One of the leading academies in world football, Benfica’s famed talent factory has churned out a vast number of elite players and João Neves is the latest to roll off their production line.
From Joao Felix to Enzo Fernandez, Benfica have cashed in €1.5 billion in player transfer sales since 2000 and are comprehensively the most profitable academy in the business.
The Portuguese giants have grew synonymous with producing individuals of significant potential and just when you assume they’re starting to run low on stock, up steps Neves.
A diminutive defensive midfielder, Neves has all the ingredients to become one of the world’s best and the 19-year-old is already showcasing his immense talent on the Primeira Liga and Champions League stage after his breakthrough last season.
Inevitably Europe’s behemoths have already began to circle and even €100million release clause is unlikely to dissuade clubs from pursuing this generational talent.
We’ve assessed Neves’ development under Roger Schmidt in the latest of our Scouting Europe series.
As a 1998 baby, the sight of seeing anyone playing professional football who was born after 2000 makes me feel ill, let alone someone who was born in 2004.
Raised in the town of Tavira on the Algarve coast, Neves’ path into football began at one of Benfica’s many feeder clubs, Casa Benfica Tavira.
The Águias have established an extensive youth network that covers virtually every corner of the country, which enables them to pluck the brightest talents from different regions.
Attending Benfica’s academy centre in the Algarve at the age of eight, Neves was coached by Manuel Ramos, the father of Benfica and Portugal striker Gonçalo Ramos.
With his development beginning to catch the eye, he relocated to Lisbon at the age of 12 to join the club’s main academy and ascended the ranks, culminating in the midfielder signing his first professional contract in 2020.
It was not all plain-sailing from there, though. Injuries hampered his progress in the months that followed but Neves hurdled those obstacles with flying colours, excelling in the UEFA Youth League as the U19 side secured Benfica’s first title in the competition.
He made the transition into the Benfica B team at the start of the 2022/23 season and Neves was soon knocking on the door of the senior side.
Aided by the departure of Enzo Fernandez to Chelsea, Neves graduated from youth team standout to first-team wonderkid, earning the rapport of the Benfiquistas as Schmidt awarded him six consecutive starts at the end of the campaign.
Slotting in as the defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system, Neves’ inclusion spoke volumes of Schmidt’s faith in his midfield prospect; not least because Benfica were embroiled in a titanic title battle at the time of his integration.
Inexperienced players typically wilt in the cauldron of mounting pressure and seismic expectations, yet Neves displayed little apprehension.
Benfica could ill-afford a slip-up, especially with Porto breathing down their necks.
Their penultimate league fixture saw them make the short trip to Estádio José Alvalade for the Derby de Lisboa, and Sporting were desperate to present their fierce rivals from wrapping up the title on their own patch.
2-0 down at half-time, Benfica rallied to reduce the deficit with 20 minutes remaining but their efforts to salvage a point were consistently thwarted. That was until Neves popped up in the 93rd minute…
If the teenager had visions of how he would score against Sporting, he would not have envisioned the scrappy sequence of events that led to him finding the back of the net.
The hosts failed to clear their lines from a Benfica free-kick and after a mini-game of pinball ensued, the ball fell to the feet of Neves. His first effort was blocked off the line but the ball rebounded in his direction, with Neves instinctively getting a second shot away first time and finding the top corner.
Benfica were crowned league champions for a record-extending 38th time in the following week with a 3-0 triumph over Santa Clara and Neves’ impact in his six matches was telling.
Of course, his sample size is a lot smaller in comparison to other individuals, but no midfielder in the Primeira Liga won more tackles (2.80) and recorded more blocks (2.21) per 90 than Neves.
It was just a snippet of what was to come, with German tactician Schmidt set to make Neves the centrepiece of his Benfica side.
Dictating matches and breaking up opposition forays, Neves’ influence at Benfica is startling for someone who is still in the foundation phase of his career.
