Herenilson: Angola’s Underrated Midfielder

In Petro de Luanda’s first match of the 2016 Girabola (Angola’s first division) they gave a full debut to then 19-year-old midfielder Herenilson. Making his debut for Angola’s most successful club would have held great significance to him because he was born and raised in Luanda, the coastal capital city of Angola on 27 August 1996. 


Following Herenilson’s debut he retained his place in the team starting a total of 25 out of the remaining 29 league games. He also started two cup games. In the 2017 Girabola season he started 25 out of 30 league games and five cup games en route to Petro de Luanda capturing the Taça de Angola. 


The season after (2018) saw Herenilson reaffirmed his importance to Petro de Luanda by playing a key role in their domestic campaign and CAF Confederations Cup matches. He started a total of 26 out of 30 league games and all four of their CAF Confederations Cup fixtures. 


AfricanFootball - News and Stats about Herenilson de Carmo - 2019 ...

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The Girabola season was then changed from its usual format of a February start to September finish to an October start and May finish. This created the 2018/2019 Girabola season as opposed to the previous iterations which did not cross over two separate years.


In the 2018/2019 Girabola, Herenilson started a further 27 out of 30 league games. He also started all 11 of Petro de Luanda’s CAF Confederations Cup matches and in their three cup games. After an impressive 2018/2019 season which culminated in the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) he was shortlisted for the 2019 CAF Interclubs Player of the Year award, which is awarded to the best African-based African player. 


In Herenilson’s first four seasons in Petro de Luanda’s first team, they missed out on the title to perennial champions Primeiro de Agosto by the smallest of margins, the gap between the clubs never exceeding three points. 


This season (2019/2020) Herenilson’s position as a crucial component of the team suddenly changed. He only managed to start nine out of the 24 league games and made a further eight substitute appearances prior to the abandonment of the Girabola season on 30 April 2020.


His rotational role spread to Petro de Luanda’s CAF Champions League fixtures as he started two and was a substitute in two other matches. However, he did start both of their Taça de Angola games.


Herenilson did not make any appearances for Angola’s youth teams but after five months of first-team football in 2016 he was handed his Angola senior debut against Malawi in the COSAFA Castle Cup. Subsequently he has appeared in 29 more games for Angola including in the 2019 AFCON.


HERENILSON - Defensive Midfield (2018-19 season) - YouTube

Photo: YouTube


Overall, Herenilson has made 184 club and international appearances over the past five seasons. 

Position, Attributes and Style of Play


Herenilson has played as a defensive central midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation for both club and country. On occasions he has been assigned a box to box central midfield role as well. In his usual position as a defensive central midfielder, Herenilson is expected to protect the back four by holding his position in front of the defence and disrupting opponents play in the final third.


This involves reading the game and intercepting opponents passes, harassing opponents and winning the ball off them and positioning himself in the right defensive areas to capitalise on loose balls. In possession he is required to receive the ball from the defenders and retain possession by spreading the play to those in wide areas or keeping things simple by passing to the closest teammate.


He is only 1.78m but looks taller due to his gangly build. His lanky legs allow him to open up a long stride when running, enabling him to cover the ground effortlessly and drive past players on occasions with fluidity and ease. Throughout matches he is in perpetual motion and is never standing still which highlights his considerable endurance. In spite of his thin frame, in possession, he is not usually brushed off the ball by opponents. 


An effective defensive midfielder must be positionally disciplined. This means holding your position in front of the defense and allowing the play to unfold ahead of you. Instead of making runs ahead of the ball thereby vacating the space behind you. In turn, allowing opponents to exploit this space if the ball is lost.



Photo: YouTube


Herenilson has this defensive positional discipline as he generally occupies the spaces directly ahead of the back four, rarely enters into the final third of the pitch and only does so if the ball is passed to him and his midfield and attacking teammates are more advanced than he is. You will not see him making runs ahead of the ball into the final third when his team are in possession. 


