Ruben Neves vs William Carvalho

Author @P_SRibeiro


On a cold Saturday afternoon in North London, an injury-plagued Arsenal beat Sunderland 3-1 thanks to yet another assist from Mesut Özil, a near-post finish from Olivier Giroud and a late goal from Aaron Ramsey. What else is new you might ask. Well, hopefully, a new defensive midfielder.

Meanwhile the Gunners’ win on Saturday didn’t expose anything we didn’t already know about Arsène Wenger’s current crop of players, it may have offered the Frenchman, among others, one very bold reminder. It’s no secret that Ramsey dislikes the wide role Wenger has imposed on him, and nor should he when just one performance like Saturday’s makes one reminisce of the days his combination with Özil and Giroud fired us to what looked like our most convincing challenge for the Premier League title two years back.

Weeks shy of his 25th birthday, meanwhile other figureheads like Laurent Koscielny, Alexis Sanchez and Özil also progress through their peak, it’d be criminal to deny Ramsey of the opportunity to replicate the days of 2013/2014 and maximize the threat Arsenal pose, especially when the title race appears to be as open as it is.  However, if we are ever to see a player in the form of Ramsey or Jack Wilshere occupying one of our central slots with the freedom their ability merits, it’s imperative that Wenger goes out and finds a solution for the player that’s meant to partner either one of the two.

General consensus tells us that both Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini no longer have the capability to fill that void in a club of Arsenal’s stature, whereas the limitations of the injured Francis Coquelin are well documented.  A key reason as to why Wenger opted for Santi Cazorla over Ramsey in the middle of the park was to aid Coquelin’s apparent inability to build play from deep consistently, and so it tells us if Wenger is to attack the transfer market, for the benefit of Ramsey or Wilshere, he’ll be looking for what is commonly referred to as a ‘defensive controller’.

Such abilities from a defensive midfielder are coveted by the biggest and best clubs, apparent in the play of the promising Julian Weigl, or Sergio Busquets, right through to the experienced mind of Xabi Alonso. It’s often unlikely that you’ll find such qualities available in the January transfer window, but that hasn’t stopped Arsenal’s name being associated with potential options.


neves vs carvalho

Porto’s Ruben Neves and Sporting Lisbon’s William Carvalho both rumoured to interest Arsenal

According to Portuguese paper, O Jogo, among other sources, FC Porto’s Rúben Neves has been watched by Arsenal scouts in his last four appearances at least; meanwhile reported interest in Sporting’s William Carvalho refuses to go away.

The reliability behind both stories is up for debate, but if true, Arsenal have stumbled across two of the most highly-rated young ‘controllers’ around.

On the contrary to popular belief, Carvalho is far from the ‘panzer tank’ or ‘beast’ that physical players are stereotypically painted as. Although he is evidently strong, his ability to pick a pass and relieve pressure stands as his most glaring highlight.

With ability to switch the ball to either flank, dictate the tempo of the game and recycle possession when needed, Carvalho certainly appears to have all the tools to compliment the likes of Ramsey and Wilshere in the heart of Arsenal’s midfield.

His physique offers his game yet another weapon, aiding him when coolly strolling away from pressure in possession of the ball, as well as when he needs to take the ball back off the opposition. His positional sense is yet another forte of his, but one which shows signs of improving further under new Sporting manager Jorge Jesus, the man responsible for reviving Nemanja Matic’s career before his £21 million move back to Chelsea from Benfica in 2014.

At his best, Carvalho’s ability resembles that of a Year 10 student keeping the ball away from powerless Year 7s at lunchtime; as his Under 21s European Championship Player of the Tournament award went on to prove this summer.

In terms of his traits, Neves is indifferent to Carvalho and has attracted an equal amount of interest from top European clubs, despite being five years younger than his 23-year-old counterpart. Neves took the fast lane into Porto’s first team, becoming the club’s youngest ever league goalscorer at 17 years and five months, the youngest ever Portuguese player to play in the Champions League just days later, on top of also being the youngest player to captain the star-studded Porto at the age of 18.

Much like Carvalho, Neves is super comfortable on the ball, possesses a fantastic passing range and has often demonstrated a high level of positional sense and concentration. Defensively, Neves has shown he reads the game just as well as any young midfielder, enabling him to press higher up the pitch effectively.

