Mateus Carvalho profiles 20 of the best young players to watch in the Liga NOS for the 2020-21 season, one from each club!
In a country deeply passionate about football as Portugal, the start of the Liga NOS 2020/21 season was long awaited by football fans, hoping to drown their pandemic-related sorrows in some competitive action. Even though they will not be allowed to return to stadiums just yet, many of them already started looking at their teams’ squads and transfer moves, hoping to predict which players will stand out from the rest. Their findings might very well reside on younger players, as many Portuguese clubs turn to youth development as the way forward considering the financial constraints caused by Covid-19. Here is a list of such youngsters (one per team) ready to prove themselves in the Portuguese football landscape.
Belenenses SAD // Nilton Varela // 19 // Portugal/Cabo Verde
Even before the pandemic stopped Liga NOS in the 2019/2020, and being only 18 years old, this offensive-minded young left-back had already established himself as a regular in the Belenenses SAD first team. After the ‘corona-break’ he became a bona fide starter, playing almost every remaining match. This season Nilton Varela will try to improve his record of 18 appearances, 1 goal and 2 assists, certainly relying on his above-average potency, aggressiveness and crossing skills. This will nonetheless be an improvement season for the left-back, as he hopes to refine his tactical defensive positioning and technical skills. Fun fact: his uncle, Portuguese international Silvestre Varela, will expectedly be the starting left-winger for Belenenses SAD. A family partnership on the left-flank, certainly worth keeping an eye on.
Honourable mention: Afonso Sousa (20 – midfielder – Portugal)
Benfica // Darwin Núñez // 21 // Uruguay
Darwin Núñez arrives at Benfica this summer with high expectations upon his shoulders, being the most expensive signing in Portuguese football’s history.
From a young age, the Uruguayan forward was dubbed as one of the most promising talents of South America, being a regular presence in his national team and making his debut for Uruguayan giants CA Peñarol at the age of 18. He confirmed his credentials in a fantastic one season stint playing for UD Almería, in Spain’s competitive second tier, scoring 16 goals (at an impressive clip of 0,59 goals per 90 minutes, which actually surpasses his xG of 0,45).
Besides his efficiency and finishing skills, Núñez is a mobile and agile attacking player, relying on his pace, dribbling and passing skills to disturb any marking arrangements he might encounter. One can only wonder what he might achieve playing under Jorge Jesus, a coach known to crave for mobile strikers keen to attack the space between and behind defenders to play in his intense 1-4-4-2 system.
Honourable mention: Gonçalo Ramos (19 – forward – Portugal); Nuno Tavares (20 – left-back – Portugal)
Boavista FC // Angel Gomes // 20 // England/Portugal
Boavista FC seem to have found themselves a ‘not so hidden gem’ in Angel Gomes. A Manchester United academy graduate and England youth team international, the offensive midfielder was from a young age on many ‘Young Players to watch’-type lists (even this website had him in its scouting lens three years ago). Such was his unusual potential that José Mourinho gave him his senior debut when Angel was only 16-years old, making him the fourth youngest player in United history.
Now, and despite not being able to rise through the ranks and become a regular at United’s senior side, his qualities and potential still hold true – gifted with above-average technique, an astute intelligence for the game and a fairly decent pace, he got signed by LOSC Lille and subsequently loaned to the historic Portuguese club, Boavista FC. From watching his pre-season, it was remarkable to notice how Angel Gomes seems to have grown, always selflessly looking to do the best play, no matter how simple. He will be a force to be reckoned with in Portugal’s first tier, his qualities being extremely adaptable, in my opinion, to Boavista FC’s quick and simple transition-minded style of play.
Honourable mention: Nuno Santos (21 – midfielder – Portugal)
CD Tondela // Tiago Almeida // 19 // Portugal
Deeply embedded in the fight against relegation, last season’s CD Tondela coach, Natxo González opted quite surprisingly to substitute some of his experienced veterans for youngsters from the U19 team, in the last matchdays of Liga NOS. He owned his bet before the media, stating ‘they were more deserving of playtime than some of their colleagues’. In fact, CD Tondela managed, in the past years, to assemble highly talented youth teams, betting on a mix of cast-out players from bigger sides and high-profile youngsters from Portugal’s lesser known teams. One example of the latter case is Tiago Almeida, a dynamic and aggressive right-back (he can also play as winger) that came from third-tier side Anadia FC to join CD Tondela U19 team and quickly ascended to the senior squad, managing to make his senior debut against giants Sporting CP and securing a starting spot in the last two matchdays of the CD Tondela’s successful relegation battle. With a long way still to go in his career, Tiago Almeida certainly has the qualities to compete for starting honours in this league. He might not cause a splash right away, but he is certainly worth keeping an eye on.
