PEDRO NETO: REJECTED BY UNITED BUT NOW WANTED BY THE WORLD - LONG READ
The Molineux Stadium a castle of blinding light in previous seasons has been dim-lit this campaign. However, one standing beam of luminescence comes in the form of Pedro Neto, who is thriving and saving his club millions in the process.
Many a confused face gazed in the direction of Wolverhampton Wanderers last summer as, after selling Diogo Jota to Liverpool for a substantial £40M fee, the Premier League side sought not to reinvest.
It was nothing short of an unprecedented surprise given the way in which Wolves have exhibited their pulling power since their return to the top flight, alluring a host of highly-rated players due to connections with Portugese super agent Jorge Mendes, who had convinced Jota to join the club all the way back in 2017.
Jota had illuminated his quality to full extent after a successful three years with Wolves after all, the Premier League champions would not have pursued his services for no reason would they? But, at times, he did frustrate.
An overall of eight goal involvements across the entirety of his final season under Nuno Esposito Santo failed to accentuate the apex of his talents and, whereas it was regarded fine business to straw out such a fee for the forward, to not pump it back in for a replacement had been met with a fair bit of puzzlement
Though, little to the knowledge of widespread audiences, Nuno Espírito Santo had one such pocket rocket ravelled down his sleeve eagerly waiting to explode.
Step forward Pedro Neto.
To observe both sides benefitting from a deal in the unforgiving modern day market is something of a rarity, but in this case, neither side has been scathed.
Despite the teetering notion that the Jota move had been convened with, the 24-year old has blossomed and many regard him as one of, if not the best transfers over the summer, having amassed a goal involvement every 85 minutes for club and country.
But now, less about Jota and more about his ready-made replacement, who has fully elucidated why Nuno had so much faith in him.
Quite simply, Neto has been indispensable for the Wolverhampton side this term. With five goals and six assists, he has already directly accounted for 36.7% of Wolves’ total league goals whilst playing primarily on the left hand side of a front three. Along with this, the Braga academy product’s reputation as one of the Premier League’s finest prospects is thoroughly etched in justification; put aside Manchester City’s Phil Foden, no player under the age of 21 has matched or bettered Neto’s 11 goal involvements.
Standing at 5’7, Neto is far from a physical condescendant. But he doesn’t need to be.
After all, he is a football supporter’s living, breathing utopia, blessed with all the attributes that draw in audiences like a moth to light.
Seemingly an unfathomable trait married with diminutive wide men of his kind, Neto possesses that hypnotic ability to manipulate the ball, sending opposing defenders and supporters alike into a trance in the blink of an eye.
Owing to his frame, he also carries a low centre of gravity and unforgiving pace off the mark, which makes him extremely hard to stop at his devastating best.
He is one of those players that you notice. You just do. He always seems two or three steps above virtually anyone on the field and even though at 21 he is still tender, lapses of judgement are almost extinct from his footballing factory. When he has the ball at his feet, he's a pulse-racing proposition for any top level defender. It is ingrained in his very nature and these fine margins often prove to be the making, or breaking of footballers.
And over the course of the campaign, Neto has typified a healthy blend of both mesmerising craft and undoubted consistency to chain company with some of the league’s chief footballing architects in Kevin De Bruyne, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish and Bruno Fernandes, the latter of whom he correlates with on the International stage.
Staggeringly, they are the only four players throughout the widths and breadths of the Premier League to have bettered Neto’s 61 key passes, a truly remarkable figure for a player in his first season of regular, week-in-week-out football. It is even more impressive when you consider the incompatible differences in how Wolves play, and how some of the clubs of the aforementioned individuals strut their stuff.
Wolves are currently fixated in the vacuum of mid table mediocrity, all the while averaging less than 50% possession per match.
It does not bookmark for unbearable reading, though, what does come as a bit more of a worry, or, if you like, more of a testament to how well Neto is doing, merely two sides have won possession in the final third less times than their 95, which proves that attacking opportunities come at a premium.
And, it sits nestled in the tree of truth that Wolves have struggled to adopt a sense of marksmanship in the heartfelt absence of Raul Jimenez, who has not graced the field since a serious head injury away to Arsenal back in November.
There is no element of shock attached to that, either. During his first two seasons in Wolverhampton, Jimenez chalked up over 60 goal involvements and endeared himself to the Molineux faithful with his deadly finishing, incisive link up play and a physical presence to boot and since his injury, Wolves are yet to find a deputised fit to man the reigns.
Fabio Silva a £35M signing from Porto last summer as part the Jorge Mendes stratagem has failed to hit the ground running in his debut season in England. Three goals in 24 matches is, without a doubt a poultry return, yet on the other hand, he has only made the starting XI on six occasions. At 18, he still has a lot to learn and perhaps, you can cut the former Porto striker a degree of slack
Moreover, Willian Jose has found himself unable to translate his respectable, if unspectacular goal return in Spain to English football. As Wolves desperately scoured for a replacement striker, Jose had been brought in on loan until the end of the current campaign, a move which has yielded little success for all involved. After making ten appearances, the Brazilian forward is yet to open his account and there is little to suggest that will change soon.
