At 19 years old, João Pedro Gonçalves Neves has cultivated a reputation as the latest footballing talent with the pedigree to etch his name in the Benfica history books. The Tavira native’s stock has risen dramatically in the past 12 months, with various reports speculating that a move to the Premier League is on the cards. But who is this tenacious midfielder, and why is he becoming a household name across the continent?
Born on 27 September 2004, Neves began his journey with his local club, Casa Benfica Tavira – a feeder club for Portuguese giants Benfica. In Portugal, children aged 11 and under are limited to playing 7-a-side competitions to develop individual talents and harness the technical abilities of future generations. Prioritising youth development is a perennial task for As Águias, with select players from several feeder clubs invited to the club’s prestigious academy when they reach the age of 12.
When players arrive, the aim is to continue their development with meticulous planning and individual routines. For those who continue to excel, a thorough eye is placed upon evaluating their growth through the U15, U17 and U19 National Championships. Neves arrived in the illustrious setup in 2012 and embarked on his journey through the various underage squads.
His passage through each age designation saw undeniable growth, with recognition as a key academy member identified as early as his U15 participation. Despite a break of National Championships throughout 2019 and 2020, his stature remained through smaller regional competitions – signing his first professional contract in 2020 – before starring in the U19’s historic UEFA Youth League triumph in the 2021-22 campaign. The success handed Benfica their first European title since the 1961-62 European Cup.
Benfica are champions of Portugal for the first time in four years, and with the additions of Ángel di María and Orkun Kökçü, they could be on track to repeat their league title and make another deep run in Europe.
Today, we’re taking a look at Benfica’s individual standouts:
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On 6 August 2022, he made his professional debut with Benfica B in a 1–1 draw against Académico de Viseu in LigaPro. Three weeks later, he started in Benfica’s 1–0 victory over Peñarol at the 2022 Under-20 Intercontinental Cup. To the bemusement of many, his stock seemed to fade, and he would feature more prominently for the U23 squad before catching the eye of first-team head coach Roger Schmidt.
For many at the time, the winter break for the World Cup in Qatar dampened the domestic mood and hampered the momentum of players and squads around the globe. But it was during this break that Schmidt invited the midfielder to participate in several first-team training sessions. He impressed the German chief with his ability, dedication and maturity on the ball – debuting for the senior side in a 3-0 December defeat to Braga.
Following the €121 million January transfer of Argentine star midfielder Enzo Fernández to Chelsea, the club’s dedication to the continued development of their youth channel once again paid dividends, with Neves happily assuming his place amongst the elite of the 38-time Primeira Liga winners.
He made several cameo appearances over the coming weeks before eventually claiming a regular starting XI position. In a matter of months, the dynamic midfielder featured 20 times, registered his first senior goal against fierce rivals Sporting in a 2-2 draw, and aided his boyhood club in lifting their first league title in four years after a 3–0 victory against Santa Clara on the final day of the campaign.
Throughout his youth development, Neves received multiple domestic plaudits for his output and was also recognised Internationally. He lined out for Portugal from U15 to U19 levels before going on to net his first goal at the 2023 UEFA European U21 Championships against Belgium. He made his senior debut on 16 October against Bosnia and Herzegovina with a late substitute appearance in a 5-0 victory.
Fast forward to the present day, and his growth continues to leave spectators in awe. Having solidified a starring role in the heart of Benfica’s midfield, the 19-year-old is captivating the next generation of Portuguese players, with widespread suggestions that he may become the latest name on an impressive list of high-profile transfers to a wealthier European club.
Supporters of the two-time champions of Europe regard him as an electric central midfielder who commands the ball. Standing 1.74m tall, he regularly displays his searing pace and extraordinary physical ability, often propelling himself above much taller opposition. Despite his slight frame, he ranks in the 89th percentile for aerial battles won. Additionally, he is in the top 99 percentile for blocks and in the 94 percentile for tackles made.
Furthermore, he is an individual who understands tempo and the importance of maximising control. His passing ability is exceptional, and he continuously aims to progress transitions. Despite his relative inexperience in the senior ranks, he sits in the 88 percentile for pass completion % and progressive passes completed, with 3.25 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes.
Os Encarnados crave a footballer who demands attention, and in Neves, they have a midfielder who will not shy away from his duties. He ranks in the 99 percentile for balls received and progressive carries with a staggering 53.99 carries per 90 minutes. His intelligence on the ball is exceptional, and he positions his body for the benefit of the side. On average, he draws three fouls per 90 minutes – propelling him into the top 2 percent amongst the game’s elite divisions.
Such is the world recognising the skillset of this phenomenal young player that his accelerated rise to the heart of Benfica’s midfield received a nomination for the 2023 Golden Boy Award. A 36th-placed finish was an extraordinary accomplishment for a player with only 27 Primeira Liga appearances. But with widespread recognition comes attention from rival clubs, and the allure of inflated transfer fees has become an all too familiar topic for As Águias.
We have already touched on Chelsea’s acquisition of Fernández, but this was only one in a long list of high-profile departures. Household names such as Ederson, Gonçalo Ramos, Rúben Diaz, Darwin Núñez, and João Félix have all set sail for alternative pastures, with multi-million contracts an extensive talking point. Given the financial constraints of Portugal’s reigning champions, the possibility of further departures is an unfortunate expectation.
Recent reports have suggested that the highly-sought midfielder is on the radar of Premier League giants Manchester United. Given that Neves has recently penned a new deal that runs through to 2028, a staggering release clause of £103m would set the starlet amongst the highest transfer fees in the history of British football.
The future of this talented teenager from Tavira is unknown, but his undeniable ability is emphasised with every passing week. Benfica’s partisan support has taken him to their hearts, and who knows, maybe this boy desires to write his name into the halls of Estádio da Luz and replicate the glory days of years gone by – with the ambition to be labelled ‘O Glorioso‘.
By: Shaun Connolly / @shaunconnolly85
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / SOPA Images / LightRocket
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