SC Farense // Madi Queta // 21 // Portugal/Guiné Bissau
Recently promoted, SC Farense opted to assemble a somewhat experienced side to try and enjoy a calm season in Liga NOS. Their youngest player is 21-year old Madi Queta, a FC Porto academy graduate and Portugal U19 international. Queta is a winger that can play in both sides, presenting his pace and ball control as his main attributes, being keen to exploit the opposition’s defence through diagonals into the box and runs to the back of the defensive line. After three years garnering experience in senior football, playing regularly in Portugal’s second tier for FC Porto B (86 matches, 10 goals and 10 assists), Madi Queta sure seems ready to compete and make it in the first division.
FC Famalicão // Gustavo Assunção // 20 // Brazil/Portugal
In Gustavo Assunção’s case, one could very well say ‘the apple does not fall far from the tree’. Son of the former FC Porto and Atlético de Madrid defensive midfielder, Paulo Assunção, Gustavo ended up having the chance to play for the ‘colchoneros’ youth team, where he completed his youth playing career. A defensive midfielder just like his father, Gustavo Assunção elected to play his first senior season in 2019/2020 for FC Famalicão, at the time a newly promoted team that had one of the most exciting projects in all of Portuguese football, recruiting young players from all around the world in order to be competitive in Liga NOS.
The youngsters of FC Famalicão exceeded all expectations, finishing 6th place and almost qualifying for Europa League. One of the integral pieces of Famalicão’s success was indeed their no.6, Gustavo Assunção, who played in 37 matches of their matches, displaying impressive tactical intelligence, passing traits and composure, especially for a 19-year old. In addition, he is already a defensive anchor, proving himself very efficient in both anticipation and tackling actions (amassing 49 direct ball recoveries through these type of actions last season). He will be undoubtedly one of his team’s cornerstones this season. The future certainly holds great heights for Gustavo Assunção, just like it did for his father.
Honourable mentions: Joaquín Pereyra (21 – midfielder – Argentina); Bruno Jordão (21 – midfielder – Portugal); João Neto (17 – winger – Brasil)
FC Porto // Fábio Vieira // 20 // Portugal
FC Porto managed to develop a highly talented generation in its academy, something noticeable in the high affluence of their players in Portugal’s youth teams as well as in consistently good performances in UEFA’s Youth League (culminating in the conquest of the trophy in the 2018/2019 season). Many of these players naturally ascended to the senior side, notably helping the club to win last season’s Portuguese championship.
One of the members of this FC Porto’s golden generation is Fábio Vieira, a cerebral winger who can also play as a central offensive midfielder. Fábio is not a traditional winger and offers different offensive solutions to those of other players in his squad. Although he can also carry his team forward in impressive runs throughout the side of the pitch, he is much more prone to use his left-foot either to carry the ball diagonally to the centre of the pitch or to find his teammates between the defensive lines with creative but fairly precise passes. He is also a willing shooter, notably in right-leaning free kicks, through which he has already scored some goals in his career. Having played for FC Porto since the beginning of his playing career, Fábio Vieira certainly wishes to assert himself in his club of the heart. This might be the season to do so.
Honourable mentions: Diogo Costa (20 – goalkeeper – Portugal); Tomás Esteves (18 – right-back -Portugal)
Gil Vicente // Lino // 20 // Brazil
Arriving at Gil Vicente from Brazilian team São Bernardo in the 2019/2020 season, Lino was often used as the first man of the bench by the Portuguese mid-table side (20 of his 26 matches he played as a substitute). A right-footed winger, he would play in both sides of the pitch with the same level of intensity, energy and speed, almost always providing a mid-game spark to his team. As the season progressed, he continued to play more and more meaningful minutes, proving to be adapted to the defensive and overall tactical rigour of Portuguese and European football. He should continue his ascending trajectory this season, either as a contributor off the bench or as a starter. Either way, his explosiveness will certainly be of delight to Gil Vicente fans.