As a result, even Neto has been tried out in a similar role, playing five matches as a second striker. Doing so did bear fruit- well, to a relative extent anyway.
Neto managed to score once during his brief period there, that being a last grasp winner against Chelsea in December. Whilst operating a second striker, Neto’s ability to run in behind and stretch defences was put on show for all to see and, in future years, coupled with a physical presence to complement, Neto could well go on to embrace increased success in that position.
Subsequently, as you can gather, their attacking numbers have dwindled considerably. The 14th placed side are being outscored by all but two top tier outfits as of present, whilst also having the league's third worst conversion rate. They have only transfigured 6% of their efforts into goals, which illustrates how many more assists Neto would undoubtedly rack up in a more productive outfit.
Whilst he is wondrously waving the flag at Wolverhampton right now, that may not transpire to be the case for much longer. Neto, who has gone on to make three appearances for the Portugese national team since his debut in November 2020, has activated the interest of some of England’s top dogs. And, if you have watched Neto at full throttle over the season, it is more than merited.
Manchester United have recently emerged as potential suitors for the prodigy should they fail in their interminable pursuit of Dortmund and England attacker Jadon Sancho, a player they will finally be looking to bring to the red side of the city following boundless negotiations. However, Neto could have been at Old Trafford long before.
All the way back in 2016, Neto, then of Braga, had jetted over to Carrington for a trial, though the Red Devils had opted against signing the prospect. The following year, United resurfaced as keen admirers alongside the likes of Monaco, Barcelona and Liverpool after Neto had enraptured scouts and coaches galore with his showings for Braga’s youth team.
Alternatively, Neto departed Portugal for Lazio at the age of 17, which was hallmarked as an agonising blow by those in the upper bodies of the Estádio Municipal de Braga.
“He was remarkable,” Jose Carvalho Araujo, who had coached Neto during his formative years in Portugal, told Sky Sports.
“The speed with and without the ball was an amazing thing that he had. This was a precocious talent, one who had captained Braga’s U15 team while just 13 years old. He was clearly the star of the team.”
Unfortunately, the Italian adventure had not panned out as Neto had hoped. In spite of the evident potential that he had possessed, even then, he was a largely peripheral figure during his time in Rome, making only four appearances over a two year stint.
The world of transfers is, by all accounts, intertwined with inflation and overpriced fees and that is not more prevalent when it comes to younger players, such is the demand nowadays.
Therefore, Wolves supporters had every right to present skepticism, or at least a shadow of wonder upon Neto’s £18M move to the club in the summer of 2019.
On the face of it, all the trademarks of a tightrope gamble were symbolised. Neto, at that time, was largely still a youth footballer with precious little experience within the gears of the senior game so such a price tag seemed risky from the naked eye. Instead, the lions’ share of Neto’s action in the Italian Capital had been filtered towards the U19s. Was a player of scarce exposure capable of making the step up?
Hindsight is bliss. It really is, because Neto really was. He did not just make the step up, nor did he simply pass the eye test.
Indeed, he roared through the barricades of English football with flying colours
and now, it appears as nothing short of a prized bargain. Inevitably, when the time comes, Wolves are surely destined to reap a substantial profit on the star-blazing youngster and his stock will only ascend further and further if he continues to prosper.
A summer of change is likely to be conducted at the Molineux, and although bulking weight of their frailties can be pinned down to Jimenez being out of the team, many would still contest that there has been a degree of underperformance amongst the core of the squad.
It is something that needs to be constructed if they are to recapture their glowing potential as a club on the rise. But perhaps, the best piece of business they could perform throughout the summer would be keeping hold of their treasured asset.
Quick spoiler alert, it will not be easy.
By his own admission, Wolves and Portugal midfielder Ruben Neves who is well placed to assess Neto’s capabilities has clearly been impressed by his fellow countryman.
“Pedro’s been a fantastic player for us since he came,” said Neves. “This season, I think for me he’s been the best player that we have in the squad.
“He still needs to improve, as does everyone, because we all have something that we can improve, but if he keeps playing like that then he’s going to become a big player in the world of football.
“We are really lucky to have him in our team because he can give us a lot of things that are not easy to find in a player” concluded the 24-year old.
It bears all the makings of a complex transfer saga, for a catalogue of clubs will rightfully be vying for Neto’s signature.
With the checkboxes for both current performances and potential firmly ticked, why would any club not want Neto? From Manchester United to Liverpool to Juventus all being touted as attentive parties, the tricky winger has certainly engraved a lasting rendition all over the continent and those lures are not easy to dismiss by any means.
At the end of the day though, whether Neto remains out in Wolverhampton or seeks pastures new, his future looks scheduled to entail stardom. What we are seeing at the moment is, scarily, only the beginning.