve as a cautionary tale if Neves is presented a similar opportunity in the near future.