In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Benfica decided to go against the grain and reclaim what was rightfully theirs. After falling short to Porto in the league for the second time in three years, the club, in an attempt to curry favor with president Luís Filipe Vieira before the upcoming elections, engineered the biggest spending spree in the history of Portuguese football.
Éverton ‘Cebolinha’ Soares, Gilberto and Pedrinho arrived from Brazilian clubs Grêmio, Fluminense and Corinthians for a combined fee of €41 million, whilst Luca Waldschmidt arrived from Freiburg for €15 million. Jan Vertonghen joined on a free transfer following the expiry of his contract at Tottenham, Jean-Clair Todibo joined on loan from Barcelona, Helton Leite arrived from Boavista to provide competition between the sticks, and Darwin Núñez joined from Almería for a club record fee of €24 million.
Perhaps most excitingly, Jorge Jesus returned to Benfica after a near-perfect campaign at Flamengo, replacing Bruno Lage with the promise of returning Benfica to their place atop the hierarchy of Portuguese football. However, they failed to hit the ground running as PAOK eliminated them in the UEFA Champions League qualifying phase, with a goal from Andrija Živković — who Benfica had signed in 2016 before releasing him just a week prior to the game — making the difference for the Greek club.
The failure to qualify for the Champions League put plenty of financial pressure on the club, who were forced to sell Rúben Dias to Manchester City with Nicolás Otamendi heading the other way, and while they attempted to reinforce the defense with the signing of Lucas Veríssimo, the deal collapsed and they were forced to wait to January to sign him from Santos.
The signings helped complete one of their desired objectives, with ‘LFV’ defeating João Noronha Lopes in the October elections to continue his mandate that he has held since 2003. However, back-to-back league defeats to Boavista and Braga soon followed, and as injuries and COVID-19 took their toll on the squad, Jorge Jesus struggled to recreate the magic that he had whipped up in his previous spell at the Estádio da Luz.
A dismal start to 2021 saw Benfica take nine points from nine games in addition to losing to Braga in the Taça da Liga semifinals and Porto in the Supertaça. The club were eliminated from the UEFA Europa League in the Round of 32 by Arsenal, finished third in the league, a whopping nine points away from crosstown rivals Sporting, and lost to Braga in the Taça de Portugal Final.
The audacious free spending of yesteryear has resulted in a crushing hangover for Benfica; whilst they have sought to reinforce their midfield with the signing of Al Musrati, Braga’s asking price of €20 million has put a damper on those ambitions. They have been forced to face their sobering reality and tighten the belt; Pedrinho has left for Shakhtar for a fee of €18 million, whilst Franco Cervi is close to a move to Celta de Vigo for €4.5 million and €1.5 million in bonuses.
March 11, 2020: Pedrinho becomes Benfica’s first signing of the summer window, with the Águias paying €20m and bringing him in on a five-year contract from Corinthians.
June 9, 2021: Pedrinho becomes Benfica’s first sale of the summer, joining Shakhtar Donetsk for €18m. pic.twitter.com/RvQCZ1asPH
— Zach Lowy (@ZachLowy) June 9, 2021
Rodrigo Pinho has joined on a free transfer after his tally of 15 goals helped to keep Marítimo in the top-flight and lead them to the quarterfinals of the Taça de Portugal. Meanwhile, Gil Dias, after completing his seventh loan spell in five years, has finally departed Monaco on a permanent deal and joined Benfica for an initial fee of €1.5 million, as well as a bonus of €0.5 million for each year that Benfica qualifies for the CL in the next five years.
A winger by trade, Dias has deputized as a wide midfielder as well as a fullback on both flanks, recently playing as a right back and a left back during last season’s loan spell at Famalicão, and he could be an option at wingback if Jesus persists with his three-man backline. Moreover, his arrival allows Benfica to sell Nuno Tavares to Arsenal for a reported fee of €8 million rising to €10 million with add-ons. In doing so, Benfica would swap backup left backs while gaining an initial profit of €6.5 million.
