The shock value created by some transfers can be huge but also incredibly fleeting so it will interesting to see if the latest rumours surrounding a possible move to Arsenal for Ruben Neves could fall into that category.
When Neves joined Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer of 2017, their first landmark transfer window under the stewardship of Chinese owners Fosun International, it may not have struck a chord with the most casual of football fans. For those familiar with the Portuguese midfielder, though, it was an earth-shattering moment which made them sit up and at take note of what was going on at Molineux.
How on earth had Wolves, a Championship side with very few prior credits as a modern-day force other than a few seasons struggling at the bottom of the Premier League, managed to attract and acquire the youngest captain in Champions League history? At FC Porto, a club with a rich heritage for developing players either from their own academy or via a superb recruitment strategy and scouting network set up in South America, Neves was no ordinary young player.
In 2015, at the age of just 18, he made history by wearing the armband against Maccabi Tel-Aviv and, by the time he gave it all up for a move to the Black Country, he’d been billed as Portugal’s next great hope and linked with almost every one of Europe’s biggest clubs. The £15.8million fee, an English second tier record, was an absolute steal, too.
The answer to the above question is not hard to work out. Fosun had worked with Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes, who has facilitated the club’s rise by orchestrating moves for Neves, Diogo Jota and the manager up until a few weeks ago, Nuno Espírito Santo among others. It was still a brilliant coup to get him. It still required Neves’ belief and loyalty at a time when he would have had plenty more enticing offers for his services.
Four years on, the move has definitely paid off. Neves was the talisman who guided Wolves out of the Championship with ease in his first season, before the club fast-tracked themselves into Europe with a seventh-placed finish in Fosun’s maiden Premier League campaign. It spoke volumes of their plan and wealth that, despite their inexperience, that achievement passed through the national consciousness without the attention garnered by either Sheffield United and Leeds United in seasons that followed, having outperformed both as a newly-promoted side.
Speculation of a move for Neves has maintained itself in the background. As surprising as it was that he joined them in the first place, the idea that he won’t eventually move onto better things has always been inconceivable. Now might just be the time for club and player to part ways. The first cycle of Fosun’s reign appears to have reached a natural end.
Finishing seventh again in 2019/20 showed that Wolves had enough about them to withstand the natural effects of time and opposition working out how to play them. Nuno had shifted the tactical focus away from Neves, who has been used alternatively to his fellow countryman Joao Moutinho, and onto his attacking options. Adama Traore, Pedro Neto, Daniel Podence and, most of all, Raul Jimenez began to take the spotlight, especially after Jota’s sale to Liverpool, despite no let up in quality from their very first poster boy. Jimenez’s skull injury at Arsenal last season and his subsequent absence set a string of events in motion that ended up in a disappointing 13th placed finish and Nuno’s exit. Everybody’s future is now up in the air.
Officially, the transfer window opens this week, but Ruben Neves has alredy been linked with a move to Arsenal, whose interest is yet to be firmed up. Especially considering that there is nothing concrete to suggest Mikel Arteta has more financial firepower to flaunt this summer than he did last. But with Joe Willock’s value as high as it may ever be after a stunningly successful loan spell at Newcastle United and Granit Xhaka being linked with Jose Mourinho’s Roma, signing a midfielder seems reasonable.
Gunners fans will have to be realistic. No European football plus the pandemic would suggest their prime targets such as Lyon’s Houssem Aouar and Rennes’ Eduardo Camavinga may be slightly out of their reach. Arteta has to be smart with his signings and Neves’ star may have faded somewhat, if only because he has become part of the furniture at Wolves.
Ruben Neves still has the ability raved about at Porto and can still dominate and dictate a midfield with a superb range of short and long passes, something which Arsenal are lacking. His ability to strike the ball from distance is excellent. At the age of 24, he is ready to take the next level without the need to settle into a new environment. Jota faced the same scepticism when he arrived at Anfield last summer, and for swathes of the campaign outshone his competition in attack, particularly Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
There could be an interesting transition about to take place at Wolves, despite Mendes’ grip on power remaining as tight as ever. Crucially, Neves’ contract runs out in 2023, meaning this summer could be their last chance to gain optimum value for his services. Jota cost £45million, and it is fair to suggest his valuation would be somewhat similar.
Arsenal can still strive to improve without playing in Europe for the first time since 1995, but they need to think hard about the type of player to recruit. Stylistically, Neves’ technique and guile is the perfect foil for Thomas Partey’s energy and physicality. Signing Ruben Neves would be an affordable, sensible and more rewarding deal than it is getting credit for and, if Arsenal get the chance to complete it, they must not hesitate.
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