The Angolan is an efficient and clean tackler when attempting to retrieve the ball from opponents. He utilises his long lanky legs to great effect to pinch the ball away from opponents without fouling them. A recurring tackle which he performs to perfection is when an opponent attempts to progress past him and just as it appears they have evaded his pressure he uses his either of his long legs, to wrap around the opposing player and win the ball from them. 


When defending transitions i.e. when his team loses the ball and the opponent is launching a counter attack, Herenilson is good at judging when to press an opponent and attempt to stop the counter-attack and when to retreat towards his own goal to help protect his team’s defence. This is vitally important as an error of judgment in these scenarios, specifically committing to a tackle and failing to gather the ball, can lead to danger for the defence.


In many situations when he does press an opponent, who is carrying the ball during a counter-attack, he does not dive in to win the ball or make reckless tackles which can be eluded. Rather his long strides typically allow him to keep pace with the player and he uses his arm to unsettle them and stance to force them into wide areas. As a result, this slows down the counter-attack, allowing more of his teammates to regroup behind the ball and any action the attacker attempts can be more easily defended. 


Being comfortable to control, dribble and pass the ball with both feet is a major asset in Herenilson’s game. He is happy to receive the ball with either foot and then dribble or pass with either foot too whether under pressure or not. This assists in building up the play from defensive and midfield areas of the pitch as he can create many different angles to receive the ball and pass the ball unlike players who always like to receive or pass the ball with one foot.


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There is at least a couple of occasions in most matches when he will receive the ball with his right foot on the right side of the midfield, assess the space in front of him, move into that space by carrying the ball across the pitch with his right foot, on occasions skipping past an opponent, towards the left side of the midfield.


He will then identify a forward run from his teammate on the wing, shift the ball towards his left foot and then play either a low through-ball into the path of the left winger or wing-back which splits open a gap between the opposition’s right back and right centre-back or he will loft a curled left footed pass over the head of the right back to where the left winger or wing-back is stationed. 


Herenilson is a sharp thinker when he receives the ball. He does not often dwell on the ball, instead he will take a couple of touches and move the ball on, make a one touch pass or take one touch then pass. This prevents opponents from closing him down and stealing the ball off him. As a defensive midfielder this is important because losing possession in the areas where he most frequently receives the ball will lead to the opponent facing the defence without any protection, increasing the possibility of conceding a goal. 


An area of Herenilson’s game which needs improvement is the consistency of his passing. He sometimes under-hits his passes which may be due to a lack of focus, lack of judgment in weighting the pass correctly or the uneven and rough pitches he usually plays on or a combination of all three.


This slows down attacks and disrupts the fluidity of the build-up play whilst also increasing the chances of an interception by the opposition. Looking forward, he needs to focus on consistently passing with purpose and precision, irrespective of the pitch conditions, to ensure they reach the intended target as quickly as possible.


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In some of the matches reviewed, Herenilson did not try to create space and an angle to receive the ball in deep areas. This forced the centre-backs to play more direct hopeful balls into the attackers many of which were unsuccessful. This may have been a tactical request by the manager who asked him to occupy spaces in front of the back four when they are in possession without creating separation from the opposition’s attacking midfielder or striker to receive the ball, as they wanted the centre-backs to play more long balls.


However, if this was not a tactical assignment he needs to work on using feints to trick the opposition attacker into thinking he will move in one direction but instead move in another direction creating the space needed to receive the ball from the defenders.


He can also glance over his shoulder to know where his closest opponent is then drop swiftly into the gaps between the opposition’s striker and wide player to receive the ball from the defenders as it is unlikely the opposition’s central or attacking midfielder would follow him into those areas of the pitch as it would result in noticeable gaps in the midfield which could then be exploited. 

Long-Term Potential


After watching Herenilson over a number of Girabola and CAF Champions League fixtures as well as 2019 AFCON qualifiers and 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, he has the ability to be a reliable player for a club in Europe’s top five leagues. 


Potential Future Clubs


Herenilson recently completed his fifth season with Petro de Luanda and it appears as if he has been agitating for a move. After four excellent seasons, there is no other reason why a player of his quality, who had been integral to them for years, would become a bench-warmer so quickly. Therefore, at the age of 23, the time has come for him to experience a new challenge.