CS Marítimo // Pedro Pelágio // 20 // Portugal
A hometown boy, Pedro Pelágio was born and raised in Funchal in the Madeira island, the residence of CS Marítimo. Football-wise, the Portuguese defensive midfielder is also a CS Marítimo-homegrown player, having never played for another club. Standing at 1.81 m, Pelágio is the prototype of the tall, aggressive but technically well-rounded defensive midfielder, not afraid to carry the ball, to pass it or do any other action that serves his team’s build-up. Off the ball, he has an astute sense of positioning and never shies away from ball disputes, many times showing his value in breaking the opposition’s transition or covering for his attacking teammates in defensive actions, be it in anticipation or any other type of more direct challenge to the opposing player who carries the ball.
His ascension has been steady, having made his debut at 18-years old for CS Marítimo senior side and each season playing more matches for the first team. I would be surprised if he doesn’t improve his playing time and overall influence this season for his team and become even more of a fan favorite.
Moreirense FC // Filipe Soares // 21 // Portugal
Another family story in this list: Filipe Soares forms, alongside his brother Alex Soares, the dynamic duo of box-to-box midfielders of Moreirense FC. The younger brother Filipe proves, as his coach Ricardo Soares already publicly stated, to be ready for playing in another dimension. Having played in all of Benfica’s youth teams with an impressive track record, Filipe Soares impressed Moreirense FC to sign him last season after making 37 matches, 3 goals and 8 assists for Estoril de Praia, a second-division side. Being only 19 years old, Filipe Soares was already one of the best players of the second division. Moreirense FC directors were right in betting on the young midfielder: alongside his brother he played 31 matches, scored 4 goals and contributed with 7 assists in Moreirense FC’s calm cruise to avoid relegation. An offensive-minded box-to-box but being able to play in all central positions of the midfield, Filipe Soares is undoubtedly one of the best young players in Liga NOS and the partnership with his brother may not last much longer.
CD Nacional // João Victor // 21 // Brazil
The other team from the Madeira island competing in Liga NOS, CD Nacional has long been famous for finding hidden gems in Brazil’s lower divisions, thanks to deep scouting operations, sometimes conducted by the president himself. João Victor seems to be the next in line. A winger able to play both sides and with a feel for the box and appearing in finishing positions, he certainly has impressed during pre-season and it seems as though he is ready to translate his technique and skills to a more intense and demanding league.
Honourable mention: Vincent Thill (20 – midfielder – Luxembourg)
FC Paços de Ferreira // Matchoi Djaló // 17 // Guiné Bissau/Portugal
Matchoi Djaló seems to be always a step ahead. Coming from Academia Mabodja, a youth football academy from Guiné Bissau, the young winger arrived at FC Paços de Ferreira being only 14 years old and always played in the youth team above his age range. At age 16, in the beginning of last season he made his professional debut and at age 17, in the end of last season he scored his first goal in Liga NOS – in both events he was one of the youngest players to do so. He still got most of his playing time in the U19 squad and he might still play some matches there this season. But Matchoi Djaló certainly deserves to be on this list, as he is one of the most promising players in Portuguese football and will surely improve his experience this season. When asked about him, his coach said ‘I’m not Santa Claus, he played because he worked and because he showed quality to play at this level’. Enough said.
Honourable mention: Martín Calderón (21 – midfielder – Spain)
Portimonense SC // Luquinhas // 19 // Brazil
Another example on discovering young and promising Brazilian players, Portimonense SC has in the last two seasons activated an U-23 team and used it, among other things, to provide a stepping stone to such players coming from Brazil with huge talent but in need of an adaptation to Portuguese football. Some of them have already made it to the first team, one example being the small but energetic offensive midfielder by the name of Luquinhas. He impressed last season with his clear-cut passing and dribbling skills so much so that he did not play as much for the U23 team as he could have, being almost all matchdays already on the first team’s bench (an 18-year old at the time). At the end of the season came his professional debut and he has continued to work with the first team, impressing in the pre-season. A growth season awaits him.
Rio Ave // Costinha // 20 // Portugal
Having divided his youth development years between FC Porto, SC Braga and Rio Ave, Costinha had an amazing first senior season playing for Rio Ave’s U23 side at the age of 18. He played every match, showing defensive consistency, long passing prowess, a fairly decent speed and tactical rigour. So much so that he became a regular in Portugal’s U19 national team. With Costinha you won’t find flashiness, but football is not about that. Costinha has proven a remarkable consistency since he has been in Rio Ave, being that type of reliable player that every coach dreams of having in his team. Although he might still play some minutes in the U23 team, I expect him to continuously fight for minutes in the senior side, as he has succeeded in becoming the no.2 option for right-back in this season’s squad.
