Tiago Santos: The Portuguese Fullback Imposing Himself at Lille

Baller Review – Tiago Santos
Club: LOSC Lille
Nationality: Portugal
Position(s): RB
Preferred Foot: Right
Height: 5’9”/175cm
Age: 21
Strengths: press resistance, ball progression, dribbling, crossing, passing, security, tackling, ball striking
Areas for Development: aerial duels


From Rafael Leão to Renato Sanches, from José Fonte to Tiago Djaló, we’ve seen quite a few Portuguese players to make a name for themselves at Lille, and the latest player to do so is Tiago Santos. Born in Lisbon, Santos developed at Sporting’s academy before departing in 2017 after eight years, cutting his teeth at lower-tier sides Oeiras and Sacavense. He would return in 2019, spending two years at the Alcochete academy before heading for Cascais.


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Santos spent a year at Estoril’s U-23 ranks before being promoted into the first-team squad in the summer of 2022, and it didn’t take long for him to make an impact. He made his professional debut on August 19, 2022, grabbing the opener in a 2-2 draw vs. Rio Ave, and he would quickly emerge as one of the finest right backs in the Portuguese top-flight. He received the Young Player of the Month award in Primeira Liga for April 2023, racking up 5 assists in 30 league appearances.


He looked set to depart for Benfica in the summer after the reigning champions had an offer in the region of €5 million accepted by Estoril, only for Sporting to invoke “anti-rival” clause inserted into Santos’ contract when he joined Estoril, which stated that the Lions were owed €20 million if the player was sold to Benfica or Porto. Instead, he made the move to Lille for €6.5 million, departing Portugal for the first time in his career.


In the days where full-backs can be so influential in games, full-backs who can invert, overlap and defend are so valuable. Santos has all of those traits in abundance, and it’s enabled him to solidify his status as a a starter for Lille, who sit fourth in the Ligue 1 table and are vying to return to the UEFA Champions League. One of Santos’ ‘cherry on top’ attributes is his ball-striking. Being an inverted full-back, he often finds himself in position to shoot from outside the box taking 1.44 shots per 90 minutes (top 7% for all FB’s in the top 5 leagues).


Santos’ shooting technique is of real quality. Having a fullback who can score a goal out of nothing is just another threat to have in the team which a lot of teams are increasingly having but most still don’t. Inverting in the final third allows him to arrive in and around the box where he gets his shots off. He’s even comfortable shooting on his weaker left foot. Santos isn’t completely ambipedal, but he uses his left foot to good effect.

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He inverts in the final third to join part of the front line or create just behind it. Off the ball he presses well and recovers the ball high up the pitch to regain possession and sustain pressure on the opponent’s defence. When it comes to inverting as a full-back there tends to be 2 types. Inverting in the first phase and becoming a part of the midfield to create from deep, or to invert in the final third and join the front line. Santos actually does either depending on what the game requires.


Inverting to be involved in build-up play means that Santos can progress through the lines with his passing or carry through central areas. He’s very secure on the ball and even when wide, will look to pass through into central areas. With all that being said about operating as an inverted full-back, Santos can be a wide outlet too. Full-backs who offer all these threats are gold dust in modern systems, and there’s reason to believe that his unique attributes could earn him a big-money transfer soon.


Santos loves to take on players down the line, driving into the box to cut the ball back into the 6-yard box. The Portuguese right back has an explosive first step with good acceleration to beat his man on the wing. He excels at one thing in particular: his final ball. The weight of crosses from out on the wing is consistently accurate, allowing it to consistently reach the intended target and access the danger zones of the box.


The 21-year-old also has very good pass variance. You’ll see him in deep areas passing through the lines, playing long balls over the top, switches to the left wing. He’ll pass with his weak foot, wide crosses, half-space crosses, reverse passes. A very technical right back, Santos combines well with those around him. He loves to invert, but when Edon Zhegrova comes inside from the right flank, Santos will overlap and provide the width. Santos likes to go down the right flank playing 1-2’s with the right-sided midfielder and right winger.


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Defensively, when an attacker tries to take Santos on or there’s a 50-50, Santos will put his body in front of the ball to block the attacker’s path to it and then turn away from them. This way he wins the ball and retains possession of the ball. In 1v1 scenarios, he gets tight to the wingers to shot off any angles for players to find pass options or shoot even.


Santos is great at tackling because of how front-footed and engages with the FB early, less of a passive defender. Being only 5’9”, it does mean Santos struggles aerially but it’s not the most essential trait at FB. However, with some systems full-backs drop into a back 3 where they act as a 3rd CB where aerial ability is important. 

Tiago Santos’ on-the-ball ability is that of an attacker, reflecting his time playing as a right winger in Sporting’s academy. He’s so comfortable in central areas that he could even be an interior midfielder. The off the ball work rate, pressing intensity, press resistance, creativity from deep, progressive runs.


He is reminiscent of Tottenham fullback Pedro Porro in the way he inverts, his crossing ability and explosiveness down the right hand side, his ball-striking, tenacity in 1v1 situations, but also his quality on the ball. Like Porro, he’s a multi-faceted right back, and whilst he has a contract until 2028, it seems only a matter of time before he departs the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.


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Bayer Leverkusen could be looking for a replacement for Jeremie Frimpong should the Dutchman leave, whilst Atlético Madrid, Tottenham and Manchester United could equally be eyeing rotation for Nahuel Molina, Porro and Diogo Dalot. Should Barcelona choose not to pursue a permanent deal for Joao Cancelo, they could be tempted to add Santos to their squad as they look to fortify the right back position.


In his second season of professional football, Tiago Santos has taken his game to another level under Paulo Fonseca and cemented himself as a key figure in a Lille side that is pushing to return to the UEFA Champions League and that came within inches of reaching the UEFA Europa Conference League semifinals. At 21 years of age, it seems only a matter of time before he follows in the footsteps of Carlos Baleba, Sven Botman and Amadou Onana and becomes the latest player to depart Lille for a mouth-watering fee.


By: Ben Mattinson / @Ben_Mattinson_

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Lille