Football News

Why Arsenal and Liverpool could be chasing Portugal’s premium ball-playing CB

By CJ Smith

Why Arsenal and Liverpool could be chasing Portugal's premium ball-playing CB

Published: 14:45, 28 December 2023

Reports have emerged that both Arsenal and Liverpool will be looking to strengthen in defence in January and according to A Bola, Gonçalo Inácio is at the top of their list.

The Gunners are looking for a quality option to both rotate with and challenge William Saliba and Gabriel at the heart of their defence, especially with summer arrival Jurrien Timber out until at least the end of March with an ACL injury.

“At the moment, it is very difficult. We are really short,” he said. “We have positions that we have been very exposed for the last six weeks and hopefully we are going to get players back. In what condition and when?” Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta said recently, adding: “We will be prepared and we will try to make the right calls. If there is something that we can [do to] improve the squad and needs appear, and we cannot fulfil it with players here, we are always going to be open to do that because we want to be stronger.”

As for Liverpool, they lost Joel Matip for the season to a similar injury, while both their left-backs Andy Robertson and Kostas Tsimikas are on the treatment table, meaning centre-back Joe Gomez — who doesn’t exactly have a clean injury record — has had to provide cover on the flanks.

But why would the title rivals want to sign the 22-year-old Portuguese? These stats might tell you why.

A left-footed centre-back — a premium commodity in the world of football — Inácio has played more successful passes into the final third (104) than any other player in the Portuguese top flight so far this season. He also ranks first for successful passes into the opposition half (148) and passes completed in total (977).

Inácio won’t be a new name to most. Of course, he’s long been a popular centre-back choice on both FIFA and Football Manager games in recent years but in the real world, he’s following a strong career trajectory.

The defender’s breakthrough season came in 2020/21, starting 15 and appearing in a total of 20 Primeira Liga matches to help Sporting CP lift the title for the first time since 2002. Since then, his minutes have increased to the point where Inácio has started 13 of Sporting’s 14 league matches and five of their six Europa League matches so far this season.

Naturally when playing for such a dominant team — Sporting once again top the table — Inácio’s defensive numbers appear rather modest when compared with the rest of the league. However, there are a few key indicators to prove he’s more than just a ball player.

For example, Inácio ranks first among his teammates for interceptions (14) and possessions won in the defensive third (45), while he’s only been dribbled past six times. He also sits in the top three for other important metrics such as blocks (14) and clearances (29).

Inacio’s form has not gone unnoticed at international level, either. After rising through the youth ranks between 2017 and 2022 — representing his country at every level from U17 to U21 — the defender was given his senior Portugal debut in a 4-0 win over Liechtenstein in Euro 2024 qualifying back in March; months after being named in the 55-man preliminary squad for the 2022 World Cup.

Since then, Inácio has featured another four times for Portugal, even scoring twice in their 9-0 win over Luxembourg in November and providing a further two assists. That’s a direct goal involvement every 95.6 minutes at senior international level so far.

All of that makes it unsurprising that should Arsenal or Liverpool wish to go all the way for Inácio, they must first get past a reported €60m release clause. However, from Aymeric Laporte to Liverpool’s very own Virgil van Dijk, the Premier League has proven time and again in recent years how important a January arrival at centre-back can be.