Four long-term replacements for Rúben Neves at Wolves using xGOLD – data analysis
Despite the general financial constraints clubs are facing all over the world because of COVID-19, there are some teams that will start spending next January in an attempt to improve their squads and reach their goals. It’s usually difficult to find good players and reach good deals in this market window so clubs need to be very sure of their targets and prepared to spend big, especially when taking players from their same league.
One of the names that have been linked to more clubs in recent weeks is Rúben Neves (24, Wolves & Portugal). After 194 games for the club, the Portuguese deep-lying playmaker seems to be reaching the end of his spell at Wolves and with EFL clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal or Man United chasing him, it will be difficult to keep him at the Molineux. However, the asking price is rumoured to be around £35 / €42 million so Wolves will have a significant amount to spend on Neves’ replacement.
In this data analysis, we’ll provide four U21 options that are statistically similar to Neves according to our exclusive xGOLD and could be a target for Wolves as long-term replacements for him. These players’ values on transfermarkt range from €400,000 to €4.5 million, so they should all be realistic alternatives in the financial aspect.
All the radars in this data analysis show the percentiles comparing each player to the rest of the central/defensive midfielders in their league. For example, a higher value on shots per 90 doesn’t mean that player takes more shots, it means he takes more shots than a higher percentage of strikers in his league. We must take into account the difference in level when interpreting the radars as it isn’t the same to perform in the Russian Premier League, the Argentinian Primera División, the Swedish Allsvenskan or the Croatian 2. HNL.
Ruslan Litvinov, 20 years old, Spartak Moskva & Russia
Ruslan Litvinov is a 2001-born Russian defensive midfielder who came through Spartak Moskva’s academy and is establishing himself as a regular starter for the first team this season. Before, he played 35 games for Spartak Moskva II in the Russian second division. Since he made his first-team debut in December 2020, he has played just 15 games, 13 of them this season. He has been capped at every youth level in Russia (over 40 youth caps) and is currently part of the Russia U21 squad.
Valued at €400,000 on transfermarkt, xGOLD gave him an 88% similarity to Neves.
Defensively, both players are very similar. Standing at 1.83m / 6’0’’, Litvinov looks better in the air than Neves, winning 50% of his 4.17 aerial duels per 90, both statistics in the top quartile among defensive midfielders in the Russian Premier League. Like Neves, he gets into a lot of defensive duels (8.54 per 90) and wins a good amount of them (62.2%). He also stands out for his defensive positioning, averaging 6.62 possession-adjusted interceptions per 90.
Looking at their passes, both players are very involved in their team’s attacks, with Litvinov ranking better than Neves in passes per 90 with 44.58 and with higher accuracy (80.14%). He also plays forward more often and with greater accuracy (65.81%). His lower average pass length (16.46m) explains why his overall accuracy is better but if we look just at final third passes, Litvinov ranks better in attempted ones (7.19 per 90) but his accuracy is much lower (66.7%).
Offensively, Litvinov doesn’t offer a lot. He only ranks above the 50th percentile for shots (1.56 per 90) and through passes (0.63 per 90) but almost doesn’t create chances or gets the ball into the box (0.73 passes into the box per 90).
In Litvinov, Wolves would get a more defensive player than Neves who can also progress the ball very effectively even if he doesn’t have the passing range of the Portuguese. The downside is his contribution to the attacks as he shoots less and from worse positions and doesn’t create a lot. However, he still has time to improve and shows some promising data to build on. The adaptation of Russian players to foreign leagues is another issue that should be tackled.
Agustín Almendra, 21 years old, Boca Juniors & Argentina
Agustín Almendra is a 2000-born Argentinian central midfielder who came through the academy at his current club, Boca Juniors. Since his first-team debut in 2018 aged 18, he has played 66 games (6 goals and 4 assists) and was part of the team that won the league in 2018. He has played for Argentina U17 and U20 (8 youth caps).
Valued at €4.5 million on transfermarkt, xGOLD gave him an 87% similarity to Neves.
Defensively, Neves looks better but that’s partially because he plays slightly deeper and in a less dominant team. Almendra does very well in the few defensive duels he gets into, winning 68.18% of them. In the rest of the defensive statistics, he only gets into the top 50% in the Argentinian Primera División for possession-adjusted interceptions with 6.35 per 90. Standing at just 1.75m / 5’9’’, he only wins 39.13% of his aerial duels.
Looking at both players’ passing radars, the similarity is clear. Almendra gets involved a lot with 55.69 passes per 90 and his high average pass length (19.8m) doesn’t affect his accuracy too much (85.38%). He plays forward slightly less often than Neves but his accuracy in these passes is better (74.5%). Almendra excels in getting the ball into the final third, completing 77.58% of his 13.35 final third passes per 90.
