João Neves – The Definition of a Benfiquista by Shay Hicks

João Neves – The Definition of a Benfiquista by Shay Hicks

Player Bio:

Name – João Pedro Gonçalves Neves
Nationality – Portugese
D.O.B – 27.09.2004 (18 years old)
Height – 174cm (5’8″)
Strong Foot – Right
Current Club – SL Benfica
Position – CM
Value – €10.00m (via Transfermarkt)

Career Summary:

Benfica are a well-known producer of young talent, possessing one of the most successful and financially lucrative academies in the world. They have produced countless wonderkids, with many of them going on to play for the best clubs in Europe. As expected, their current crop of youngsters is already impressing fans worldwide, with the likes of central defender António Silva’s top-class performances and talisman Gonçalo Ramos’ hat-trick at the World Cup in Qatar. However, there is a good chance that the best young talent of this generation is central midfielder João Neves. In this report I will outline João’s rise through the youth levels at Benfica and explain why he is practically destined to play at the toplevel.

Born in the small Algarve town of Tavira, João would begin his footballing life with Benfica, joining Casa Benfica Tavira in 2012. Coincidentally, João’s father would work at the club as a coach around this time, but it was clear from an early age that João had earned his place. He would go on to spend 4 years at the Benfica Training Centre in Faro (alongside star striker and good friend Gonçalo Ramos), before eventually travelling north to Seixal and moving to the Futebol Campus at the age of 12. The midfielder would work his way through the ranks fairly quickly, being handed his Benfica u-15 debut as a 13 year old during the 2017/18 season. His contiuous efforts would be rewarded the next season, as he was given his first official academy contract in October 2018.

João signs his first academy contract (source – )

The 2018/19 season would see João continue to perform for Benfica, as well as his first taste of international football. Domestically, Benfica u-15 would enjoy a brilliant start to the season, winning their first nine matches. João would score three times during this run, including in his debut match, a 0-6 away victory over Estrela Vendas Novas. Benfica would maintain their stellar form until April 2019, when Neves would be one of six Benfiquista talents to be called up to the Portugal u-15 squad for some friendlies. Playing alongside several of his club mates including Hugo Félix and Diogo Prioste (the captain of the young side), João would make his debut at the end of the month, appearing as a second half substitution in a 2-0 victory over Macedonia. He would go on to make 3 further appearances for the u-15’s, twice as a starter and once as a late sub. Benfica’s form would drop off once their internationals returned to the squad, causing them to fall to a third-placed finish in the Nacional Juniores C behind Porto and winners Sporting CP.

Neves would take another step up during the 2019/20 season, making numerous appearances for the Benfica u-17s B-team. He would earn a single appearance for the first-choice team in late October, appearing in a 1-3 away win over Oeiras. Sadly this would be his lone appearance for the team, but he would still have many positives over the course of the season. In 16 appearances for the B-team, João would win all but two matches with his only loss coming against Sporting CP. The following season would be interrupted by injuries, but again Neves would show improvements on the pitch, going unbeaten in his 6 appearances for the u-17 and u-19 teams at the end of the 2020/21 season.

After a somewhat frustrating campaign the previous year João would come back with a bang and announce himself as a serious talent during the 2021/22 season. During this season he would log regular appearances for the u-19 and u-23 sides as they won multiple trophies. At the start of the season he would participate in the u-20 International Cup, playing the full match in a 1-0 win over Peñarol. Shortly afterwards he would play his first ever UEFA Youth League matches, appearing as a late sub in a 4-0 loss to Dynamo Kyiv and a 4-0 victory over Barçelona two weeks later. The latter would mark the start of Benfica’s successful Youth League campaign, although Neves would miss the final three matches of the run as he was sent off late on in a 3-2 win over Midtjylland in the round of 16. Whilst he was unable to contribute to his sides’ European success, João would help the u-23 side to achieve a second-placed finish in the Liga Revelação, finishing 4 points behind winners Estoril Praia. On top of his impressive club form, Neves would also provide a handful of performances for the Portugal u-19s, making his debut against Belgium at the start of the season and eventually appearing in nine total matches (including two appearances in the Euro u-19 Championship Qualifiers). Clearly João had made his presence known at Benfica, and this was reflected by a brief call-up to Benfica B, appearing as an unused substitute for a single Liga Portugal 2 match vs Coimbra.

