Some of the most exciting players to watch in world football at the moment are young players under the age of 23. Attacking players like Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland get the most recognition since they have transformed into the key men for their teams, scoring loads of goals in the process. However, there are other players that are yet to shine on a big stage but are no less important for their sides and perform at a strong level already and are perhaps ready to make the step up to bigger teams.
One of these players is the 18-year-old Sporting CP left-back Nuno Mendes. The youngster has come through their youth academy and taken the league by storm, being one of the best performers and contributing to the team’s title challenge.
Mendes has been able to fit into a more attacking wing-back role in the current Sporting set-up quite well, and his proficiency in both defence and attack is impressive. His confidence and concentration at such a young age have helped him shoulder his responsibilities well and support his teammates all over the pitch.
Current role in the Sporting set-up
After a few disappointing years where they were unable to win the title, Sporting are finally on the verge of becoming champions, sitting six points clear at the top of the Primeira Liga at the time of writing.
The improvement in their defensive performance compared to the last couple of seasons has brought balance in different phases and transformed the team into title contenders with an entertaining attacking playing style.
The 18-year-old is a crucial part of their successful record both in attack and defence. Mendes has done well to earn Rúben Amorim’s trust and become a regular starter since his arrival into the first-team squad. Sporting have the best defensive record in the league, having conceded only 13 goals in 26 games at the time of writing, and Mendes’ contribution as a left wing-back in their most-used 3-4-3 formation is immense.
Sporting have had a very successful attacking strategy, being very successful both from open play and in converting their set-plays into goals. They usually attack through the wings, making Mendes’ role very important for their ball progression and attacking actions.
His dribbling and crossing abilities allow him to deliver the ball up the pitch and help the team in creating goalscoring opportunities. Meanwhile, his defensive awareness and aerial presence support the team defensively and often save them from conceding dangerous chances. He decreases their vulnerability when defending set-pieces and when being caught on a counter.
Defensive awareness and decision-making
While in his current wing-back position his tendency to help with ball progression and join the attack is Mendes’ best trait, his defensive contribution is also excellent. His actions have helped the team improve at the back, and while it is sometimes risky to employ a back three, at Sporting, the wing-backs manage to split their responsibilities well and support the centre-backs successfully. Their actions during transitions include ball interceptions, recoveries, and duels, which help the team immensely in reaching an average of 58.18% possession per game and employing their attacking strategy well.
Mendes’ movement up and down the flank often allows him to recover the ball in advanced areas and set it up for his teammates in aim to create goalscoring opportunities. His 7.95 recoveries on average per 90 provide the team with more support when defending the flanks since many of their opponents try to exploit his advanced positioning.
That often doesn’t work, though, due to his awareness and smart movement, which allow him to drop back promptly and cover any gaps left behind. His success in the air is beneficial for Sporting too. It helps them in defending set-plays, but also during the build-up in efforts to retain possession in key areas. With more than 50% success rate in his aerial and ground duels, he is very reliable during transitions. This gives the team stability and allows them more freedom to roam in attack.
His pace and ability to judge situations well help him in performing well-measured actions that rarely result in fouls and yellow cards. His anticipation is also key for the team defensively, and it also allows him to immediately start attacks and catch the opposition off guard.
Ball progression contribution and throw-ins
Something that sets Mendes apart is his ball progression skills. Combining his pace with his technical skills and confidence results in successfully advancing the ball to the final third and creating goalscoring chances after breaking through defensive structures.
His runs with the ball are impressive thanks to his dribbling abilities and solid work under pressure. His calmness and confidence on the ball are truly impressive and are a big reason behind his impressive performance so far this season. He is especially strong in 1v1 situations allowing his teammates to move off the ball into advanced areas while he holds onto possession, which helps them in overloading the penalty area and immediately improves their efficiency in front of goal.
His movement and runs increase the team’s explosiveness in attack, since he wouldn’t only exploit the flanks and cross the ball but also cut inside and occupy the half-spaces. That way, he provides an additional option in attack, which often results in dragging defenders out of position or even being a direct threat. The team have an improved success rate in attack thanks to his 4.14 dribbling efforts on average per game.
He is successful in his passing too, as a result of his ability to read the game well and of his spatial awareness. The 18-year-old often sends diagonal long balls directly to the final third in efforts to bypass the opposition’s press and break defences. The awareness of his teammates’ positioning is very important for the team’s build-up play. Of course, as a wing-back he does contribute with crossing too, using his pace and control to make runs on the flank and provide width and depth.
Something noticeable in his game is his ability to turn throw-ins into opportunities for his team. Whenever the opposition are marking his teammates too tightly, he would look for an alternative solution and pass the ball to the ball-far side where he has a free teammate in an advanced position. Many of his long throws have resulted in chances for Sporting, which is an additional asset to their attacking ventures.
Providing a direct threat
As mentioned, his movement with the ball often gives him the opportunity to shoot on his own. Due to his tendency to cut inside and occupy the half-spaces, he occasionally moves into goalscoring positions and would not hesitate to take on these opportunities.
While his success rate is not very high, it does increase the pressure in and around the penalty area and gives more options in attack. While many other full-backs/wing-backs do provide a lot of assists and key passes, Mendes is more focused on the build-up play and keeping possession of the ball until it reaches the final third.
His attacking instincts come from his background as a number 10. Once he joined the Sporting academy, he made the transition from a number 10 to a full-back with his coaches being convinced that his abilities would fit the profile having in mind his pace, confidence on the ball and attacking flair.
Mendes could be a great asset for any team that wants their full-back/wing-back involved in the attacking play. His natural ball progression skills and flair could help in exposing defences, while his awareness and concentration provide more security at the back.
His attitude and confidence are impressive at such a young age and it seems like he could shine even brighter should he have the right support from his teammates.
Being selected in the senior Portugal squad is a huge recognition for the 18-year-old and he should make it to the squad for the Euros this summer, which would be the perfect stage for him to showcase his talent in front of a global audience.