Born in Lisbon to Cape Verdean parents, Tavares began his development at the modest club of Casa Pia before joining Sporting’s academy in 2010, where he would remain for three years until his mother decided to withdraw him from the Alcochete academy so that he could focus on his studies, both academic and musical. She reached an agreement with Casa Pia youth coach João Silva, who would drive him home from training every day while also allowing his studies to take priority.
Former teammates of Nuno remember how he would haul his violin to practice, constantly having to balance his footballing dreams with his musical commitments. “He never hid the fact that he liked to play the violin, we all knew about his passion,” said Gonçalo Cabral, an ex-teammate of Nuno. “I remember leaving school and going to his school to take the van that took us to practice and he often brought his violin with him.”
In 2015, Nuno elected to close the door on his second chapter with Casa Pia and head for a bigger club. While Sporting offered to bring him back to the Alcochete academy, Nuno chose to head for the other side of Lisbon and join Benfica’s Seixal academy.
“I started playing in the Casa Pia band from a young age when I was 14 or 15,” said Nuno in an interview with Canal 11. “The club I was at sent a letter so I could leave early. If the school allowed it, fine; otherwise, I had to play until 6.30 pm and miss training. It was approved, people understood and twice a week I left early to go to training. When I saw that they were trusting me, I was given a chance at Benfica. Then I had to decide: or I’d take it the instrument or football. I opted for football.”
Bit by bit, the timid and lightweight youngster eventually put on muscle and developed from a winger to a fullback, playing alongside the likes of Tiago Dantas, Florentino Luís and Gonçalo Ramos in Benfica’s B team and Portugal’s U-19 side. Indeed, Nuno was one of Portugal’s bright spots from their underwhelming Toulon Tournament in 2019, impressing with his physicality, speed and stamina.
Nuno Tavares did quite well today despite Portugal’s loss to Chile. Calm in the tackle, effortlessly wins possession with his physique and strength. Tireless in attack as well, got up the pitch and almost acted as a second winger to overlap with Félix Correia. Promising LB. pic.twitter.com/ixT5tGufwu
— Zach Lowy (@ZachLowy) June 2, 2019
Whilst Bruno Lage’s midseason appointment as Benfica manager allowed several youngsters such as Florentino Luís, João Félix and Ferro to make the leap from Benfica’s B team to the starting line-up, Nuno would have to wait his turn. Nevertheless, the summer of 2019 saw him train with Lage’s first team, replacing the outgoing Yuri Ribeiro who joined Nottingham Forest on a permanent deal. In his debut at the Estádio da Luz, Tavares provided an assist in a preseason friendly against Anderlecht.
That was enough for Benfica to swiftly renew his contract until 2024, tying him up with a release clause of €88 million. A natural left back, Tavares was forced to deputize out of position on the right side of defense with veteran defender André Almeida and Nigerian youngster Tyronne Ebuehi sidelined due to injury. After impressing in a 5-0 win over Sporting in the Supertaça, his league debut came on August 10, 2019, as Benfica took on Paços de Ferreira at home in their Liga NOS opener.
Receiving a pass from Pizzi from 30 yards out, Nuno tried his luck and opened the scoring with a world-class golaço, curling the ball past Ricardo Ribeiro and into the left corner of the net. Two more assists followed as Benfica ran rampant with a 5-0 victory to kick off their campaign, whilst Nuno also impressed in the following match as Benfica won 2-0 against Belenenses SAD to continue their flawless start to the season.
However, his shortcomings were exposed two weeks later in O Clássico, as Porto won 2-0 in Lisbon. Porto’s organized, medium block helped to limit space in between the lines and exposed Nuno’s advanced positioning, with summer signings Luis Díaz and Zé Luís exploiting the space in behind the defense.