Finally, we arrive at the 2022/23 season, a season which saw Neves go from a youth team standout to a first-team player, fan favourite and well-known wonderkid. João would begin his season jumping between the u-23s and Benfica B, starting all of the formers’ UEFA Youth League Group Stage matches. His first involvement with the senior squad would come during the Allianz Cup in November, making the bench twice but ultimately failing to find game time during the tournament. He would also be named captain of the Portugal u-19 squad, leading his side for the first time in a 2-1 win over Malta. Following his recent success, Benfica moved swiftly to extend Neves’ contract, handing him an improved deal until 2028 in December.

After all of his high-quality performances at the youth level, Neves would finally make his first-team debut for Benfica, something that must have been extremely rewarding considering that he had been with the club for just over a decade at the time. His first appearance would be a 1-minute cameo in a loss to Braga, followed up by several extremely short appearances from the bench (he would only manage more than ten minutes two times over eleven total substitute league appearances). He was also given three substitute appearances in the Champions League knockout stages, providing an assist in a 5-1 win over Club Brugge before being knocked out by eventual finalists Inter in the Quarter-Finals. Eventually João would be given a real chance to showcase his ability in the Liga Portugal in April, being named in the starting XI for the first time in a 1-0 win over Estoril Praia. Benfica were being pushed to the limit by second-placed Porto in the run-in to the final day of the season, so it would be understandable for a young player to struggle to step up and perform when it matters most. Instead of letting the pressure overcome him, João would stand up and help his side to win the title for the first time in three seasons. He would miss just one minute of action over the last six matches of the season, pushing his side to five wins and a draw as they won the league by just two points. Whilst his performances were solid throughout, undoubtedly the standout moment of this run would come in the dying minutes of the Dérbi de Lisboa.

With his side 2-1 down in the dying moments of the match, Benfica would win a free kick in a wide area upfield. Following a looped cross towards the back post, a header back across goal and a short scramble, João would latch onto the loose ball, have his first shot blocked, and then fire a shot into the roof of the net from inside the 6-yard box. It was truly a fairytale moment for the 18 year old to score his first senior goal at the most crucial time, and in the biggest game in Portugese football no less. The following week Benfica would defeat last-placed Santa Clara 3-0, giving João his first silverware in senior football.

Shortly after Benfica’s triumph, João would join the Portugal u-21 squad in Georgia for the European Championships. His debut would come in their first game of the tournament, playing 71 minutes in a 2-0 loss to Georgia. He would appear in each of Portugal’s four matches, helping his side to finish second in their group before being knocked out by eventual winners England in the Quarter-Finals. The tournament was ultimately a failure for the Portugese, although on a personal level João was able to win the Goal of the Tournament with his powerful volley in a 2-1 win over Belgium.

Key Dates in João’s Career:

2012 – Joins Casa Benfica Tavira
2016 – Moves to the Seixal Futebol Campus
16.10.2018 – Signs his first academy contract with Benfica
27.04.2019 – Makes his Portugal u-15s debut
03.09.2021 – Makes his Portugal u-19s debut
09.10.2021 – Scores his first International goal
06.08.2022 – Makes his senior debut for Benfica B
23.11.2022 – Named Portugal u-19s captain
21.12.2022 – Signs a senior contract with Benfica until 2028
30.12.2022 – Makes his debut for Benfica
21.05.2023 – Scores his first senior goal, a last-minute equaliser vs Sporting CP
27.05.2023 – Wins the Liga Portugal with Benfica
21.06.2023 – Makes his Portugal u-21s debut
27.06.2023 – Scores his first goal for Portugal u-21s

Key Moments:

For this report I have chosen moments from João Neves’ performances at the U-21 European Championships. These matches came against Georgia (21.06), The Netherlands (24.06), Belgium (27.06) and England (02.07)

João is a brilliant ball-winner, but what separates him from other DM’s is that he is always thinking ahead after making a challenge. In this instance he tracks back and makes a challenge in his own half. He is looking for the ball immediately as he turns, and with two England players moving towards him he secures the ball and plays a forward pass to a teammate.

