Manchester City’s hunt for the elusive defensive midfielder – Part 3

In our search for the ideal successor to midfield bastion Fernandinho, City Xtra takes a look at the most likely candidates to complete Pep Guardiola’s long-term plans. Yet when no player can directly replace the Brazilian’s unique talents, is it time to consider a tactical alternative?

So far, our exploration of potential midfield options for Manchester City F.C. has seen us cast an investigative eye over some of the brightest prospects in European football, first looking to the German Bundesliga and then to France’s Ligue 1. However, sometimes what you’re looking for is just under your nose, with this piece striking just outside the proverbial front door.

Though not native to his league like our German pass master or Les Bleus blockbuster, the story of today’s player demonstrates a path much less travelled by — unless you happen to be Portuguese.

Indeed, this player has found himself at the very heart of a bizarre footballing cultural revolution in the midst of the Black Country. For in Wolverhampton, Portuguese players are flowing like a currency, aiding countryman Nuno Espirito Santo in laying waste to the English Championship last season before they made to jump to the Premier League in devastating fashion. Yet their best player, a midfield gem and firm fan favourite is…

Rúben Neves – Wolverhampton Wanderers, 21

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For fans of the Championship, the name ‘Rúben Neves’ is still likely to bring a mixture of fear and excitement to mind, depending on your footballing allegiances. Certainly, those who were involved in the 2017/18 campaign will be able to tell you one unified truth — this young Portuguese star is one hell of a player.

That’s all well and good, we hear you say, but what about in the Premier League? Well unless you’ve been living under a rock, Wolverhampton Wanderers are rather good. So good in fact, that they have gone toe-to-toe with each of the ‘Top 6′ on separate occasions, proving they are far from newly-promoted whipping boys. Indeed, establishing yourselves in the top half of the table is not just respectable, but rather remarkable for a promoted side. 

Of course, this does not quite tell the full story. Neither does the distinct absence of highlight reels that many fans may have been hoping for given the Portuguese midfielder’s uncanny knack for scoring absolute screamers last season. 


In truth, Neves has gone from a regular showstopper to flying under the radar since his rise to the Premier League. Besides an astounding league debut against Everton, where he scored a magnificent free kick and assisted the equaliser, he has taken a back seat, largely due to the arrival of another countryman in Portuguese icon Joao Moutinho.

In their distinctive 3-4-3 formation, Wolves utilise a double pivot in midfield, with Neves working in tandem with his compatriot Moutinho to share both the offensive and defensive workload. As a result, it is often the case that neither player takes all the plaudits, despite the chants around the Molineux often telling a different story.

Criticism of a Neves transfer to Manchester City thus finds weight in two areas.

The first is that it is uncertain how the Portuguese player would cope with a more isolated defensive workload at the highest level. Though Neves has notably played in a deeper solo role when out on national duty with Bernardo Silva for Portugal, there is still a lack of experience when it comes to functioning as a singular midfield anchor. For a player that often likes to be involved at the attacking end of the pitch, it could prove an issue should he be tasked with doing the dirty work.

There is some hope to be gleaned from Neves’s own character though. His trademark celebration, raising a finger to his temple, is a reference to his footballing idol, a man upon whose thinking game the Portuguese has modelled himself. None other than Andrea Pirlo.

This presents an intriguing potential solution to Manchester City’s midfield jigsaw. In this recent video by the geniuses over at Tifo Football, you can see that although similar, there are minute tactical differences between Neves’s hero Pirlo, and the model of Guardiola’s football, Sergio Busquets.

Although it is obvious to say Neves is a different player to Pirlo, his desire to play like the legendary Italian may present Guardiola with an exciting tactical alternative should he decide to opt for the Portuguese. Whilst some might say that City already possess a deep creative mastermind in Kevin De Bruyne, Neves’s tender years mean that he may yet be coached into a more primarily defensive player, whilst still retaining his outstanding creativity. Though hypothetical, the results could be exciting, to say the least.

Conversely, the second reason for caution surrounding Neves is that he simply may not be mature enough to step into the base of midfield for a top team in the Premier League. As previously mentioned, he has undertaken sole defensive midfield duties for Portugal, but it may not be enough to assure Pep Guardiola that he has what it takes to be a certain long-term defensive option. 

Further scepticism might be found in the performances of another deep-lying ‘regista’ player who has previously been likened to Andrea Pirlo – Jorginho. Having scorned City in a last-minute move to Chelsea this summer, the Italian has not found it all plain-sailing since arriving in the Premier League, his performances in defensive midfield leaving much to be desired (particularly when at the expense of N’Golo Kante). Despite the heavy interest in Jorginho a few months ago, Guardiola may have been watching Mauricio Sarri’s turbulence in London as a cautionary tale in employing a creative player in a deep position, and as such, may dent Neves’s hopes of a transfer to the Etihad.

All this aside, big sides like Liverpool and Juventus are said to remain heavily interested in the Neves’s signature, meaning his transfer fee previously quoted at over £80m, is only set to rise.

The biggest consolation may come from Wolves themselves though. Notably, manager Nuno Espírito Santo has indicated that the club has already been approached by a big club for one of their star players, but indicated that they stayed for personal reasons.

“[A big club already approached us] and the player is still here,” the manager said to The Express and Star. “Because he wants to be. The moment that it feels natural that you can’t stop these things anymore then okay. It’s natural. Things happen naturally.”

Though it does seem that Neves is destined for other things, the eclectic mix of adulation and education he receives in the heart of the Black Country may mean he feels he has not yet learned all he can from Nuno, Moutinho and the streets of Wolverhampton before he sets his sights on greater things.
From a City perspective, it might well be best if Neves can remain in Wolverhampton for a while longer. If the player and his club are able to resist a transfer in the coming windows, then he may yet evolve further still. City have been shown to occupy Neves’ mind when he told Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville on the Premier League’s launch show, stating that he was most looking forward to playing Manchester City at the Etihad. That fixture arrives Monday night, where he will have an opportunity to show what he is all about directly to those in the stadium.

 So for now, best to see how the young man continues to develop. But in future, who is to say another Portuguese reunion isn’t on the cards?

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City Xtra score: 7/10

Disagree with our critique? Reckon you’d give a different rating? Be sure to leave a comment down below!

In the meantime, tomorrow’s penultimate piece will take us back once again to France, where a tricky contract situation could lead to a surprise reunion in Manchester. One team is known to dominate proceedings in Ligue 1, but if given the choice, would it pay to take one of their players?

Previously in this series:
Manchester City’s hunt for the elusive defensive midfielder – Part 1

Manchester City’s hunt for the elusive defensive midfielder – Part 2

 

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