Portugal’s recent tradition of bringing through immensely talented wingers appears to be continuing with the likes of Bernardo Silva and Gelson Martins set to take the mantle from their illustrious predecessors. But in the past 3 years or so, the European Champions have also produced and developed a plethora of exciting and talented full-backs, with the likes of Cédric Soares, Raphaël Guerreiro and João Cancelo all vying for regular roles with the Seleção. Porto’s 18-year-old Diogo Dalot is a big hope for the future, but right now, all eyes are on 23-year-old Nélson Semedo, who has been signed as FC Barcelona’s long-term Dani Alves replacement.
The Catalan giants have splashed out around 30m on Nélsinho, as he is also referred to, to prize him away from Portuguese league champions Benfica. Like many contemporary full-backs, Nélson began his career further up the field as an attacking winger, before then-Benfica B coach Hélder Cristóvão saw that his crossing abilities and natural athleticism could help mould him into the archetypal modern right-back.
Nélson’s debut with the senior side came in 2015/16 under Rui Vitória, then in his first season in charge of Benfica, after taking over from Jorge Jesus, who had departed to bitter local rivals Sporting. One criticism that was at times levelled at Jesus was his failure to give youth a chance (a policy that saw them lose a young Bernardo Silva to Monaco). Vitória, perhaps partly due to the debt the club faced, changed that philosophy somewhat, and began to integrate some of the club’s outstanding youth products into the senior fold. Like his compatriot Renato Sanches, it did not take long for Nélson to be one such example to impress with the seniors.
After a positive pre-season, Nélson started the opening game of the 2015/16 season, as the defending champions thrashed Estoril 4-0. While the team’s beginning was somewhat patchy (an impressive win away at Atlético Madrid but also suffering defeats to Arouca and Porto), Nélson quickly drew admiration from followers of Liga NOS. He looked the part in the back four, aided by experienced heads such as Luisão and Eliseu, as well as fellow young talent, Swedish centre-back Victor Lindelöf, who would also force his way into the XI later in the campaign.
However, a knee injury struck Nélson in October 2015, ruling him out for much of the remaining season. This was poorly timed, as he had not only nailed down the right back slot for his club, but was also beginning to gain traction in the national team, having made his debut for the senior side on October 11th in a European Qualifying victory away at Serbia. Fortunately, the injury was not enough to derail his development, as he quickly re-established himself under Vitória at the start of the 2016/17 campaign, one that would firmly spark the interest of Europe’s elite.
It is of no surprise that a player of his attributes aroused such interest; as well as boasting blistering pace, Nélson is a very dynamic full-back, equally comfortably making direct runs in-field or staying wide to stretch the opposition. His incredible energy levels also give him the licence to roam forward, knowing he has the speed and stamina to drop back when required. The attacking prowess he possesses was invaluable in seeing Benfica winning their 4th straight league title last season, with Nélson chipping in with 12 assists across 47 games in all competitions, and 2 goals (including a memorable strike against Beşiktaş in the Champions League). Defensively, he is not lacking either, playing a huge part of a unit that conceded just 18 goals in the 34 league matches, the best record in the division.
The likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona were heavily linked throughout the season, as well as Manchester United (who would go on to sign his former team-mate Lindelöf), but it was the Catalans who won the race for the Portuguese jewel.
Barcelona have struggled to replace the legendary Dani Alves at right back but in Nélson, they have acquired a player not too dissimilar from the Brazilian, and one who has the ambition and potential to prove himself at the very highest level. Nélson’s former coach Cristóvão shares the belief that his former charge is more akin to Alves, and as such should be a better fit than Barca’s other rumoured target for the position, Arsenal’s Héctor Bellerin.
Cristóvão recently said of Nélson: “He is a boy who is very sure of himself. He’s very family-centric, he married his lifelong girlfriend who he knew from his old town (Sintra, Portugal), and he has a 1 year old daughter”. This grounded mentality should aid him in making what is clearly a huge transition in his young career, especially as he joins Barcelona at a relative crossroads.
Barcelona’s failure to capture either the Champions League or the domestic title last season leaves a club of their size under big pressure to re-establish themselves as the team to beat in Europe. Out has gone Luis Enrique, and former Athletic Club manager Ernesto Valverde has replaced him. Cristóvão believes this change in style should suit Nélson: “I think it’ll be slightly easier for Semedo with Valverde than with Enrique, or Guardiola. He gives defenders more freedom”.
The pressure on his shoulders is heavier than ever, as he faces strong competition to start for Barcelona with Aleix Vidal and Sergi Roberto. Nonetheless, Nélson Semedo embraces pressure instead of hiding from it, and he has the opportunity to not only replace Barcelona’s greatest ever fullback, but also lead Portugal’s latest golden generation in the World Cup next summer.
By: Jamie Farr/@FRfutebolJamie