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So, let’s take a look at two good clubs that Herenilson could join in the near future:


  1. Braga


Since the resumption of the current Primeira Liga (Portugal’s first division) Braga have maintained their fourth-place position. They have had a solid, if unspectacular season, and continue to retain their status as Portugal’s fourth best club after Lisbon giants Benfica and Sporting Lisbon as well as Porto.


At the moment they hold a three-point gap on the 5th placed side Rio Ave with a significantly better goal difference. It seems likely they will hold this position over maybe even overhaul Sporting Lisbon who currently occupy 3rd place. Both positions would provide them with the opportunity to play in next season’s UEFA Europa League. 


Braga’s squad has a noticeable lack of depth in the defensive midfield area. Presently they only have the on-loan João Palhinha as a specialist defensive midfielder. He has starred for Braga this season and is likely to return to parent club Sporting Lisbon this summer to take the next step in his career.


Palhinha: "Foi o SC Braga que me deu a mão numa fase menos boa ...

Photo: EPA / Hugo Delgado


This will leave them threadbare in this area of the pitch and needing at least a couple of new defensive midfielders to supplement their squad. Herenilson fits the bill because he has the technical ability, intelligence, athleticism and experience to handle a prominent role in the Braga side.


Joining a club like Braga would be the perfect step-up for him. He is reaching the peak years of his career and joining a club who are well-established in the Primeira Liga, who compete in European competitions regularly and where the expectations are tempered would give him the best platform to showcase his ability. 


Moving to Portugal, would be an exciting opportunity for Herenilson. He would have to cope with the demands of playing in a higher quality league alongside and against better players but in time he should be able to handle this. Also, as he comes from a country where Portuguese is the national language, this would help make the transition from Angola to Portugal smoother. 


  1. Torino


Torino have had an underwhelming season, finding themselves in 13th place in Serie A (Italy’s first division) only five points above the relegation zone with 10 games left to play. Barring an end of season collapse the likelihood of relegation is slim and they will remain in the top-flight of Italian football for another season. To avoid a difficult 2020/2021 domestic campaign and achieve a respectable top half finish they will be looking to enhance their squad in several positions. 


One of the key areas of Torino’s squad which will require investment is the defensive and central midfield positions. Their manager Moreno Longo usually deploys a 3-4-1-2 formation with two defensive midfielders in front of three central defenders.


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However, their current squad only has two defensive midfielders; one of whom is ageing, 32-year-old Tomás Rincón and the other French talent Soualiho Meïté who has produced a number of standout performances for the club and may transfer in the upcoming transfer window. Considering this, two new defensive midfielders will need to be recruited to provide the necessary competition and depth in this area of the team. Whether Meïté stays or departs, they should look to Herenilson as a suitable option for a defensive midfield starting or backup role.


Herenilson would give them added technical skills in deep-lying midfield zones, increased athleticism, dynamism and mobility compared to Rincón as well as greater tactical versatility as he has the passing skills with both feet to play what the Italians call the ‘Regista’ role, the aggressiveness plus the defensive positioning and awareness to be assigned a destructive defensive midfield role and, if necessary, deployed in a box-to-box central midfield position due to his physical capabilities which enable him to carry the ball past opponents in central areas. 


Transferring to Torino could be a great decision by Herenilson. They are a solid club in Serie A achieving numerous mid-table finishes over the last 10 years. Joining a club with such sound foundations would provide him with the stability he needs to perform effectively.


They would give him time to adapt to both Italian life and its football before throwing him into the first team starting line-up. This is important because being thrust into the first team too early before he had adapted fully could ruin or significantly harm his chances of being successful there. 


Alongside this, the tactical system employed by Torino’s current manager would jell with Herenilson’s specific set of qualities which should make a move to Torino more attractive to him. He performs best as a defensive midfielder in a double pivot and in their midfield, he could assume the same role beside either Meïté or Rincón. He could either act as the deep-lying tempo setter if played with Meïté or the more dynamic, aggressive midfield patroller if placed next to Rincón. 


By: Daniel Ajuh

Featured Image: @GabFoligno