Functionality, the ability to perform a range of tasks well, is an underrated attribute in elite footballers. If a player is known for their capacity to thrive in different positions, roles, or systems, they’re patted on the head and praised for their utility, their aptitude at meeting the whimsical demands of their coaches.
As a result, the world’s best footballers are known for other things – perhaps their skill, vision, or technique. Utility players, though always beloved by their club’s supporters, are very rarely celebrated in the same terms.
Philipp Lahm, one of the best players of his generation, was lauded – for the most part – on account of his chameleonic nature. Whilst moving seamlessly between full-back and defensive midfield always captured the imagination of his audience, his ability to read the game, slow it down in his mind, and execute the perfect response rarely did.
Ultimately, functionality is unappreciated because football’s most functional players make the sport look so simple. They draw spectators in with the sophistication of their performances and slip under the radar thereafter, resurfacing with back-page splashes only when they do something sublime.
Like when Ruben Neves introduced himself to the Championship by striking a beautiful, curling effort into the top corner from 30-yards in 2017.
Or the time he brought a bouncing pass under his spell, readjusted his positioning, and arched a cheeky shot past David De Gea from 20-yeards in 2019.
Or the occasion he tore Leicester’s defence apart with a line-breaking pass to help Wolverhampton Wanderers score in the 93rd-minute several months before that.
You see, Neves, who is still only 24, rarely dominates the headlines but is the kind of player who probably should. He’s a mercurial talent, an athlete with the ability to achieve ridiculous feats frequently while retaining the functionality that endears him to his coaches, teammates, and a growing mass of admirers.
Although Neves became a star thanks to his magical moments, he’s the subject of such intense transfer interest due to his versatility – of which he’s demonstrated in bucketloads since joining Wolves in 2017.
In his age-20 season, Neves dominated the Championship. The Portuguese international made 42 appearances for his new club, scoring six goals and registering one assist – although that doesn’t quite capture the extent of his brilliance throughout the campaign.
“It was the right decision for my career,” Neves said of his transfer to Wolves a month after his arrival. “A footballer’s career is short and I have to make the most of all the opportunities that I get. I had the chance to come and play here, to get more minutes, something that wasn’t happening at Porto, and so it was a professional decision.”
Until 2016-17, Neves’ path to stardom was fairly straightforward. He progressed through Porto’s academy system, rose to the first team aged 17, and made 24 appearances during his rookie season. He built on his solid start to life as a professional in 2015-16, amassing more minutes (1,240) – albeit in fewer appearances (22) – than the season before.
It was only in 2016-17 that Neves’ trajectory tailed off, as Nuno Espirito Santo chased the Primeira Liga title in vain. The Portuguese international made the fewest appearances and starts of his fledgling career, dampening speculation of a transfer to a Champions League club in England or Spain. Instead, he landed in the Championship, a division he and his new teammates quickly outgrew.
Neves’ style in 2017-18 was flashy. He wasn’t weighed down by defensive responsibilities and operated with childlike freedom as a result. It was like he was playing a video game with the difficulty turned down, it was fun for a while but everybody, including his head coach, understood it wouldn’t last.
In his three Premier League seasons under Nuno, Neves played a little deeper and was instructed to shield the space in front of Wolves’ back-three. The style of the Mozelos-born midfielder’s passing also changed, with short, intricate passes replaced with sprayed distribution to the flanks.
Most importantly, though, Neves grasped the opportunity to play a key role in the Premier League with both hands. Of the 152 top-flight games Nuno coached for Wolves, Neves appeared in 147 of them.
Ever impressive, the 24-year-old proved himself at the elite level in a highly-transferable role and re-affirmed the box-to-box credentials he built up during his time with Porto, making him an increasingly attractive transfer target for the likes of Manchester United.
Neves’ performances in 2021-22 under Bruno Lage, Wolves’ new head coach, have only served to inflate his stock further. Although the West Midlands outfit still operates in a 3-4-3 of sorts, Neves’ role has changed significantly.
Through the first half of the Premier League season, the 5-foot-10 playmaker has made his defensive actions higher up the pitch than before, completing the same number of tackles in the final third (5) as he did in the entirety of 2018-19.
A similar point could be made of his pressing, which takes place in the opposition’s half with increasing frequency.
It is, however, on the offensive side of Neves’ game that recent changes are most pronounced. He’s already attempted more dribbles than last season. He’s also taking more touches in the attacking third per 90.
All in all, Neves is enjoying life under Lage and will have a key role to play for Wolves if they are to secure a place in Europe for next season.
“I think we’re doing a fantastic job and we will continue to think game by game, how we have done until now and evolve even more,” Neves told Record.
“We have a young squad that needs to gain further experience but it would be perfect because I have grown to love Wolverhampton, it is a club that is very present inside me which is how it should be.”
“Being able to play in the Champions League and being able to compete against all the clubs is probably the main goal of every player, and for me it’s no different… if I was to return to playing in the Champions League with Wolves, it would be one of the highest points in my career, because of the love I have for the club, for the city and the fans – I think it would just be perfect.”
And that sums Neves up. He’s capable of scoring absurd goals and completing audacious passes, but the crux of what makes him an elite talent is his functionality.
He prospered under the spotlight for Porto as a teenager. He then dazzled in the Championship with Wolves, before settling into a more defensive role following their promotion to the Premier League.
However, only under Lage’s stewardship has the extent of Neves’ potential cut through – simply because the 45-year-old has allowed him to demonstrate his versatility at the highest level.
Since landing in English football four-and-a-half years ago, Neves has excelled as a defensive screener, deep-lying playmaker, and box-to-box threat. His latest evolution, occupying higher sections of the field on top of his defensive work, adds another string to his already impressive collection of bows.
Neves has mastered the art of simplicity while retaining his magician’s touch. Although his stardom rests on his long-range goals, it’s his water-like ability to slot into any role or system that makes him special.
In other words, he’ll be remembered for his back-page moments because consistency and functionality remain underrated attributes in the football world, but that doesn’t make the Wolves and Portugal midfielder any less of a shining star.
By: Luke James / @LukeJames_32
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Pool – Getty Images
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