Santa Clara // Lincoln // 21 // Brazil
Being only 16 years old, Lincoln made his debut for Brazil giants, Grêmio, by the hand of Luiz Filipe Scolari. In the next season he made 26 matches and 4 goals. He frequently collected caps in Brazil’s national youth sides, even playing in the U17 World Cup. But after a coach change in Grêmio, Lincoln ended up losing some space and his progression seemed to have taken a downward turn, with some loans to Turkey’s Caykur Rizespor and Brazil’s América Mineiro. Set on giving a new direction to his career he left Grêmio as a free agent and joined Santa Clara. He could not have made a better choice. He was one of the highlights of the Portuguese mid-table side (certainly the youngest), playing almost every match and impressing with his superior technique and passing traits. He also proved to be able to play any position in the midfield due to an impressive tactical adaptability. Already being observed by a number of bigger clubs, Lincoln sure seems ready to continue his rebirth as one of the most promising Brazilian talents.
Sporting de Braga // Abel Ruiz // 20 // Spain
SC Braga impressed everyone when they announced in the middle of last season to have signed Spanish youth international and La Masia rising star, Abel Ruiz. Having played an integral part in Spain’s U17 and U19 European cup wins as well as in Barcelona’s UEFA Youth League victory, the Spanish starlet managed to make his debut for Barça’s senior side in the 2018/2019 season. With so many accolades, he decided to continue his improvement as a player in one of Portugal’s biggest sides, where he will certainly earn more playing time than in Barça. The second half of last season helped him adapt to Portuguese football and now everyone expects wonders of this complete, mobile and hard-working striker, capable of offering much more than goals to his team. This season will be crucial for him to display the finishing consistency that can propel him to football stardom.
Honourable mention: David Carmo (21 – centre-back – Portugal)
Sporting CP // Nuno Mendes // 18 // Portugal
Ravaged by internal turmoil and financial constraints, Sporting CP elected to invert their first team policy and return to the basics: player development and a first-team side composed mainly of academy players. A new generation seems to have taken on that mantle. At the forefront of that group of players is 18-year old left-back Nuno Mendes. Having played 10 years for Sporting CP he was always named one of the best in each of his teams. Being just 17 years old he started playing for the U23 side and after the corona-break he became a starter for the senior team, to the detriment of Marcos Acuña, experienced left-back who was moved to centre-back in Sporting’s 3-4-3 system due to the ascension of the young left-back.
How not to be impressed by Nuno Mendes? Unbelievable pace and resistance, acute defensive sense of positioning, amazing ball control (it is quasi-impossible for him to lose the ball when it is in his control), the Portuguese left-back is a great fit for Sporting’s tactical system, in which he needs to constantly wander back and forth on the left flank. Some are already talking of a Portugal’s senior national team debut or a blockbuster transfer. Extremely humble and coachable, Nuno seems only set on working hard and improving as a player. That might be what will set him apart from other young promising talents.
Honourable mentions: Eduardo Quaresma (18 – centre-back – Portugal; Gonzalo Plata (19 – winger – Ecuador); Tiago Tomás (18-forward-Portugal)
Vitória SC // Marcus Edwards // 21 // England/Cyprus
An England youth international and a Tottenham academy graduate, Marcus Edwards seemed to be a bit lost in the Spurs U23 team, struggling with some injuries in the process. Having been loaned to Dutch side Excelsior in the 2018/2019 season, the Spurs did not make a big fuss about letting him sign a permanent deal with historic Portuguese club, Vitória SC. The rest is history: Edwards was one of the best players of last year’s edition of Liga NOS, having the best season of his short but promising career. He played 36 matches, scored 9 goals and contributed with 9 assists. This left-footed explosive winger seems to be set on staying in Vitória, at least for this season, where he can benefit from playing alongside newly signed Portuguese international, Ricardo Quaresma. An amazing crosser and fairly decent finisher (also from long range), but also a willing defender, Marcus Edwards sure seems ready to be, once again, a sensation in Portugal top flight.
Honourable mentions: Noah Holm (19 – forward – Norway); Yann Bisseck (19 – centre-back – Germany); Lyle Foster (20 – forward – South Africa)
Read all our Talent Radar articles here.