In a similar moment to the previous one, João makes an important challenge in the centre of the pitch before moving to collect the loose ball. He then carries the ball forward before moving the ball to the left wing.

Thanks to his awareness, Neves is seemingly always one step ahead of the opposition. Here, he recognises a huge gap that he can attack into, so he runs into it and calls for the ball. Once he receives the ball, he takes a few touches before playing a whipped, bouncing cross towards the 6-yard box. The cross is accurate but the centre forward gets caught up in a physical battle with a defender and falls before the cross reaches him.

João’s output is primarily defensively, but he showed his pure striking quality with this goal against Belgium. The Portugese attacker looks to play a low cross across the 6-yard box, but it takes a deflection early and loops into the air. Neves arrives at the perfect time, setting himself well before smashing a volleyed shot past the helpless goalkeeper.

This last moment is a long one, but it shows just how effective João can be in all areas of the pitch. He first closes down a wide Netherlands player as he his first touch escapes him. João forces the player onto the touchline before smartly positioning his body between him and the ball. Once he has made the challenge he looks upfield for options, but once he realises he has none he elects to carry the ball forward himself. Once a Netherlands player runs towards him to challenge him, he takes a touch away from him and begins sprinting forward at full pace. The player is eventually forced to foul him, giving away a free kick in the process. Essentially João single-handedly turned a routine defensive stop into a free kick in much better field position for his side.

What’s Next?:

Yes, it’s the Benfica mystique, it’s coming in strong, it’s thinking about winning from the first minute to the last. That’s what we did and what we’ll continue to do. The important thing is not the individual, it’s the collective, it’s Benfica. I just want to make Benfica happy.

João Neves, when asked about Benfica’s tactics and identity. This quote came after a strong performance in a 1-5 away win vs Portimonense

It doesn’t take an expert to see that João Neves bleeds Benfica. He has been a Benfiquista for over half of his life. He joined the club officially at the age of 12 and played for a Benfica youth team before that, a team that his father worked for before he joined them. He has risen through every level of their youth ranks, leading his sides to countless victories and trophies along the way. Once he was given the opportunity in the senior squad, he did the exact same, giving everything he had to help his side finally win the Liga Portugal again. To be able to achieve the highest level of achievement for your boyhood club, and to do so as a teenager alongside a childhood friend such as Gonçalo Ramos, is a story that would usually be reserved for Hollywood. No matter where he goes next, João has etched his name into Benfica history forever.

In terms of ability, Neves is probably the closest thing you can find to a ‘perfect’ midfielder at 18 years old. Given his age it is impressive that he is so good at so many things. Defensively he more than holds his own in physical battles despite his smaller frame. He can make sliding or standing challenges equally well and is a very good communicator. When in possession he is very switched-on, constantly staying one step ahead of the opposition and routinely progressing play into the final third with his passes. Even in attack, he has shown that he is capable of providing a goal or assist when it matters most. It is honestly incredible to think of what João could become in just a few short seasons.

Many clubs have been rumoured to be interested in João, with the most concrete links coming from Manchester United. Given that Erik Ten Hag has been given the freedom to pursue players demanding high transfer fees in the past, there is a good chance that they wouldn’t be put off by Neves’ current buyout clause (rumoured to be around €60 million currently). However, there are talks of Benfica looking to extend João’s current contract, and in turn push his release clause up to €100m, which could push away any clubs that have already spent a large amount of money during the current transfer window. Presumably the hefty new release clause has been inspired by the transfer of Enzo Fernández to Chelsea for a similar transfer fee. Whilst we are extremely unlikely to see any club spend nine figures on an 18 year old, João would still command a very high fee if any club were to pursue him. Considering his impressive breakthrough at the end of the 2022/23 season there is a good chance that any of the biggest teams in the world could take a shot at signing Neves in the near future. Considering Neves’ sky-high potential as a box-to-box phenomenon, who can blame them?

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