Ninad Barbadikar looks at the players who could be the next to make the step up from the Primeira Liga in Portugal
This summer, five Primeira Liga players made the move away from Portugal for transfer fees worth a total of £188.5m. Darwin Nunez, the highly coveted SL Benfica forward was signed by Liverpool for £67.50m; on top of that, with add-ons included, his fee could potentially go up to £85m, making him Liverpool’s most expensive player of all time.
Others to make the jump this summer to the Premier League were Fabio Vieira, who joined Arsenal, and Joao Palhinha joining Fulham, while Nuno Mendes was bought by PSG after activating his release clause and Vitinha followed him there from Porto.
Over the years, the Primeira Liga has evolved to become a premium market for clubs around Europe from which to pick up talent. The traditional big three of Porto, Benfica, and Sporting continue to produce stars year in, year out for Europe’s elite to take advantage of, using a combination of excellent youth academies and astute signings of young players from South America. Portugal is an especially good cultural and linguistic fit for players from Brazil, but many others from the continent also feel comfortable using the Iberian peninsula as a stepping stone to the rest of Europe, something Portuguese clubs cleverly use to their advantage.
With the transfer window open until the end of this month, there is still plenty of time for Primeira Liga’s top stars to make the jump like Nunez and others.
Thanks to TransferLab’s ‘Best XI’ feature, we are able to look at the current slate of players with top potential in the Primeira Liga and those who may be picked up by bigger clubs with deeper pockets. After pressing some magical buttons and telling the TransferLab machine exactly what we want, we get the following list of players in a standard 4-3-3 formation, populated by those who have played over 900 minutes over the past 12 months. The players were also filtered by age, so these are the best U23 players in the league.
Furthermore, each position is filtered to all-round profiles, so we’re looking at all-round wingers, ball-playing centre backs and goalkeeper along with all-round fullbacks. In midfield, the profiles are one of each – box to box, attacking playmakers, and defensive all-round players.
So let’s take a look at a few names worth tracking for the future.
Recently acquired by Benfica from River Plate, Enzo Fernandez’s strengths as a ball-progressor and deep-lying playmaker are immense and in Roger Schmidt’s system at Benfica, he is easily the player with the best passing range at the club already.
In a handful of displays for Benfica, it is already clear why the club was keen on acquiring him.
Fernandez is 21 years old and is currently deployed as a deep-lying playmaker alongside the excellent Florentino Luis in a double pivot. It is easy enough to spot Fernandez on a football pitch. If you see someone intelligently positioning himself in deeper areas to receive the ball and make life easier for his team-mates, then you’ve probably picked him out already.
At River Plate, he had much more of a box-to-box role and was involved in attacking sequences alongside another exciting talent Julian Alvarez, who is now playing under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
Fernandez’s awareness of space and how to exploit it, either by his own movement or by passing it to his team-mates, is excellent. One such example is this beautiful flick to set up Alvarez against Sarmiento.
He is able to progress play by advancing the ball towards dangerous areas out wide or split opposition defences with his clever vertical passing. This is an especially impressive part of his game, and his ability to execute passes with the perfect weight and accuracy is excellent.
A quick look at his quantitative passing metrics shows how his numbers over the past 12 months are already standing out significantly as compared to his counterparts in the league, as one of the only midfielders that excels in both long-range progressive passes and high quality line-breaking passes.
Using TransferLab’s ‘similar players’ feature, we can see that Fernandez is nearly the most similar to Toni Kroos. This further speaks to his qualities as a central midfielder.
This is an example here of how he helps Benfica currently. The left-back Grimaldo has advanced further up the pitch, leaving centre back Morato short of options. But Fernandez is quick to drop deeper and demand possession of the ball so that he can switch to the right flank where Gilberto is already free.
He does this with immaculate ease and, thanks to his constant scanning of situations around him, it allows him to pick the best pass more often than not.
He is also capable of producing special goals from time to time. Benfica fans have already got an early taste of his penchant of shots from long range.
With more and more sides across the top five leagues transitioning towards possession-based systems, Fernandez is the perfect profile of midfielder to be signed. This piece even highlighted him as a Frenkie de Jong alternative. His already first-rate base level, and potential for improvement, show that he has a place in elite sides across Europe and it may not be long before teams come knocking on Benfica’s door once again.
Algerian international Yanis Hamache is an exciting full-back emerging from the Primeira Liga. He has already been linked with moves to bigger clubs and it is not too difficult to see why.
Marseille-born, OGC Nice youth product Hamache is left-footed and is much more of a wing-back than a traditional full-back. Playing wide on the left side of a five man defense at Boavista, Hamache tends to hug the touchline and stay wide before drifting inwards to attack the available space or overlap according to the scenario.
You can see his from his TransferLab percentile ratings how highly he ranks in the quality of his key passes, crosses, passes into the box and touches in the final third, all hallmarks of a solid attacking wing-back.
And, comparing his crossing numbers against his Expected Assists tally per90 in the league, Hamache is a positive outlier compared to his U23 positional peers in the league, which tells us that he is delivering high-value crosses into the box and finding his teammates in dangerous areas.