Part of what enables Neves to press as high as he does, however, is due to him not being exclusively a defensive midfielder. The 18-year-old is, in fact, a flat centre midfielder that builds play from deep, often playing alongside either Giannelli Imbula or Danilo Pereira to give him the confidence to win the ball back further up the pitch as often as he does.

There’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to reproduce his regular functions immediately as the deepest man in midfield, but at his tender age, that’s something that can be mastered quite easily.

In terms of differences, Neves has the ability to carry a little more urgency with the ball at his feet than Carvalho, turning his opposition quicker to set up attacks, but in turn, Carvalho shows greater guile in manipulating midfield battles and dominating games. That may make Carvalho the better option for Arsenal today, but the five extra years Neves has over the Sporting man to progress clouds our judgement somewhat.

We may soon find that Neves is the most likely to put on an Arsenal shirt in the near future. Sporting has invested heavily this season in a bid to win the league title for the first time since 2002; therefore Carvalho’s presence plays a big part in the club’s hope of achieving its target.

Furthermore, talks of a new contract for Carvalho counter any reported interest to come from the Portuguese and British press, which is sure to see his current release clause of £32 million increased.

In Neves’ case, he could find himself being the victim of heavy investment from Porto, who spent on £18 million in the summer on Olympique Marseille’s Imbula, as well as taking Iker Casillas from Real Madrid’s hands.

As it stands, Porto’s next line of income will come from qualifying for the Champions’ League Last 16, but should they fail to defeat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a win for Dynamo Kiev over Maccabi Tel Aviv, who are yet to pick up a point, will see the Portuguese giants head for the Europa League instead.

If interest in Neves is strong, Porto may well look at their options – Danilo, Hector Herrera, Imbula and André André to name a few – and decide to cash in on the young midfielder guarded by a £28  million release clause. Furthermore, Porto prides itself on finding the next big thing, and having sold the likes of Joao Moutinho, James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez in the past, Neves would be just another player to pass through the club’s ‘moneyball’ system.

Of course, a move for either one of the Portuguese duo could easily be scrapped before we know it, as both players are represented by super-agent Jorge Mendes, making negotiations a potential no-go in Wenger’s book.

However, what’s clear is that both players represent a fantastic opportunity, should a move be feasible, for Arsenal to solve an almost chronic problem at the heart of midfield.

When considering inexperience and the time needed to settle into the pace of the Premier League, anything north of £28 million stands as a big financial risk, but if we are to look at the arrival of a new defensive midfielder as a potential difference maker, would there be any shame in gambling for the title?



“Journalism student and big fan of both Arsenal and Sporting.”

Guest Writer

2 Responses to “Ruben Neves vs William Carvalho

  • Very interesting article, thank you. I’m assuming, since you’re a Sporting fan, that you’ve had the opportunity to watch these players play live which is a huge advantage over the rest of us’ particularly when trying to form a judgement on a defensive midfield player for whom off-the-ball positioning is such a huge part of their skill and which is impossible to judge just from TV.

    Modern football at the top level has evolved over the last two or three years. Transitions are everything now. Slow, patient 4-2-3-1 possession build up in front of the opposition midfield is going the way of the dodo. Decisive goals in top level games are increasingly either set-pieces or one of two types of transitions: a counter-attack from deep or the result of a high press in the opposition half.

    Consequently I want our new DM to be a master of transitions and for that he must be able to do two things:

    1. He must be able to receive the ball from the keeper or any defender, turn and transition to attack against a high press. He must be able to escape a two or even a three-man press, either by turning away from the pressing player(s), popping a short pass or, less likely, playing a long ball into the channel. I don’t care if he’s great on the ball in the conventional sense, facing play and spraying long balls around the park like a latter-day Steven Gerrard. If he can do that, fine, but it’s not part of his job description.

    2. He must be alive to opposition turnover. It’s no longer enough for him to have good positional sense only when the opposition have the ball. When we are attacking deep in the opposition channel or even in their box he must always be alive to the possibility that the ball might be intercepted immediately and then to be in a position to deal with the subsequent ten seconds of maximum danger. This is one of Coquelin’s greatest skills and the one most under-appreciated by Arsenal fans. It’s also Ramsey’s greatest weakness, his propensity to empty midfield when it looks like we have even a vaguely promising attacking position.

