The recruitment of Ruben Neves at Wolverhampton Wanderers was certain to raise eyebrows across English football. The endowed Portuguese midfielder was considered one of Europe’s brightest prospects in his fledgling years at FC Porto; a record deal facilitated by known Wolves associate and super-agent Jorge Mendes. It was an ambitious signing by Wolves’ owners, Fosun, who paraded their riches once again to break their club’s transfer record for the third time in a single year.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s influence in bringing Neves to Molineux was key. The enigmatic Nuno spent a year managing the midfielder at FC Porto and knew first hand of the youngster’s talents. He, alongside stars including Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro would lift Wolves out of the notoriously inescapable Championship with unequivocal ease, finishing eleven points ahead of nearest automatic promotion challengers Fulham. Neves was the side’s cornerstone; the foundation of Nuno’s 3-4-3 assemble. He evidenced an apparent innate ability to dictate the game, while simultaneously elevating his fellow teammates’ performances.
In fact, it is not overstating Neves’ influence in midfield over the 2017/18 season to suggest he is the best player Championship fans have ever had the pleasure of witnessing, at the age of just 21.
Neves exhibits a passing ability shared by very few. Xabi Alonso comes to mind when striking comparison to such effortless yet impeccably executed cross-field switches to teammates such as Matt Doherty. He can also control the game with short passes, manipulating the opposition with the simple ball.
The midfielder is an incessant long-range goal-threat, his technique and confidence doesn’t need 20,000 West Midlander’s to scream ‘shoot’ every time the ball is received within reasonable distance to oblige.
Neves’ most memorable goal for Wolves came at Molineux against Derby County last season, a match-clinching strike that amalgamated audacity with sheer brilliance. The Portuguese midfielder flicked the ball up above his head before swivelling and unleashing an unstoppable 30-yard volley beyond the reach of a confounded Scott Carson. Ever the perfectionist, Neves was not entirely content with such the wonder strike. “I wasn’t happy with my first touch” he said. “The ball was behind me and it was difficult. I always want the ball in front of me and after that touch, I thought I can’t lose it there so I had to shoot.”
The goal was one of six scored outside of the box by Neves last season.
Though commending Neves for merely his aptitude on the ball is somewhat insulting to a midfielder who offers so much of it. Neves is firm in the tackle, with an intrinsic ability to read and intercept play before driving his team forward in attack.
Neves grew up in the Aveiro District of Morelos, south of Porto, and join FC Porto’s youth set-up at the age of just 8. He was described in 2014 by reserve team manager Luis Castro as a player with “extraordinary mental qualities, to go along with technical and tactical skills”, and quickly progressed through the youth ranks. Neves’ hard work was rewarded with a call-up to the senior squad for pre-season in 2014, where he would start in a friendly against Saint-Etienne, impressing enough to become a permanent fixture within Julian Loptegui’s squad.
The player’s true mental toughness was examined when handed his first-team debut just weeks later. Neves was thrust into Primera Liga action against Maritimo and shone in a man-of-the-match performance, becoming FC Porto’s youngest ever domestic goal scorer. Five days later Neves would play in the Champions League in a knockout tie against Lille, breaking yet another record in being Portugal’s youngest player to appear in the competition.
In the summer of 2014 Neves lead his national side to the semi-finals of the U17 European Championship, where they would come up short against England. The midfielder emphatically made his mark at the tournament and was named in a list of top ten talents of the tournament by a selection of UEFA reporters. Neves’ tactical astuteness in being able to read the game was prominent, as was a controlled aggressive streak that brought comparisons with Italian and Roma great Danielle De Rossi. He could also seamlessly improve his side’s off the ball movement through cleverness and awareness in distribution from defensive midfield.
Young emerging talents were often erratic, but Neves’ consistency was what was so striking. FC Porto manager Julian Lopetegui would rely on the player to make no mistakes under the uppermost pressure, an anomaly across most youth prospects who are shunted into first-team contention. But Neves thrives on responsibility and credits how his family have helped shape the matured leader he has already become.
“I was always like that [mature], probably because of my parents. They always gave me this responsibility, to grow and learn fast. When I was nine my father [Jose] went to Spain to work for three years and I was in Portugal. I only saw him once a month which was difficult. I was alone with my mother and my sister, who is younger than me, so that probably helped me to be how I am,” he told the Telegraph.
It was unsurprising when Neves was made the Champions League’s youngest ever captain at just 18 years and 221 days in Porto’s group stage encounter with Macabbi Tel Aviv. The player’s maturity at such infancy was unparalleled in Portugal, and performances undeniably warranted the armband of the club he supported since he was a child. Neves would go on to make 37 appearances across the campaign, a mainstay in Lopetegui’s side.
By the following season, Neves had established himself as a top emerging talent, ousting Porto’s then record signing Giannelli Imbula and Portugal internationals Danilo and André André as one of the first names on ‘os Dragões’ team sheet.
Neves’ form at the Portuguese giants was made a switch to Championship outfit Wolves in July 2017 so remarkable. Yet the player was ready to challenge himself in English football and recognised the club’s ambitions lay far greater than Championship promotion.
The project for Wolves owners remains Champions League football. An extraordinary first season has materialised in the Premier League, with the club pushing for seventh place and Europa League football. Neves has created a formidable partnership alongside Joao Moutinho in the heart of midfield, adapting seamlessly in his first season in the top flight.
Wolves’ very own young Regista had his perhaps most assertive performance at the hands of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United in the FA Cup Quarter-final at Molineux. Neves was elegant but tenacious in utterly dominating elite stars in Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic. His exemplary passing matched unfeasible vision; the ball on a string and the game played at his own pace. By the end, Wolves fans were singing a chorus of ‘Ole’s’ every time a sumptuous crossfield pass played out to the effervescent Wolves wing-backs. It was the paradigm of pure control in a cup tie of such magnitude.
But what does the future hold for the promising 22-year-old? A priority will be to consolidate a place in Portugal’s midfield. Neves has made just nine caps for his national side and will be looking ahead in anticipation to Euro 2020, in what will be his first international tournament after missing out of Fernando Santos’ final World Cup squad in Russia. Neves is part of a multitude of young Portuguese talent, including Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva, Raphael Guerreiro and Joao Cancelo, who will be led by their great leader, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Neves’ leadership qualities naturally adhere him to Portugal captaincy when Ronaldo does ultimately retire. “He always a highly focused and a natural leader. He’s not an exuberant lad but when he speaks everybody listens to him,” said Porto youth coach Jose Guilherme of Neves. Though Neves will stay grounded and will recognise the importance of continuing his development for his domestic side presently riding the crest of a wave.
Whether the midfielder’s long-term future does lie at Wolves is uncertain. Despite the West-Midlands club’s desire to compete with Europe’s elite, there is surely a ceiling to their success. Once branded the new Sergio Busquets by Barcelona’s La Masia academy graduate Cristian Tello, Neves is destined for greater things.
At 22, Neves’ game is not complete, his confidence in his shooting ability can lead to incorrect decisions and wasted opportunities. But he is still young and his attributes both offensively and defensively will have caught more than a watchful eye of some of Europe’s titans. Juventus? Barcelona? Real Madrid? Expect Neves to be one of European football’s household midfield names in years to come.