As a great appreciator of full-backs that are useful going forward, I like to define Hamache as a combination of Kolarov’s ball-striking ability and Theo Hernandez’s tendency to overlap/underlap to great effect.
The way Hamache plays is much akin to a left midfielder whose sole task is to be a wide outlet in possession, assist his attackers with his under/over lapping movements and come up with the occasional thunderbolt, much like he did against Porto.
Like modern wingbacks, Hamache has an expansive crossing repertoire, which he utilises well in attacking the opposition penalty box to create chances for his forwards, especially when making late runs into the box.
Whether it be early crosses from deeper areas or more measured crosses from closer to the byline, Hamache’s ability to generate great power with his left foot gives him advantage whilst bending some superb crosses into the box.
He is a very effective outlet for his centre backs thanks to his great pace and aggression going forward, attacking space in behind the opposition. Here, he does this masterfully to score a goal with great composure.
Another example of his tendencies to invert and then readjust according to the scenario can be seen here: he arrives to support his team-mates who need an option to unlock the opposition’s defence. While initially looking to receive centrally to take a first-time shot with his left, he quickly readjusts to find space in the box and smash a shot into the top corner to leave the keeper stranded.
There are echoes in his positioning and attacking tendencies of how Thomas Tuchel used Ben Chilwell to attack the half spaces and get ahead of other attacking players at times last season for Chelsea.
Hamache is 23 now and, while he does have flaws defensively, his utility in attacking areas makes him a great weapon for teams that opt to attack from wide areas. His profile would suit a number teams in the Europa League at the very least, especially those using wing backs.
The 19-year-old forward Gabriel Veron recently joined Porto from Palmeiras and has already generated a great deal of excitement with his performances.
In 94 appearances for Palmeiras, Veron scored 14 times and assisted a further 13 goals, most recently helping them to win the Campeonato Paulista for the second time in his career.
Veron has spoken about his admiration for Gabriel Jesus’ style of play and his desire to do something similar with his career, and the early signs are there for all to see. Much like Jesus, Veron’s versatility in playing on either flank or through the middle as a forward is an asset to his team. His assist and shot assist map shows he can provide both from a wide variety of locations on the pitch.
According to TransferLab’s percentile ranks for his qualitative metrics, Veron ranks highly for important metrics such as forward passes received, touches in the final third, and finishing, all three of which show in the 90th percentile or higher. His high rankings in these metrics are all the more impressive when you note that Palmeiras didn’t necessarily dominate possession in their games, averaging 49.9% of the ball, according to Whoscored, during the 2021 season.
Doing well in those metrics matters for attackers like Veron because it tells us that they are actively demanding the ball in dangerous areas in the final third, unsettling defences with their movement and most importantly, finishing their chances when they get them.
There is still room for improvement in his shot selection which is underlined by his low xG percentile ranking but that will improve over time. Veron shows all the right fundamentals to develop into an exciting attacker capable of translating his game for the top teams.
As a forward, he is able to make use of his pace and anticipation to time his runs in behind perfectly, as he does in the example below to beat his markers and find the back of the next with ease.
When deployed on the flank, Veron’s exceptional 1v1 dribbling comes to the fore. Getting the ball to feet whilst being isolated against the opposition fullback, he is able to confuse defenders with deft touches and a drop of the shoulder.
Standing at 5’9″, Veron’s low centre of gravity also helps him turn quickly on the ball before executing a final pass or shot in the attacking third of the pitch, just as he does here, to setup Wesley for a simple finish.
Having signed a deal up to 2027, any immediate interest in him is unlikely but in the coming years, he could very well follow Luis Diaz’s footsteps and make that transition into the Premier League.
A GROWTH LEAGUE
There are plenty of exciting talents in the Primeira Liga besides these players, who are certainly already on the radar of top clubs across Europe. Benfica’s Goncalo Ramos is a player that clubs are keeping tabs on, and Sporting’s Pedro Goncalves or Pote are also worth observing. Matheus Nunes was recently heralded by Guardiola as one of the best players in the world and is reportedly on the verge of joining Wolverhampton Wanderers.
It is clear to see therefore that the Primeira Liga has taken greater priority now in people’s eyes than ever before. Bruno Fernandes’s transfer from Sporting to Manchester United had a transformative effect on the club’s performances on the pitch. Ruben Dias has brought huge value to Manchester City’s defence, adding solidity and leadership to a backline that had lacked personality since the departure of Vincent Kompany.
Diaz has already dazzled Premier League audiences in a short space of time and is set to remain a key player for Liverppol for the present and future, while Raul Jimenez seems to have been at Wolves since forever, but only joined them in the summer of 2019 from Benfica and has been instrumental in the club’s transformation in recent years.
The Primeira Liga has been a fertile hunting ground for clubs attempting to find quality across different parts of the pitch and with the talent coming through at the moment, the trend of clubs spending big money in the league is only set to grow in the years to come.