It’s no secret that Sporting Lisbon possesses one of, if not the best youth academy in Europe. Benfica and Porto have found success in scouting South American players and selling them for hefty profits, but Sporting’s key to becoming a perennial Champions League side is home grown. Just last summer, 10 of their academy products made their way onto the pitch in Portugal’s victorious Euro Final, 8 of whom started, including current Ballon D’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo. Sporting’s academy continues to churn out top-notch talent, and it seems their next generation is living up to the hype with Gelson Martins becoming the Leões’s standout player this season, and Palhinha solidifying his reputation as one of the toughest midfielders in Liga Sagres. However, there is one 17-year-old who still plays for the U19 side, but who is bound to generate plenty of hype when he breaks into the first team: Daniel Bragança.
I sought out to analyze the 17-year-old’s game in the only two full matches available on the Internet: Sporting C vs. Real Madrid C and Sporting C vs. Benfica C.
Bragança is the captain and regista of Tiago Fernandes’ U19 side, a player who gives fluidity to possession while using fearless aggression in challenging for the ball. However, I couldn’t help but think Bragança would shine even brighter in a different system. Fernandes’ system is built on passing back to the goalkeeper, who then boots it into midfield, while another component is solo runs and through balls through the wings. There is little to no delicate build up through the midfield, which is expected at the youth level, but he needs to play for a system that can let him control the center of the pitch for the majority of the game, not just in bits and spurts. Instead of controlling the match, he is asked to man mark players, chase down opponents for possession and win headers. He isn’t the next Gattuso, but he may very well be the next Pirlo, and he needs a manager to get the best out of his qualities.
When I first saw Bragança against Benfica’s C team, I criticized him for not getting himself available enough into positions to receive. A mediocentro should be getting himself in positions to aid the clean distribution of the ball out of defense, while also finding himself in positions to stop counter attacks. However, it seems Fernandes instructed him to man mark Benfica’s #10. This seems to be a common pattern; when I watched the Sporting captain against Real Madrid, he stuck to Madrid’s #6 like white on rice. Bragança has the potential to be one of the best registas in football, but to do so, he needs to master the art of juego de posición. His lackadaisical marking led to a Benfica counter at 36:40. Fernandes’ demands have made him man mark his way out of positional nirvana. This man marking leads to Braganca being generally out of position sometimes, for example, at 25:50, he is so advanced that when Madrid’s #8 spins one Sporting CB (#4), he isn’t there to impede #8’s run, leading to the other Sporting CB (#3) stepping out of line in order to tackle #8 and win possession back. The mediocentro art usually takes years to master, but when you look at the likes of Julian Weigl and Sergio Busquets, players who began starting for European elites when they were just kids, their positional sense was absolutely sublime. Bragança turns 18 in May, and Sporting’s board should seriously be considering moving him out on loan, or changing manager, should the demands of him not change.
To Bragança’s credit, he has executed Fernandes’ instructions well, fiercely chasing down players, and even risking fouls with his tenacious style. I think he will fit into the new crop of registas like Santiago Ascacibar and Amadou Diawara: a calming presence at the base who can also swarm an opponent for the ball like an angry hive of wasps. This component in the Portuguese’s game will make him extremely versatile.
Aerial ability: 6/10
Despite his short stature, he’s quite impressive in this category. He goes into headers with model tenacity, although he goes into a few too many due to Fernandes’ long ball philosophy.
Bragança rarely touches the ball, and as he carries the model of a controlling midfielder, the team’s build-up should be structured around him. When passing back to defense, he could be sharper, especially in chipping passes over back to the center backs. Also, he’ll sometimes see a player making a run, yet plays a through ball out for a goal kick. The head’s there, but the ability is lagging a bit. Still, Bragança needs to find out what position is his best. Against Madrid, he was so far up the pitch, focusing on Los Blancos’ #6, while against Benfica, he was in the second third, tracking the movement of Benfica’s #10. For me, his future is neither as a mediapunta nor a volante mixto, but as a regista. Still, there are certain characteristics of passing each positional player must master. If he is a trequartista, he has to improve his through balls and efficiency in the final third. If he is a volante mixto, he must work on his vertical passing, and if he is a mediocentro, he must improve the clean distribution of the ball out of defense. Still, when he has the ball, he shows glimpses that he can become a world class metronome. His sheer quality on the ball is enough to place an investment in him.
Quick thinking: 7/10
Against Madrid, he didn’t see #7 rushing to win back the ball, and he took 2 touches when 1 was needed, and he lost possession seconds after he received it. Still, he is quite adept at thinking on his feet. Watching English football as often as I do, I’d have expected a 17-year-old to commit a foolish mistake in midfield, during a battle of the long balls. When he received the ball in the air, I expected him to clear it to Benfica’s goalkeeper with a larger midfielder closing him down. Instead, he strikes it on the volley, like an Olympic marksman, straight to Sporting’s #17. However, this play encapsulated not only the captain’s brilliance, but the team’s system flaws. After receiving it, #17 does a roulette against several defenders, and strikes it to Sporting’s goalkeeper, who boots it into midfield for another aerial duel. The cycle continues.