    We have a team already stuffed full of attacking potential and passing genius. What we don’t have is security against transitions; the foundation stone for any team with ambitions to win anything in the modern game. Given all that, would either or both of these players fit the bill in your opinion? Would they be able to come straight into a team embroiled in a title-fight and be able to contribute immediately? This is the best chance we’ve had of winning the league for a decade, we don’t have the luxury of allowing anyone who comes in to learn on the job in such a pivotal position.

    • @P_SRibeiro
      3 years ago

      Thank you, @jcav90, for taking the time to read the article and contributing to this particular discussion.

      I’d like to start off by stating that I share your concern and acknowledge the need for a team like Arsenal to be more potent in transition. That’s why the point of Ramsey returning to the centre of midfield, or Wilshere once fit, was made, as they are arguably two of the best at igniting counter-attacking phases in the league, certainly in our squad.

      Coquelin and Cazorla simply do not offer the same intensity, but if Wenger is to back Ramsey/Wilshere under current circumstances, I feel games like our recent win versus Sunderland are likely to be replicated with mixed results, due to us being exposed.

      Many times throughout Saturday Ramsey appeared to be too adventurous, and simultaneously, Flamini was too conservative, creating a big gap in midfield for deep-block teams to then counter us. I don’t think the amount of times we’ve been punished in such manner needs reminding.

      In that aspect, Coquelin offers far greater security, but it his due to his distributive limitations, and he is getting better, that Wenger opts to play Santi Cazorla alongside him. Cazorla goes about his business playing from deep, and so we lose that hunger somewhat to hurt teams with runners from midfield.

      In fact, that duo often sees us lose out on another outlet in the form of a right winger, as Ramsey is needed out wide to then help Cazorla with his defensive limitations by tucking in centrally. That may work in games in which we won’t see much of the ball (Bayern H, City A etc.), but it won’t allow us to be as successful as we can be versus weaker teams willing to sit back.

      In my opinion, the logical solution would be to find a player with a blend of both Coquelin’s & Cazorla’s best attributes, or as it’s often referred to, ‘Mikel Arteta with legs’.

      In William Carvalho or Ruben Neves, I feel we have two genuine possibilities that cover most of your requirements. I’d say in Carvalho you have a player who 9 times out of 10 you can look at to relieve pressure and pick the ball up from his defence. His pace doesn’t make him suitable to play in transition, but his presence should give us greater peace of mind to play the likes of Ramsey/Wilshere in their desired positions, and so we gain the number of players able to play in transition (In Santi & Coquelin we have none).

      Likewise, Neves is always looking to receive the ball wherever he finds himself. I wouldn’t class him as a natural defensive mid, he doesn’t have Carvalho’s stature or Coquelin’s wild desire to win the ball back, but he does have clear defensive qualities and is still only 18, despite demonstrating great maturity.

      I must also stress that transition isn’t everything, as Jürgen Klopp has found out a few times. It works a treat against teams in need of chasing a result, but if they sit deep and allow you to have possession, how can you bite? There are times when recycling possession & remaining patient is a necessity, and both Carvalho & Neves have the capability to contribute towards that.

      I’m not going to pretend these two are dead certain to be success stories at Arsenal, especially when both Porto & Sporting will be expecting the club to activate release clauses (£28m for Neves, £32m for Carvalho), but they could make the difference.

      You are spot on – this IS our best chance to win the league for over a decade. But just like we don’t have the luxury of buying a ‘project signing’, we also don’t have the perfect defensive midfielder made readily available for us to sign in the January transfer window of all windows.

      I’m of the opinion that a new defensive midfielder is crucial to our title hopes, even more so since Coquelin’s injury. We have to take a gamble on someone, in particular since the title race appears to be as open as it is.

      That someone may be Carvalho, Neves, or anyone else. For now, what I can say is that the characteristics of the aforementioned players means we are, at the very least, looking in the right direction. Hopefully, Wenger finds his man!

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