23 Under 23: Ruben Neves – Porto’s diligent dragonborn record-breaker

23 Under 23: Ruben Neves – Porto’s diligent dragonborn record-breaker

The first thing anyone needs to know about Ruben Neves is that he has played the same holding midfield role for Porto ever since he joined the club’s youth team at the age of eight.

When most kids dream of scoring goals, beating a man or making a match-winning save, little ol’ Ruben was already treating football for what it is: a tactical to-ing and fro-ing where calmness is rewarded and risk is punished.

17 Ruben Nevez graphic

Doing your job in a tidy and efficient manner, and playing with the team’s objectives at the forefront of your mind rather than individual indulgences, hardly screams “tomorrow’s back pages today” but it’s exactly the sort of nuts-and-bolts approach that title-winning teams are built upon, and by which lasting football dynasties are established and maintained.

There are echoes of Sergio Busquets in his composed displays in the middle of the park and you always get the sense Neves knows the next three passes he wants to play before he delivers the first. Possessing vision, the sort of temperament that makes world-class managers giddy with excitement, and the nous to not only negotiate his way around a game at the highest level but boss it, he is a rare talent worth fawning over.

A wise head on young shoulders capable of keeping it neat and simple has never been more in demand. Talking to say something of substance rather than just for the sake of it has never been so important. The stylistic demands of the modern game dictate that having a disciplined central hub from which to control possession and launch attacks is not only advisable, at the top level it’s downright essential.

Neves is a player seemingly purpose-built for a game in which the pitch has become a more confined space than ever before; intelligence is the key and he has it in spades. He’s already the first name on Porto’s team sheet.

And yet his journey is only just beginning. He already has all the tools in his locker to be a force to be reckoned with for the decades to come, right at the top of his sport. Portugal have a fine tradition of creating outrageously refined talents at prodigious ages — Eusebio, Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo — and Neves looks set to follow a similar path, even if we might have to tone down the hyberbole-o’meter just a touch.

To put his rise into context, simply think of what you were up doing at the age of 18. Impressed now? Yep, thought so.

Career highlight so far

Neves is more than just an incredibly sensible and diligent young footballer and he holds the records to prove it. He made his Primeira Liga debut aged just 17 years and five months old against Maritimo. He scored in a 2-0 victory and picked up the man of the match award, becoming the club’s youngest ever league goalscorer in the process.

Five days later he became the youngest Portuguese player to ever feature in the Champions League, beating none other than Cristiano Ronaldo. At 18 years and 221 days, he became the youngest player ever to captain a side in the Champions League.

It says a lot that Gianelli Imbula, Porto’s marquee signing from Marseille in the summer of 2012, lasted just six months before he was sold to Stoke City after failing to displace Neves, such is the teenager’s influence and importance to his team. Having made his breakthrough during the 2014/15 campaign he has already featured for the first team over 60 times across all competitions and twice for Portugal.

Areas to improve

Score more goals, pure and simple. Despite possessing a fierce strike from distance, Neves has still only managed to bag just one goal in 37 league appearances or twice across all competitions. It’s not the attribute he’ll ultimately be judged on most, but it’s one that could take his game to another level, or at least see his profile rise and talent recognised and appreciated by more people than are currently aware of his name and what he does best.

Projected career path

Coming from an Iberian background, the natural career progression for a player who has excelled in the Portuguese league would be to make the move to either Barcelona or Real Madrid. You can certainly imagine that after an impressive Euro 2016 campaign with his country a hefty offer may arrive at Porto’s door in the hope of securing his services.

Atletico Madrid have marked themselves out as a European powerhouse here to stay under Diego Simeone’s leadership. With a manager well-versed in the tactical nuances of the cultured defensive midfield role, he could have no finer tutor to learn from, safe in the knowledge he’s guaranteed football at a Champions League heavyweight and in the mix for silverware season-on-season.

Chelsea have a fine tradition in the enforcer mould dating back to the days of Claude Makelele, Tiago, Jiri Jarosik… OK, perhaps not the last one, but the crowd at Stamford Bridge have been reared to pick out the finer details that are required in order to construct a truly balanced team over the past 15 years and Neves would fit in well.

He would command a fee in excess of £40m at present due to the holy transfer trinity of current age, future potential and by the very nature of playing for Porto, who are adept at securing top dollar for their talents whenever they place them in the shop window.

Neve’s style of play in five words

A deep-lying chess grandmaster

The next…

Fernando Redondo