In attack, Almendra shoots more (2.22 shots per 90) but from worse positions (0.1 xG per 90). He’s more dynamic than Neves but still doesn’t excel in touches in the box (0.72 per 90). His passing quality also shows further up the pitch as his 1.02 deep completions and 1.2 through passes per 90 prove. He creates more than Neves with 0.05 xA per 90 but still isn’t one of the best central midfielders at this in his league.
Almendra shares Neves’ passing ability and range but is a more offensive player who can contribute higher up the pitch with his dynamism and ability to get himself and the ball into dangerous positions. He looks promising in defence but isn’t used to staying deep and defending a lot so that would need some adaptation. Wolves would get a player capable of contributing similar things to Neves but in a different way.
Aziz Outtara Mohammed, 20 years old, Hammarby & Ivory Coast
Aziz Outtara Mohamed is a 2001-born Ivorian defensive midfielder who started his career at ASEC Mimosas before joining Hammarby, first on loan in 2019 and then on a permanent for €100,000 in January 2020. He spent the 2020 season on loan at IK Frej Täby in the Ettan Norra, the Swedish third division, where he played 26 games, scoring two goals and assisting another one. Since he returned to his parent club, he has played 36 games, scoring four goals. He hasn’t represented his country yet.
Valued at €1.5 million on transfermarkt, xGOLD gave him an 85% similarity to Neves.
In defence, Outtara looks better than Neves. Standing at 1.89m / 6’2’’, he wins 51.69% of his 5.03 aerial duels per 90, both metrics in the top quartile for the Allsvenskan. He doesn’t get into as many defensive duels as Neves (8.15 per 90, the only defensive metric in which he’s not in the top 25% of the league) but wins a great percentage of them (61.11%). His positioning is also very good and ranks better than the Wolves man in possession-adjusted interceptions (7.34 per 90).
Their passing has some similarities but is different overall. Ouattara plays forward much more often and with good accuracy (74.02%) but is less involved in the attacks with 41.58 passes per 90. Both of them tend to play long, with Outtara ’s average pass length being 20.32m but Neves reaches the final third much more effectively as Outtara only attempts 6.17 final third passes per 90 and completes just 62.39% of them.
In the attacking phase, Outtara is definitely worse. He has a higher xG (0.15 per 90) and more touches in the box (1.3 per 90), mostly because of attacking set pieces, but is nowhere near Mendes in through passes (0.4 per 90) or passes to the box (0.85 per 90).
Outtara is a defensive and more physical alternative to Neves. He can also play as a centre-back and is very solid in duels. His defensive positioning is also excellent. He’s a very able passer but doesn’t get the ball as high up the pitch as Neves so Wolves would need to find new ways of progressing to those areas. He’s still very young and his top-level experience is limited so he can be expected to grow a lot in the next few seasons.
Tomislav Duvnjak, 18 years old, Dinamo Zagreb II & Croatia
Tomislav Duvnjak is a 2003-born Croatian defensive midfielder who has been at Dinamo Zagreb since he was 7 years old. He made his only first-team appearance in 2020 aged 17 and currently plays for their B team in the 2. HNL, the Croatian second division, where he has played 40 games so far. He has 24 youth caps for Croatia and is currently part of the U19 squad.
Valued at €400,000 on transfermarkt, xGOLD gave him an 85% similarity to Neves.
Defensively, Duvnjak ranks better than Neves in aerial duels, winning 45.16% of the 2.13 he contests per 90. He’s very similar in his positioning with 7.07 possession adjusted interceptions per 90 but ranks slightly better in the rest, winning 57.23% of his 10.91 defensive duels per 90.
When it comes to the passing game, Duvnjak is very involved on the ball and loses very few balls, completing 84.2% of his 46.03 passes per 90. He plays forward less often but with better accuracy (68.65%) compared to Neves. They play different kinds of passes as Duvnjak usually plays shorter (average pass length of 20.62m). Duvnjak does very well to reach the final third, completing 71.9% of his 8.3 final third passes per 90.
Offensively, Duvnjak isn’t a box-to-box midfielder and stays quite deep like Neves as his only 0.34 touches in the box per 90 show. He ranks decently in shots (1.37 per 90) and through passes (0.82 per 90) but usually attempts to score from far (just 0.04 xG per 90) and doesn’t create many good chances (0.04 xA per 90).
Duvnjak is the wild card in this data analysis. He looks very promising, being a very solid player in defence but also capable of progressing, distributing and getting the ball forward very effectively. Again, he’s still far from Neves in terms of creating further up the pitch but aged 18 he still has plenty of time to develop in this aspect. Playing at such a low level, he would surely need a long adaptation period before being capable of making an impact in the EPL.
Finding a player who can fill Neves’ boots immediately, at a low price and younger is almost impossible. The options we presented here have some of his traits and could develop the others to a certain extent so now. In the end, it will be up to Wolves to decide what’s the part of Neves’ game they want his replacement to have and the decision on who to sign will depend a lot on that.