Ruben Neves is carrying Wolves and deserves to be playing in a better team
Ruben Neves is carrying Wolves and deserves to be playing in a better team
Wolves captain Ruben Neves has maintained his high standards at Molineux even as the team has struggled; with exclusive insight from Julen Lopetegui into what makes the midfielder so good, Adam Bate wonders why the next move has not yet come for Neves…
Wolves captain Ruben Neves is continuing to thrive at Wolves under Julen Lopetegui despite the team’s struggles
Ruben Neves appeared to have tears in his eyes as he bade an emotional farewell to the supporters after his team’s final home game against Norwich last May. It seemed inevitable that it would be his last appearance at Molineux in a Wolves shirt.But the anticipated summer move did not materialise. In terms of revenue, Wolves now rank among the 30 richest clubs in the world. The economics of modern European football mean that only a dwindling number of teams are able to afford a player like Neves.
He waited and he waited but the transfer puzzle was never solved. Had Frenkie de Jong left Barcelona for Manchester United perhaps that would have sparked a chain reaction, earning Neves the Champions League move that his performances deserved.
Instead, Wolves fans have been treated to a sixth season – and it has been a treat. Do not make the mistake of thinking that Neves has stagnated at Molineux. He should not be typecast as a mid-level Premier League player. He is playing better than ever.This has been a difficult season for Wolves. They were bottom of the table at Christmas. But the captaincy has brought out the best in Neves. He has emerged as the team’s leader, taking his role to heart – as any referee dealing with his chatter would attest.
It would have been easy to sulk, to behave as if life at the lower end of the Premier League was beneath a man of his talents, but he has done the opposite. Neves has seemed to take a perverse pleasure in proving that his commitment to the cause is still strong.
The problem for him and for Wolves is that his quality is not matched by those around him. Against Leeds last time out, all momentum was lost following his substitution because of a calf problem. Even with him, Wolves are not great. They are miserable without him.
It is why, in a twist on the norms of modern football, few Wolves fans would begrudge Neves his move. Having already made more appearances for the club than any continental European in the club’s history, he had provided more than enough memories.Nobody has started more Premier League games for Wolves. Of course, the story began before that when he was the club’s player of the year in winning promotion from the Championship. His outrageous volley against Derby was the goal of the season.It was one of six goals from outside the area in that first season, his reputation forged. Nine more have followed since, from his free-kick that marked Wolves’ return to the Premier League against Everton to the arrowed shot into the bottom corner against Newcastle.
The data scientists will tell you that Neves’ long-range shooting is the low-percentage option. They point out, a little joylessly, that there are more efficient ways to use the ball. To which the only reasonable reply is, have you seen the options ahead of him?One suspects Neves would be able to make the adjustment if there was an Erling Haaland in the box to receive the pass. Indeed, having just turned 26, it is worth remembering how much he has already adapted his game, despite being a precocious talent as a teenager.This is a player who was involved in a Champions League quarter-final for Porto against Bayern Munich just one month after his 18th birthday. Late that year, he became the youngest man to captain his team from the start of a Champions League match.The coach who entrusted him with that duty was a certain Julen Lopetegui. Reunited in Wolverhampton, the experienced former Real Madrid boss explains not only what he recognised in Neves that day – but the trait that has allowed him to progress ever since.”He started with me when he was 17,” Lopetegui tells Sky Sports. “When he started playing he showed one important characteristic that was key for a player. It is not just how you play but how you learn. His character is such that he tries to learn more each day.”This is his character.”Upon his arrival in England, the expectation was that Neves would be a playmaker. He has delivered on that score, displaying a range of passing that sets him apart. No midfielder has completed more long passes in the Premier League these past five seasons.But he has become a different player to the one who broke through under Lopetegui at Porto, surprising many with his appetite to hunt down the ball. That was a non-negotiable in the Championship and his 42 appearances that season helped set him on a new path.
Tackling has become a strength. Only four midfielders have made more of them in the Premier League this season. He ranks third for interceptions too. Joao Palhinha tops the former list, while it is Idrissa Gueye and Cheick Doucoure who top the latter.These players have a very different profile.They cannot pass a ball like Neves.Even that old line about him not scoring from inside the box no longer applies. As Wolves countered on Liverpool late in the game at Molineux last month, it was Neves who was bursting beyond the backtracking midfielders to apply the finish from close range.
The arrival of Mario Lemina at Wolves has allowed him more freedom to roam into other areas and highlight the full range of his talent. This, remember, a season that had begun with him being asked to play in the centre of defence under Bruno Lage.He has improved in tight spaces. Neves ranks fourth in the Premier League for the most passes played when put under pressure by an opponent. It is indicative of a player still adding to his game. For Lopetegui, who has followed his progress, that is not a surprise.”These kind of characters are smart,” he adds. “If you are smart and you are open, you are going to learn and the years will go in your favour. The other way around and it goes the opposite. That is why it is about his quality but it is also about his character.”That is key in the progress of young players.”
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Neves continues to make that progress and it is natural to wonder how far it could yet take him. One of the quirks of his time at Wolves is that, despite being one of the team’s outstanding players throughout their Premier League run, he has seen others move on.Diogo Jota went to Liverpool. Adama Traore was loaned to Barcelona. Even Matt Doherty left for Tottenham before joining Atletico Madrid. Now, reports are linking midfield partner Matheus Nunes with Liverpool. Neves has been better than all of them.”I thought Ruben Neves would be at Wolves for a couple of seasons and then move on to a Champions League club and I am surprised he has not made that move, for whatever reason,” said Jamie Carragher, speaking on Friday Night Football recently.”You look at him, what he was doing at Porto, captaining that team at such a young age, I thought it was a natural progression. It has not quite happened yet but he is a player you look at and think can he make that next step and I am convinced that he can.”Gary Neville agreed with that assessment, going even further in his praise. “He has been at Wolves quite a long time,” he added. “I genuinely believe that Ruben Neves could go and sit in any midfield in Europe in any team in any league and be comfortable.”If that chance finally comes, expect Neves to seize it.
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