Reflections on David Neres: One Year Later
David Neres was one of the most conflicting prospects I’ve come across over the past couple of years. His ability to create goals for himself or others last season (25 combined goals an assists in less than 3000 Eredivisie minutes for a 20 year old was super impressive), along with credible shot contribution rates, made his productivity stand out in a very positive light. Even accounting for the Eredivisie being weird, and Ajax having a huge talent advantage within it, Neres passed the type of statistical benchmarks that you would hope for from a young attacker with flying colors.
But after watching film of Neres, I got scared by some of the flaws in his game, to the point that I rated Malcom as the better prospect t the time. I valued his elite athleticism and functional playmaking more than Neres’ elite coordination on-ball. Now it’s interesting to look back at that comparison 13 months later. That was probably close to the peak of where Malcom was as a young prospect, and he’s effectively lost an entire season of development at Barcelona. It’s tough to say whether this lost season will have a major effect on Malcom’s overall trajectory as a prospect, or if he’ll get a move to a club that he can get actual game time and this is just a bump on the road.
Neres hasn’t faced that same issue, despite Ajax's the acquisition of Dusan Tadic over the summer from Southampton cutting into available game time at the attacking positions. Instead of playing over 3000 minutes in both the Eredivisie and European competition like he did last season, Neres will probably end up playing closer to 2500 minutes, which is still not an insignificant number given that precocious young talents need game time to grow. Just like last season, he’s producing at a level that is comparable with almost anyone near his age.
What’s been interesting with Neres this season has been the degree of freedom with his positioning. He’s featured a lot in the left halfspace when play has progressed into the final third, where he's trying to strike up combination plays. From there, he can make runs into the box through either the wide left channel or by going through the middle of the box. If he's in the right halfspace, there's the chance for him to try and cut into the middle and either pass it to someone dangerous with his quality touch on passes or recycle the ball to a nearby teammate. While he wasn't quite restricted to only being an inverted winger from the right side last season, his freer role this season has probably helped in attempting to destabilize the opposition with his positioning.
One aspect of Neres's game that has become more apparent over the last year is his off-ball speed and the type of damage he can do with it. Neres’ ability to sense danger behind the backline is strong and he’s constantly on his toes looking to receive passes in space. His off-ball speed is elite, and given that many of his runs originate from the halfspace, it gives him a greater ability to be a threat for long passes. Given that he's playing on a squad that features high caliber passers, particularly Hakim Ziyech and his penchant for attempting high value passes with regularity, Neres is in the perfect environment to leverage his speed.
As it was last season, Neres's biggest appeal is that he has the type of coordination on-ball that you see from very few attacking talents. He's able to thread a pass between defenders and get the ball into dangerous spots with regularity. One can nitpick and say he's largely doing this against Eredivisie competition, but I'm pretty confident he'll be above average with his forward passing and overall chance creation even though the majority of them come from his left foot.
Neres is one of those young players who you don't have to worry about reigning in shot selection or wondering whether he'll waste possessions settling for low quality shots. He has about as clean a shot map as one could hope for from a young talent, and he provides value in that respect because it's not too often that you find 18-21 year old attackers who take shots at an average expected goal per shot value of 0.16. His judicious shot selection is a byproduct of a couple of things: he plays on one of the two major clubs in the Netherlands and that can skew numbers in a positive manner for players. Also, he is very hesitant to taking shots with his right foot so you end up cutting out potential shots from cutting inwards off the left wing, the type of shot that is a staple of wide attacking talents.
That reluctance to use his right foot is a key trait with Neres. It's not breaking ground to suggest that players are more likely to favor one foot than the other, and it's rare to find players like Ousmane Dembele who bring legitimate value by being both confident as a two-footed player and actually having the results to back it up (Justin Kluivert is an example of someone that has the confidence but more erratic results). But Neres is an extreme case and closer to being an outlier type in terms of dependence on his favored foot, even with the glimpses of decent right footed passes that you'll see from him. This isn't necessarily the worst thing in the world because he's got such a quality left foot to help compensate, but you'll see this flare up every now and then in a stark manner.
If there's one play that crystallizes both the good and bad with Neres as a young talent, it would be this one. The good is that there are a lot of players who would receive the ball in this position and then turn and take a speculative shot, which is a waste of a possession. The bad part is that there's an opportunity to carry the ball into the right side of the box for perhaps an individual shooting chance or a cutback for a teammate, the latter being a somewhat decent possibility because the team has a man advantage in the box. Someone who was a higher caliber athlete would've bet on himself to beat his man off the dribble and get to his spot. Given that he's going up against Eredivisie defenses, which aren't exactly renown for being stout, these instances help reinforce the notion that Neres will have trouble with his athleticism on-ball outside of the Ajax cocoon.
To a large extent, the conflicting feelings that I had a year ago with David Neres still persist when trying to think of his potential ceiling outcomes. You want to fall in love with him as a player because of parts of his skillset. He is an elite athlete off-ball and combines that with good timing for his runs, and this could be an x-factor for him being a huge success at his next club if utilized properly. I think he has good spatial awareness and is able to handle himself well during combination. Combine all that with very high level touch on his passing, and you've already covered a lot of what teams would want in a young wide player. And yet while he's generally good as a dribbler along with having very good shiftiness, another season has shown Neres to be overwhelmed at times when isolated against even mediocre defenders, along with being almost entirely dependent on his left foot. The good outweighs the bad with Neres and in a optimal environment, he could be a big time star, but clubs that are scouting him can't simply think of him as someone with such an overwhelming skillset that he'll be a unambiguous success in many situations.
It's generally acknowledged that going to the right club is important for the developmental paths of young talents. With Neres, it's going to be especially important for him to find the perfect mix of squad and system fit given what he can and can't do. The good thing with Neres playing on Ajax and the team's success in Europe this season is that the worst club you could realistically expect for him to go to in the future would be ones who are on the outside looking in for Champions League spots (Arsenal being an example), but those clubs would have to ably replicate the setup Ajax have with their collective passing as a team to justify the high price tag that will come with a future Neres transfer.
It's an interesting thought exercise to try and make player comparisons with Neres to visualize how he might fare outside of Ajax. Riyad Mahrez is an example of someone who like Neres has amazing technique with his left foot and broadly wouldn't be considered an overwhelming athlete, but along with having greater spontaneity in his dribbling, he's also better with right foot. Mahrez, during his absolute peak in 2015-16, was ruining defenders off the dribble and we've not seen that with Neres yet. Perhaps current day Erik Lamela (without the defensive value) is a better representation of how Neres is more likely to profile: being able to be an upper tier xG contributor without necessarily being an elite off the dribble threat (in the case of Lamela, that's more due to past injuries).
Whoever ends up being David Neres' next club after Ajax, whether that transfer occurs next summer or beyond that, will have to juggle all the factors mentioned previously along with even further extensive scouting before deciding on whether they're confident on him being a future star. Seeing as he's tied down to a contract until 2022 with Champions League money coming in this season for Ajax (not to mention a big fat Frenkie De Jong transfer fee), it would stand to reason that Neres' future fee will not come cheap. I am on the more skeptical end of the spectrum when it comes to Neres, and while I don't suspect he'll be a bust in a tougher league, I am more confident in Steven Bergwijn being a star talent outside the Eredivisie than I am with Neres. This could end up being entirely off the mark and Neres ends up being a stud, but he's the type of young Eredivisie talent where it's fair to be more skeptical of despite the gaudy statistical profile.