It proved sufficient for Lage to withdraw Nuno from the starting line-up in favor of a younger, homegrown fullback in Tomás Tavares, with Nuno returning to the B team whilst also occasionally giving rest to Álex Grimaldo in the domestic cup matches. He would have to wait another 10 months for his next appearance in the league, replacing Grimaldo after the Catalan suffered a ligament injury in his left knee in a 2-2 draw against Portimonense on June 10, 2020.
This injury opened the door for Nuno to play in his natural position of left back, and he took the opportunity by the scruff of his neck. The following match saw Mehdi Taremi open the scoring early on for Rio Ave, but Benfica found an equalizer via brilliant work from Nuno, who cut inside, played a deft one-two with Gabriel Pires, received on the overlap and fired a cross to Haris Seferović who converted in front of an empty net. The away side completed their remontada as Julian Weigl scored in the dying minutes of the match.
Perhaps that game summed up Nuno’s capabilities better than any article could; after a sluggish first half that saw him fail eight passes in the first 20 minutes, he helped change the game with an ingenious combination, turn of pace, and pinpoint cross. Indeed, Nuno completed 4 of his 10 attempted crosses, making as many successful crosses as the other players on the pitch combined.
🇵🇹 22' | Rio Ave 0-0 Benfica
— GoalPoint.pt (@_Goalpoint) June 17, 2020
As is customary for any 21-year-old player, Nuno is capable of going from making careless errors in possession and conceding goalscoring chances for the opposition, to single-handedly winning the game for his team in the space of minutes. His intelligence and decision-making are significant weaknesses; while he thrives on getting to the touchline and whipping in a cross, he struggles when going up against a compact side that forces him to stay composed on the ball and not give away possession.
Nuno is a player who makes risky decisions on the ball and often struggles to find his man in the first third, as seen in Benfica’s 4-3 loss to Santa Clara on June 23 where, instead of picking out a teammate and helping to kickstart a counterattack, he coughed up possession and allowed Anderson Carvalho to open the scoring before halftime. And while he is capable of picking out teammates with a cross, he needs to diversify his skillset so that opposing defenders are forced to worry about other things than just preventing a cross.
His biggest qualities are his speed, whether it be recovery pace or acceleration, as well as his physicality, stamina and his ability to hit the ball either with a cross or a long shot. However, his basic errors in possession, his positional mistakes and his lapses in concentration pose the question: is Nuno better off taking the step up to a Premier League side than he is spending a season on loan at a midtable Liga NOS team and learn the ropes with regular gametime, something he won’t be guaranteed with Kieran Tierney in the mix.
Arsenal are reportedly looking to offload Sead Kolašinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles in an attempt to overhaul their squad, which, combined with Tierney’s injury issues, should open the door for Tavares to get consistent minutes, even with the Gunners missing out on European football. Nevertheless, Mikel Arteta has the burden of polishing a raw gem, improving his decision-making and the consistency of his crosses, as well as getting him accustomed to the Premier League.
Apart from his physical attributes, Nuno’s combination of close control and acceleration can make him a very tricky dribbler to deal with. Although Mikel Arteta has used a four-man backline in most occasions in his first full season, he has proven capable of utilizing a back three with wingbacks pushing high up the pitch. This could get the most out of Nuno’s abilities whilst simultaneously limiting his potential errors in the first third of the pitch.
With Grimaldo struggling with injuries and suffering a dip in form, it seemed Nuno could be ready for a breakthrough season. After withdrawing Grimaldo for Tavares in a match vs. Lech Poznan on October 22, Jorge Jesus stated:
“It’s true that I really believe in Nuno Tavares, I think he will be a player for the future and for the Portuguese team. He’s not ready for that yet, he still has a lot to learn. Little by little we are giving him games, today I also felt that Grimaldo was having problems in defence, and I thought that Nuno Tavares would be able to beat the opponent physically. Grimaldo is very strong offensively, but he is not so strong at defending.”
