Rúben Neves and João Moutinho: a midfield partnership as good as any in England

Rúben Neves and João Moutinho: a midfield partnership as good as any in England

“These two Portuguese boys, they are both the kind of player that likes to bite, that likes to short distance, to press, they don’t give long time for you to have the ball, to turn, one touch, two touches, you don’t have much of that.” José Mourinho was full of praise for compatriots Rúben Neves and João Moutinho after their influence in Wolves’ draw against Manchester United this season. Similarities between the duos’ careers thus far are commonly noted, with both players formerly of Porto and hailing from Portugal. 

Porto, deemed one of Portuguese football’s big three, impressed throughout Moutinho’s debut campaign. He was influential in a team that achieved an unprecedented treble, with a Taça de Portugal, Europa League and an undefeated Primeira Liga season following consecutive league successes.

 “When I was younger I saw Moutinho playing and he was very good. He was a reference for me as a ball boy and now to play with him, it is unbelievable.” Rúben Neves was merely an academy prospect throughout Moutinho’s spell for Porto, but he benefited from the ingenuity of his compatriot. Moutinho’s eventual transfer to Monaco ensured an opportunity for Neves emerged at Portugal’s Dragões, with the side lacking a central-midfielder confident in possession.

Neves defied expectations and became the youngest ever Primeira Liga scorer, aged 17 years and five months. “It was my first game for Porto and it was incredible. It was a corner which they cleared and like usual I was on the second ball, and I shot with my first touch which was really good – a dream.” He achieved further records when, only five days later, he made his Champions League debut, becoming the competition’s youngest ever Portuguese player. “It’s the best in the world, every player wants to play in the Champions League. I played against some of the best players and it helped me to grow as a player.”

He had such undoubted quality at a young age, which compensated for his lack of experience. “Being young is a condition, not a sin.” Julen Lopetegui, Neves’ former Porto manager, encapsulated early impressions of the midfielder and comparisons to Moutinho were rife, both central-midfielders often praised for their technical qualities and pressing capabilities. 

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Neves accumulated further records in the following season’s Champions League, becoming the competition’s youngest captain, aged 18 years and seven months. He was rewarded for his maturity with an eventual national team call-up – as a replacement for Moutinho. Moutinho hadn’t been forgotten amidst the rise of Neves, however, and was flourishing in the city-state of Monaco. He featured in a side that appeared regularly in the Champions League, having previously not qualified for nine consecutive seasons.

Both influential at domestic level for their respective clubs, only Moutinho was seen as a viable candidate for a spot in Portugal’s 2016 European Championship squad as they surpassed all expectations and were crowned champions. Moutinho’s stock soared after helping his nation to its first major honour and continued to rise after a successful campaign at club level.

Monaco defied the odds and had arguably their greatest season in recent memory, with a first Ligue 1 title in 16 years coinciding with an emphatic Champions League campaign that resulted in a semi-final ousting. Credited as one of Europe’s best midfielders and immortalised in Portuguese history, Moutinho had set an almost unattainable standard for Neves. 

Neves had struggles of his own after an admirable couple of seasons at Porto; his game-time had significantly reduced and his career had stagnated. It was an unlikely outfit that eventually rejuvenated his career, as Wolverhampton Wanderers offered the midfielder a lifeline.

Wolves had recently been bought by Fosun International Group, who’d invested heavily in the club to ensure success. Wolves’ on-field investments are commonly influenced by notorious football agent Jorge Mendes, who acts as an advisor for the club. Mendes has further clientele, however, and was influential in the club’s hiring of head coach Nuno Espírito Santo and later Neves. 

Neves arrived in the Championship for a costly £15.8m and some doubted his ability to adapt despite his enhanced reputation. Critics were quickly silenced with Wolves and Neves securing promotion with a club-record 99 points, ending a six-year absence from the Premier League. Instrumental in the success, Neves was nominated for the Championship Player of the Season award, losing out to Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon. Neves, however, was awarded a trio of club awards – Player of the Season, Players’ Player of the Season and Goal of the Season.

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Speculation was rife throughout the summer linking Neves with a move away from Molineux, but the midfielder instead signed a contract extension with the club until 2023. Wolves ensured stability for Neves, who’d struggled for minutes throughout his final campaign at the Estádio do Dragão, retaining one of the brightest midfield talents in Europe along the way.

“Ruben is thoroughly deserving of his new deal,” Wolves sporting director Kevin Thelwell told the club’s official website. “He has been an absolutely outstanding addition to the squad since his arrival last summer.” Neves’ new deal wouldn’t conclude the club’s fine business, with Wolves confirming the signing of João Moutinho for £5m following a deal for compatriot Rui Patrício.

Signings of Moutinho, Patrício and Neves’ stature were a real statement by Wolves, considered a genuine threat under Nuno’s leadership prior to this season. The manager had previously benefited from coaching at Porto from José Mourinho, before eventually taking the reins at the Estádio do Dragão. “At Porto, under Mourinho, we won everything with a fantastic group of football players. Mourinho built that. He made us succeed, won everything. This has a big impact,” Nuno told the Coaches Voice,

“But I learned a massive amount from my time there. First of all that a draw was not something that you considered as good. As a coach, that makes you grow. You have to win every game, and you work 24 hours of your day towards that. Nothing else happens in your life. You cannot relax. It is all about winning, and that pushes you, makes you stronger.“

Nuno instilled this philosophy and winning mentality into his Wolves squad throughout its Championship campaign and the additions of seasoned professionals such as Moutinho and Patricio have only further enhanced his impact.

Nuno’s philosophy is evident: Wolves have flourished this season, with Moutinho and Neves influential figures within the side. They have been formidable in central-midfield, both proficient in possession with an impressive array of passes and close control. The club have benefitted from the duo’s composure and it’s allowed for surprise victories over Chelsea, Tottenham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s rejuvenated Manchester United.

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“We’ve played already many games against top teams where we have shown that we don’t change our identity,” Nuno explained, “We are trying to build something, so when you try to build you do not look at the game like, what is the best way to get a result. No, you look at what is the best way for you to compete against these teams. If you have to defend and have less of the ball it does not mean that you are not trying to win the game.”

Nuno’s attacking intent is evident, though he isn’t naive enough to ignore the defensive duties required of his squad. Fortunately for Nuno, in Moutinho and Neves, he has two midfielders capable of pressing with intent and orchestrating counter-attacks. 

“We know what the coach wants. We need to continue to work like that every week – play our football and do our best.” Moutinho explained. “We work all week in training to control the match, with or without the ball. We try to do in the game what we train all week for and we’ve been doing it. Sometimes we can’t win but we need to continue with the way we play.”

Moutinho embodies the philosophy bestowed upon him from Nuno and this has benefited Neves. “It’s very good to play with João, he’s a very experienced player, very smart, very intelligent and it’s easy to play with him,” Neves said. “I want to learn with him because he’s a great player. I’ve learned a lot, he’s played in the Champions League and won the European Championship.”

Neves denies having an influence on his teammate, however. “I don’t think so!” Neves said. “He’s a very good player and we can learn every day. As a team we’re learning with each other – it’s very good for us to have a player like João.”

Neves is capable of replicating a career as illustrious as his compatriot, who’s become an invaluable mentor for his midfield partner. They may be at differing stages of their careers, but João Moutinho and Rúben Neves will undoubtedly continue to inject more euphoria amongst Wolves supporters until their eventual departures.

By Lewis Henderson @_lewishenderson

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