Eder Militão is the son of a footballer, but it took him a while to embark on the path trodden by his father. When he was younger, he could more often be found riding his bike and flying his kite than playing with a ball out on the street. His interest arose suddenly, and his ascent was even swifter. He started playing for a local team at 12, signed on with São Paulo at 14, made his first-team debut there at 19, and then moved to Europe with Porto at 20.
Last month, three quarters of the way into his first campaign there, Real Madrid confirmed that they had agreed to pay his release clause of €50 million and sign him to a six-year contract that starts this summer. At 21, he became the most expensive defensive signing in their history.
“He has surprised everyone with how easy the transition has been for him,” says Michael Beale, who worked closely with Militão during his time as an assistant coach at São Paulo under Rogério Ceni. “I think he is naturally growing with each game he plays and each challenge he is set. He has risen to the challenge extremely well and it’s a big accolade that Real Madrid wanted to sign him.”
“He is a very intelligent boy who likes to listen,” his usual central defensive partner (and fellow Brazilian) Felipe said back in October. “He takes everything in straight away. He found his level quickly, as if he had been playing with us for a long time.”
Not only has Militão been part of the best defence in Portugal this season (in terms of both actual and expected goals conceded), but he is also a member of the side who have put together the club’s best Champions League run since the 2014-15 season. The first leg of their quarter-final against Liverpool takes place at Anfield on Tuesday.
Since the January return of Pepe — at the time, Madrid’s most expensive defender when he made the same move from Porto for €30 million back in 2007 — Militão has often been shuffled over to right-back, but it is in the centre of defence that his future lies at both the club and international level. In that position, he has shown the same qualities that originally convinced Ceni and Beale to move him up into the first-team group at São Paulo.
“Eder had big qualities,” Beale tells StatsBomb. “He was a player who was playing for the junior Brazilian national teams and had already alerted a few of the big European teams. He was athletic, strong and technically very good. He was also confident (in a nice way) and eager to take his chance.”
Once promoted, Militão formed part of an exciting young squad that also featured David Neres (Ajax), Luiz Araújo (Lille), Lyanco (Torino), Júnior Tavares (Sampdoria) and Lucas Perri (Crystal Palace) — a group that Beale says was as good as any he worked with during his time with the youth teams of Chelsea and Liverpool.
In the first team, Militão was initially employed as part of a back three, tasked with using his ability in possession to help build play out from the back. It was an attribute that had been evident during his time in the club’s youth teams, where he sometimes played in midfield, and has carried over to his initial experiences in Europe. His willingness to carry the ball past opponents into space, even if it means moving onto his weaker left side, makes him a valuable asset for a team seeking to move forward out of defence.
Most of his shorter passes are fairly simple, but he does occasionally pick out some interesting angles.
He also does a pretty neat impression of the sort of casually lofted ball forward that Sergio Ramos, the man he will be expected to deputise for and perhaps eventually supplant in Madrid, has long made his trademark.
When Militão first began training with the first team at São Paulo, there were a couple of things that really stood out about him. “Personality,” Beale explains. “That is the key for all young players. He came into the first-team group and immediately wanted the ball and wanted to show what he could do. That, and his aggression out of possession.”
On that second point, there is more than a little bit of Ramos in the way Militão tackles every defensive situation with full confidence — rightly or wrongly — in his ability to resolve it. He occasionally takes risks, but always with the knowledge that he has the pace, physique and tenacity to rectify anything that doesn’t initially work out for him.
Brazil coach Tite recently highlighted Militão’s supreme recovery pace as a quality that would give his side the ability to play with a higher defensive line, and that is just one of a number of physical attributes that give him the necessary reach to hedge his bets when taking up a defensive position. Despite standing six foot two inches tall on a relatively gangly frame, he is still supple enough in changing direction to cover off various angles.
Take this example of a period of play from Porto’s 0-1 defeat away to Benfica earlier this season.
That is not exactly textbook defensive organisation. A lot of space opens up between Militão and his central defensive partner Felipe. But Militão has nevertheless put himself in a position whereby he is well-placed to defend any attempt to play the wide runner in behind, has covered the clearest angle for a pass slipped into the penalty area, and can use his height to provide a barrier for a near-post cross — the eventual outcome.
Playing in that manner requires good understanding and a solid supporting structure, which Porto usually have in place. That was particularly the case with the Felipe and Militão defensive partnership that took them through the Champions League group stage. Militão was normally the more proactive of the pair in stepping forward to deal with danger, but their roles were fairly interchangeable, with each covering for the other when necessary. If that same support network isn’t there in Madrid, he could be more exposed.
Beale, though, believes that next step will not be beyond the capabilities of a player whose desire to push and improve himself has always been clear. “He had a big talent and matched it with a big motivation and need to be successful,” he explains. “Then it’s all about opportunity and how a player reacts to that opportunity and increased expectation. You can see his energy now at Porto. He hasn’t lost any hunger to achieve more and more.”
If there is one final nagging question mark hanging over Militão’s assured and impressive performances this season, it is the quality of opposition he has come across to date. Porto are yet to play any of the top 25 teams in FiveThirtyEight’s Global Club Soccer Rankings, while Benfica (3oth) are the highest ranked of the three top-50 sides they have encountered. By that measure, and surely general consensus, Liverpool and their fearsome front three will represent by far the sternest exam Militão has yet faced.
“I think it’s the greatest challenge,” Beale says. “Knowing him, I’m sure he is looking forward to testing himself against Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. He is a young and fearless right now. I’ll be watching with interest.”