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Liga NOS Talents: Beyond The Big Three

By Tiago Estêvão | December 5, 2017 | Analytics

When most people think of the Portuguese league, they think about youngsters and exciting, creative players. Overall, I think they’re right: wingers and attacking midfielders are our thing and, whether they are Portuguese or foreigners who came to make the jump, this is very much a hunting ground for the European elite.

Sporting’s Gelson Martins is a key part of their set-up and depending on what he shows at the World Cup (you already know how clubs are), could very well move for figures around the 40M€ mark next summer. Benfica’s Zivkovic puts up some of the league’s finest numbers every time he plays but rarely plays, for reasons unknown. But you’ve probably heard of those guys and the “big three” just aren’t willing to sell their assets for less than humongous figures.

What clubs often fail to look at is the other side of the coin: other Portuguese clubs often sell incredibly cheaply. Often burdened by troublesome financial situations, they have no leverage to refuse decent offers even if they’re well under the player’s market value. That price-quality ratio turns this league into an ideal yet somewhat unexplored shopping spot for mid-table sides in Spain, Italy and France. By way of contrast, the Premier League clubs are the rich friends who don’t really need to buy stuff on sale.

Some clubs in particular have caught on: Nice got Jean Michaël Seri and Dalbert for a combined 3M€, from Paços de Ferreira and Vitória SC respectively and the bottom half of Ligue 1 has picked up a few others. Even the few guys that were slightly more expensive have been very much worth it: Zé Luiz has become a very interesting forward for champions Spartak in Russia – costing them 6.5M€ -, while you’d sure as hell give 7.2M€ for Diogo Jota today wouldn’t you? Also, remember when Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink moved from Boavista to Leeds for less than 2M€ before costing Chelsea around 10 times that? (Maybe you do? I don’t, it was a month before I was born, but sounds like one hell of a deal!)

So, let’s take a look at three interesting wide forwards popping up in lesser sides in Portugal, that clubs will be looking at, and figure out if they would be worth pursuing in the market.

First name on the table is Shoya Nakajima. Since I know it’s a rarity to see a Japanese player around these parts, it’s worth mentioning that he plays for newly promoted side Portimonense who, due to contacts in Japan, have brought in a couple of J-League players over the last couple of seasons with moderate success.

If you look at his initial numbers he looks straight up insane, that he's highly rated makes sense and just being generally fun to watch. Playing as a wide forward from the left, he’s already scored 6 goals and sprinkled a couple of assists on top. He won his spot with the season already under way, that’s why he has played only ~700’ – and means we should be cautious in our interpretation.

If we look at his xG Chain Template, it’s not surprising to see his numbers drop when looked at through xG glasses since he scored his six goals from only 21 shots and he takes a large portion of them from outside the box (~62%). That said, 0.29 xG/90 is still very decent for a wide forward, and five of his goals have come from inside the box so… I think he gets the concept. Beyond that, he is actually quite the complete creator, with above average dribbling and key pass numbers.

A clever little footballer, his capacity to pierce through tight spaces from his low centre of gravity with the ball always under control should be highlighted. Any potential progression to a bigger team should be aided by that capacity to work against closed defences.

Well, by that and by the fact that his team doesn’t really play like a small side in a traditional sense – Portimonense have the 4th highest goal tally in the league despite just being promoted (they also concede the 2nd most in the league so yes, they’re a very fun watch).

Portimonense’s largest ever sale: Simy to Crotone (16/17) – 830k €

Next up is Vitória SC’s Raphinha. Last season Vitória had their best season in years, finishing in fourth with an eight point margin to rivals Braga who had to settle for fifth. Raphinha was in his first season with the main team and his influence grew as the season went on, taking advantage of teammates’ injuries to get minutes  and finishing the season with 10 G+A in ~1700’. With player turnover in the summer, he became the team’s number one option out wide at just 20 years old. He is the league’s fourth top scorer with eight goals already, is playing in the Europa League and is deemed the star man for his side. He is bound to show up on radar of a lot of clubs but the question is, is he worth pursuing?

Well, he is obviously overperforming when it comes to goals, but he is still putting up decent xG figures for a winger – reminder that this is a forward template and except if you’re called Mo Salah, you’re not really expected to be putting up 0.5 XG/90 from wide. Left footed playing from the right, he tends to appear well in the box where he takes a solid majority of his shots.

Creation wise, he relies a lot on set-pieces to back up his key passing numbers but, on the other hand, is a good set-piece taker. For a player who is as technically able as he is, he doesn’t complete nor try as large of an amount of take-ons as one might expect, but it comes down to the set-up more than the individual ability. Vitória SC are very counter-attack reliant offensively, so his role is direct and heavily focused on exploiting his speed into open space and the timing of his runs into the box.

I’m a bit doubtful of his potential to grow into a player for a possession-based big team set-up but could very well work as a Mahrez-esque asset for a mid-table side. The Liga NOS-Serie A route is a bit uncommon but since Raphinha carries Italian nationality alongside his Brazilian one, I can see it happening.

Vitória SC’s largest ever sale: Bebe to Manchester United (10/11) – 8.8M€

Finally, Oghenekaro Etebo. Although semi-unknown as well, Etebo is, out of these three, the player with most press behind him. He's been linked to Premier League teams multiple times over the last year (mainly Leicester but WBA and Arsenal as well) and, with his 13 senior caps, is a familiar face of this Nigeria side that qualified for the World Cup, so it’s pretty safe to assume he'll be in Russia. All very positive signs for a 22-year-old who is now only on his second full season with Feirense.

Let's start by saying his output isn't amazing, but it does match expectation and he is legitimately quite an interesting player. Often playing from the left in Feirense’s 4-2-3-1, he’s been deployed centrally a couple of times as well – either as a striker or as an attacking midfielder. In the national team, he has also been used in a central role with a lot of emphasis on late runs into the box. Back to the league, Feirense are in an awful run of form and are the third worst team at keeping possession of the ball. An even bigger issue is that they don’t play many long balls either (12th in the league). They want to keep the ball and play short with it, they’ve just been unable to.

This means Etebo doesn’t get the ball anywhere near enough, is often positioned too deep to have much offensive impact so – on the other hand – gets more defensive action than most wide players. He is one of those players who I believe would look a lot better in a per-possession spectrum as opposed to per-90 minutes – something that has been discussed on Twitter a bit as of late.

Working with what we’ve got, though, we have a player who has for sure been sipping on fruit from the xG tree over the summer: going from taking only 41% of his shots from inside the box last season to 66% in this one. In fact, he has already taken more shots from inside the 18 yard box in 17/18 than he did in all of 16/17.

Although he doesn’t often provide that magical final ball, he is a very decent passer and quite a competent ball-carrier, combining his physicality with a capacity to dribble through tight spaces. With four goals and an assist, he has contributed directly to 45% of his team’s goals and has a skill-set versatile enough to adapt to quite a lot of systems.

Feirense’s largest ever sale: Vaná to FC Porto (17/18) – 1M€

In conclusion, we’re often really focused in the high end of the transfer market, where absolutely every risk should be calculated due to the large amounts invested. If there’s a situation where teams should take a chance it’s when approaching these type of players – young, clearly talented, putting up above average numbers in a lesser context. I mention these club’s biggest sales to give you an idea of how little these players could go for. Vitória are a top 5 team in the country, so Raphinha could prove a tricky one to get for a reasonable value, but the others will for sure be picked up for values that won’t make a dent on the budget of pretty much any top-5 league team.

Article by Tiago Estêvão