However, Grimaldo retained his place in the team due to his superior attacking skills and his intelligence. While Nuno has the physical qualities to win ground duels and get to the byline before whipping in a cross, he leaves plenty to be desired when the option to cross is blocked. For every match against Standard Liège, where he held his own on both ends of the pitch, there is a Santa Clara match where he costs his team a goal.
Impressive performance from Nuno Tavares (20) today for Benfica.
Composed and well-positioned when dealing with Mehdi Carcela-González, confident and rapid going forward. Needs to maintain this level & improve his decision-making if he is to push Grimaldo for the starting spot.
— Zach Lowy (@ZachLowy) October 29, 2020
Putting Nuno in scenarios where he is encouraged to release the ball quickly and not have to think to make a decision will be just as important as working with him in individual training and helping him to rectify these elementary errors. He is a player that may very well find himself the target of managers who use him as a pressing trigger and seek to put him under pressure immediately after receiving the ball.
Apart from his struggles in possession, Nuno still leaves plenty to be desired off the ball. It’s why, despite Grimaldo’s deficiencies in defense, the youngster never managed to put pressure on the Spaniard for a starting spot. One only has to take a look at the second leg of Benfica’s Europa League Round of 32 fixture against Arsenal to get a clear idea of this.
Tavares came on for Grimaldo in the 85th minute and immediately made an impact, teeing up Darwin Núñez with a pinpoint cross that was blocked by Tierney. With the score tied up, Bukayo Saka received the ball on the right flank and shook free of Nuno before picking out Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with a pinpoint cross. Whilst it was brilliant work from Saka to set up the decisive goal, Nuno left him with far too much space to play the cross.
Despite his shaky sophomore season, Nuno has had no shortage of interested suitors: Newcastle, Southampton, Roma, Lazio, Napoli, Brighton, Villarreal, Burnley…it is clear that Arsenal are far from the only ones to overlook his basic errors on account of his potential to become a top-class player. However, they will be aware that his biggest weaknesses are mental — both on and off the pitch.
On June 4, a video showing Nuno and his barber was posted on Instagram and spread throughout social media. His barber stated, “This kid is the future, that fucking Spaniard [Grimaldo] will never leave for the kid to flourish.” Nuno responded, “If not in Benfica, it will be in another place.”
Nuno Tavares: "Se não for no Benfica, é noutro sítio."
— Cabine Desportiva (@CabineSport) June 4, 2021
Overall, Nuno Tavares remains a bright talent who, whilst still being far away from challenging Raphaël Guerreiro and Nuno Mendes for a spot in the Portuguese national team, has the qualities to be a success in the Premier League. At 21 years of age, he has still has plenty of resale value and will likely not take up as much space in the wage bill as Kolašinac, and he has proven capable of filling in at other positions such as left midfielder, right back as well as left back.
Arsenal are not getting a ‘sure thing’ as they would with Patrick van Aanholt or Ryan Bertrand, both of whom are available on free transfers, but if the Gunners’ history has taught them anything, it’s that free transfers can end up being costly risks. Nuno, unlike the aforementioned options, is not a Premier League-proven player, but his prime years aren’t in the rearview mirror; they’re merely approaching.
The Gunners have shown no reticiency to take chances on young, high-potential, albeit raw prospects such as William Saliba, Mattéo Guendouzi, Gabriel Martinelli, Konstantinos Mavropanos, and Takuma Asano, and with the prospective arrivals of Nuno Tavares and Albert Sambi Lokonga from Benfica and Anderlecht, respectively, that has shown little signs of changing.
A player who thrives at receiving the ball high up the pitch, charging towards the byline and whipping in a cross, Nuno Tavares’ potential is clear to see, but his fundamental errors of dribbling into traffic, coughing up possession in dangerous areas and stepping out too early to make a tackle can leave his team exposed. There are plenty of Seixal products who have thrived elsewhere despite not proving themselves first at Benfica, such as João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva, and Nuno has what it takes to be the next.
By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Octavio Passos – Getty Images