As a player in one of the league’s most dominant teams, it’s inevitable that he will enjoy a great deal of possession and yet his authority remains impressive. Neves’ 1,453 touches rank him third in the Portuguese top flight and only Sporting’s ball-playing defender Gonçalo Inácio has completed more passes.
Neves has the tendency to collect the ball from deep to keep Benfica ticking in possession, his intricate control and impressive agility enabling him to evade pressure, even in the most precarious situations.
His ability to orchestrate proceedings is a joy to watch but his unrelenting desire to retrieve the ball is equally enjoyable.
For what he lacks in stature he atones for with his positional awareness, tactical understanding and an aggressiveness in winning the ball back; the combination of all three makes him a difficult obstacle to overcome.
And though Benfica laboured to a 3rd place finish in the Champions League group stage, no player in the competition has completed more successful tackles than Neves.
João Neves 2023/24: Tackles Won
Another absurd Neves statistic – and one indicative of his combative nature - is that despite his height of 5ft 7in, he’s won 59.2% of his aerial duels.
Whether it’s in the air or on the ground, Neves is effective at winning the ball back, averaging 8.49 ball recoveries per match; as a defensive midfielder, he is demonstrating that he’s got all the tools to forge the complete package.
And there's nothing to say he can’t contribute at the other end of the pitch.
Glance at his equalising goal in November's Derby de Lisboa. In the 93rd minute with his side trailing, Neves gathers the clearance and rifles a half-volley through a blockade of on-rushing defenders; composure personified.
Schmidt doesn’t look to Neves as a source of goals and yet the teenage sensation has come to his rescue on countless occasions.
Inevitably Neves’ emergence has perked interest from all over Europe and the more opulent figures in the Premier League are wrestling to be at the front of the queue.
As is customary, Manchester United are among those interested and the starlet has been heavily linked with a move to Old Trafford.
Central midfield is an area that Erik ten Hag is keen to address; a partnership of Neves and Kobbie Mainoo in the middle of the park could set them up for years.
There would be several hurdles to overcome – not least Neves’ extortionate price tag – but in Bruno Fernandes, they have a Portuguese agent who could potentially help to facilitate the move.
Fernandes admitted whilst on international duty that he would love to have Neves “by his side” in M16, but he does have opposition from a rival compatriot.
Another graduate of Benfica’s famed academy, Bernardo Silva stated he’d sign the midfielder for Manchester City himself.
Two high-calibre players are already squabbling over his services; it won’t be long before a plethora of clubs are fighting for his signature.
The conclusion of Cristiano Ronaldo’s career is edging ever-closer and Portugal are putting preparations in place for life without the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Even in Ronaldo's absence, the Portuguese appear well-stocked in attacking talent; Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota, Gonçalo Ramos, Rafael Leão and João Félix will all come to the fore in the upcoming European Championships.
Central midfield is of intrigue. Since his appointment as head coach, Roberto Martinez has frequently deployed one holding midfielder, utilising either Fulham's João Palhinha or PSG's Danilo Pereira as the anchor to his attack.
Former Wolves ace Ruben Neves is another waiting in the wings but Martinez's preference seemingly lies with the other Neves.
He is a footballer who will make people talk at a global level. He will be influential in European football in the next 10 years, without a doubt.
Roberto Martinez, Portugal head coach
The 19-year-old is being hailed as the future star of the Portuguese football and in a side that currently boasts world-class talent in attack and defence, Neves could be the figure that knits it all together.
Progressing through the U15, U19 and U21 sides, Neves made his senior bow in October against Bosnia before enjoying brief cameos in the Euro qualifying victories against Liechtenstein and Iceland.
Martinez is gradually exposing him to the demands of international football and the expectation is that it will not be too long before Neves is establishing himself as an imperative figure in the Spaniard's plans.
Neves will certainly be one to keep an eye on during UEFA's international showpiece event.
To Win Outright - 8/1
To Win Outright - 13/1