Tom Kundert profiles the teenage midfielder who's already the first name on Julen Lopetegui's teamsheet...
The 60-second story
- Date of birth: March 13, 1997
- Place of birth: Mozelos, Portugal
- Height: 5ft 11in
- Position: Midfielder
- Current club: Porto (43 apps, 1 goal)
- International: Portugal U21 (10 caps, 2 goals)
Every season, a raft of young footballers leap to the attention of talent scouts and observers with eye-catching performances. What makes Ruben Neves a case apart is a level of consistency that is completely unbefitting of a footballer of his tender years.
The 18-year-old has been so unfailingly good since beating off fierce competition to claim his spot in Porto’s starting XI that startlingly little was made of the fact that, a couple of weeks ago, he was handed the captain’s armband by manager Julen Lopetegui. Still a teenager, Neves had become the leader of two-time European champions FC Porto. And most notably of all, it passed off with little fanfare, as if it was the most natural decision in the world.
Blessed with perfect positional sense, Neves also possesses excellent vision and speed of thought, as well as just the right amount of controlled aggression. Put simply, the youngster is a perfect example of what the Portuguese call a “pre-destinado” – which can be translated simply as “born footballer”.
Why you need to know him
He would subsequently play in Porto’s Champions League qualifiers, breaking another record - previously owned by Cristiano Ronaldo - as the youngest ever Portuguese footballer to play in Europe’s foremost club competition
Neves exploded onto the scene a little over a year ago, when new Porto coach Lopetegui called him up to train with the senior squad in pre-season despite the fact he had only turned 17 three months earlier.
It was an even bigger surprise when the Spanish coach, who made his name nurturing many top talents at U19, U20 and U21 level in his homeland, chose him as a starter in Porto’s opening league game against Maritimo, especially as Porto had spent millions on a rebuilding job that summer. How did Neves respond? With a man-of-the-match display, becoming Porto’s youngest-ever goalscorer in the league to boot. He would subsequently play in Porto’s Champions League qualifiers, breaking another record – previously owned by Cristiano Ronaldo – as the youngest-ever Portuguese footballer to play in Europe’s foremost club competition. On Tuesday night he went one better, becoming the competition's youngest-ever skipper against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
In total, the midfielder made an impressive 37 appearances in 2014/15 but Neves has upped his game further this term. Despite competing for a spot in Porto’s midfield with record signing Giannelli Imbula, full Portugal internationals Danilo and André Andre, and Mexico’s dynamo Hector Herrera, most Porto fans would insist Neves should be the first name on Lopetegui’s teamsheet.
Neves oozes intelligence. His innate positional sense, ability to read the game and tactical awareness means he is always involved in the play and, like all great players, he seems to have more time on the ball than the mere mortals around him. He also possesses an acute awareness of what is needed at each particular moment, as well as flawless technique to solve every problem with the correct solution.
His impeccable passing, well-judged use of a moderately aggressive streak and dangerous shooting from distance are particular features of his game, but it is his unremitting consistency – an almost total absence of mistakes – that is Neves's biggest asset.
Although a discount must be made given he is a holding midfielder, Neves’s dearth of goals could be improved upon, especially as he possesses a powerful and accurate shot. The teenager has scored four times for Portugal's U17s and U21s, but hit the net just once in 43 appearances for Porto.
Luís Castro, FC Porto B team coach: “People talk about his technical and tactical talent, but Ruben Neves has extraordinary talent in terms of his mentality. He plays the game with incredible calmness and knows what each passage of play asks of him.”
Did you know?
Since beginning his trajectory at Porto in 2005 as an eight-year-old kid, Neves has never budged from the same holding midfield role. “He always played in that key position, was highly focused and a natural leader. He’s not an exuberant lad but when he speaks everybody listens to him,” said Porto youth coach Jose Guilherme.
What happens next?
The Jorge Mendes-represented (who else?) Neves has been increasingly linked with moves to Europe’s very biggest teams. Juventus and Real Madrid were among the first clubs reported to be tracking him, while Jurgen Klopp’s recent appointment as Liverpool manager led to a torrent of articles claiming Neves was among his top targets.
Asked about the speculation last week, Neves insisted he was in no rush to leave Portugal: “I’m not going to talk about foreign teams. I’m focused only on this stage of my career.”