The teenager can fortify his strength even further, but he does hold off players with relative ease and he always finds a way to get stuck in, using his body as a shield to win the ball.
Decision making: 7/10
Bragança often rushes his decisions; he needs to realize that most of the time, he has more time on the ball than he thinks. He’ll usually make the right choice on the ball, but he needs a system that forces him to vary his decisions. So much of Fernandes’ system is built on through balls to the wingers, and the captain must learn the importance of diversity in a regista’s game. Sometimes, dink a ball across the pitch to a wing, other times, play it short.
Sporting could not have found themselves a better captain. He wears his heart on his sleeve, rushing over to the scene of the crime when a Madrid player commits a horrendous tackle on his teammate. Throughout the match, even while backtracking, he is constantly pointing to players, indicating where they need to move to defend, while also pointing out where they must move to in order to receive possession, and also where they need to pass to. He leads by example in his effort and words.
He tends to put himself into positions to mark and defend rather than to receive, and his defensive efficiency is quite overwhelming for a player so antithetical to a typical destroyer. His tackling never lets the team down. He isn’t conservative in his challenges, and he sometimes even sticks a leg up in the air to win possession, but this shouldn’t be his foremost skillset. He risks fouling players, such as his tenacity, but he executes tackles very well. He has the blueprint to become a top notch mediocentro, but his offensive positioning needs more improvement than his defensive positioning.
There are occasions in which the teenager will rush his decisions without need, but he has a good general knowledge of the run of play, knowing where to position himself, and is usually the most tactically advanced player on the pitch. Like Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard, he always scans the pitch to check his positioning, whether his team is in possession or defending. Above all, his positional intelligence needs the most work. While Madrid has possession, he’ll either join the lines of defense in safeguarding against an attack, or the lines of attack. He needs to join the lines of midfield, in order to become a world class holding midfielder.
What will set him apart from the likes of Sergi Samper and Rúben Neves, two promising regista projects who have stagnated, is the layered dynamism of his game. He is strong, aggressive and mobile, he can play across a midfield three but his best fit is at the base.
As opposed to some of Sporting’s rising talents, like Filipe Chaby and Daniel Podence, Bragança won’t become an end product machine. His shots rarely force the goalkeeper to even make a diving effort. Still, if he evolves into a mediocentro, this won’t be too much of a problem.
His speed isn’t a standout quality, but he does press opponents with relentless determination, concentrating on winning the ball back from opponents, rushing them into playing long balls or making poor decisions. It’s his determination in hurrying the opponent that stands out, but his profile isn’t as a shuttler like Corentin Tolisso or Mahmoud Dahoud.
Locomotion/turning radius: 6/10
As a regista, Bragança must improve this area of his game, his ability to glide past pressing opponents and shield the ball from counterattacks. Still, he needs a system which not only tests his locomotion but improves it. Currently, he plays in a system where the team plays solely through the wings, where a player can easily pass to him, but they will decide to dribble it up the wing and lose possession. If he was tasked with protecting the back four instead of man-marking players and gegenpressing, his locomotion would improve.
Bragança’s stamina is superb, but he should not be condemned to the role of the workhorse of the side. He was taken off midway through the Benfica match, but he puts in a solid shift where he harries players for the ball constantly. Even the likes of Marco Verratti and Xavi in his prime rack up kilometers pressing the opposition, so he could fit into the enhance blueprint eventually, and perform the requisite defending it necessitates.
Crossing: 2/10 His set pieces, crossing and general accuracy from dead balls are nothing special. They rarely make contact with the intended target, but the system should limit his crossing to a minimum.
Bragança’s dribbling has room for improvement, but his locomotion is the real necessity for a regista like him, as it does not seem like the 17-year-old will become a mezz’alla or forward. Even though he may find himself positioned as a second striker due to man marking duties, it is clear as day his best position is as a midfielder who operates in the first or second third, so it isn’t a necessary category for him to improve in given his profile.
Tactical adherence: 10/10
Above all, I would say that his strongest quality is his dedication to the coach’s advice. While this may turn him into a carthorse and shape him away from the artistic mediocentro he can become. His positioning is all over the place due to Fernandes’ demands, and he needs a different coach, perhaps a Cruyff disciple, who can unleash his potential at the base. Not only does he adhere to the words of the manager, but also the demands that the armband carries. It seems to me he will become similar to Marseille’s Maxi Lopez with tenacious aggression. He leads by example in his ability and his vicious aggression. Should he develop into a holding midfielder, this tenacity will aid him in his positional transition despite his small stature.
Photo Credit: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix