Dário Essugo: The Sporting CP youth who broke a Cristiano Ronaldo record – scout report
Six days after his 16th birthday, the unthinkable happened for Dário Essugo.
After joining Sporting CP at the age of nine, Essugo raced through the ranks at the club and was now lacing up his boots for the first team.
In doing so, he became the youngest debutante for the famed Lisbon side, surpassing the previous two record-holders, Joelson Fernandes and Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
Essugo’s meteoric rise through the club and the bright future ahead of him are the topics of this tactical analysis. We’ll first look into his positional profile, showing how the club has used his talents on the pitch. Next, a scout report on his breathtaking performances at the U17 Euros, then compare and contrast his performances there with his season at Sporting Clube de Portugal.
With João Palhinha headed to the EPL (scout report), Sporting CP’s midfield has an opening. Rumour has it that Al-Musrati, the Braga holding midfielder, is a transfer target. Should that transfer fail to go through, Essugo is the likeliest player to make the jump from the academy.
Though he is a very different player from Palhinha and Al-Musrati, Essugo has appeared in that defensive midfielder role for Sporting on a couple of occasions in the past 2 years. For the most part, he has taken his reps in Liga 3 with Sporting B. Always the deeper of the two central midfielders, Essugo is now on the brink of a first-team breakthrough.
On a rare occasion with the first team against Arouca, Essugo played the Palhinha role as the club’s number ‘6’. From a positional standpoint, he found the same space that we typically see from Palhinha. In the image below, he has his pocket between the opposition’s forward and midfield lines. That’s precisely where Sporting stations their number ‘6’, giving themselves a bounce player in attack and central coverage against opposition counterattacks.
Though he has played in a flat midfield four with Sporting B and the first team, his experience with the Portugal U17 team has seen him play at the base of a midfield three. During the U17 Euros, he often split the centrebacks during the buildup to give Portugal a 3-4-3 setup.
As Portugal progressed higher up the pitch, he would move into a more advanced position in midfield. Better connected to his fellow midfielders, he was the default deep outlet, setting Portugal’s attacking tempo and drawing the opposition higher up the pitch to then exploit space behind them.
From a positional standpoint, he put in more impressive performances at the base of a midfield three than in a flat-four. Setting aside the obvious difference in the level of competition, the midfield three with the Portugal U17 national team allowed him to find better positions in the opposition’s press while also simplifying the direction of his body orientation.
Our previous image shows him finding a nice pocket of space outside of the Danish press and then playing a first-touch pass into the wings for his left-back. Note the forward-facing body orientation giving him better field vision and allowing him to play quickly.
Compare that to the image below. Space is a little bit tighter, the Sporting midfield is intermixed with Arouca’s men and Essugo has been caught ball-watching, lacking awareness of his surroundings and the available options.
His body orientation is poor and his pass is hurried, blind and erratic, leading to a turnover. Though he has far more repetitions in a flat four midfield, improved body orientation and scanning are necessary for him to claim a spot in the first team starting XI.
Those issues mostly surface in the middle third of the pitch. In the attacking third, Essugo is much more efficient in finding good spaces to play from and the body orientation to match.
The example below comes from a Portugal attack against Scotland at the U17 Euros, but this is something Essugo does well in either system. From that deeper position, he can find his space outside of the opposition’s press and maintain a better orientation to his reference points.
Finally, though he is very good at offering final third support, Essugo also covers ground incredibly well. One of the inspirations for this analysis was his pitch presence at the U17 Euros. He was everywhere and had a hand in everything. It was the kind of performance that brings to mind N’Golo Kanté.
That observation carried over to league play as well. Against Real S.C., Essugo was slightly higher up the pitch offering support to Sporting’s final third attack when the opposition won the ball and immediately played long. Dutifully protecting his centrebacks, Essugo unleashed a lightning-quick recovery run. By the time the first ball was contested, the holding mid was already in position to battle for the second.
As the ball touched the ground, Essugo was there to claim it and end the Real attack. Although he lacks the size of his predecessor, Essugo’s mobility is so phenomenal that he can offer more support to the players in front of him while still giving himself enough time to recover and support the centrebacks.
From a physical standpoint, Kanté and Essugo have very similar statures and builds. Like the Frenchman, the 17-year-old Portuguese also has the kind of wiry strength that allows him to get stuck into larger opponents. He won’t win many aerial duels, but his quickness, stamina and strength offer a unique profile for the position.
U17 Euro performances
Watching the U17 Euros, Essugo caught our eye time and time again. Subjectively speaking, he was Portugal’s best player, and perhaps the most impressive of the tournament. He rarely made mistakes, brought order to the game and dictated play. In terms of aesthetics, he was the most enjoyable player to watch.
In Portugal’s 4-3-3 formation, he seemed to exercise full control over the midfield. As Portugal built up, he split the centre-backs, setting the tempo from deep. As the play progressed into the middle third, the Sporting B star showed his press resistance, speed of play and passing range. Even when surrounded in the central channel, he was able to find his way out of pressure with long diagonals like the one below against France in the semifinal.
With both Sporting B and Portugal, he has shown the ability to hit his high and wide wingers with accurately driven balls, but where he really stands out is his ability to pick out teammates while keeping the ball on the ground.
When he can pull himself outside of the opposition’s press and get into a forward-facing body orientation, he does exceptionally well to break lines. He shows a good understanding of the pace needed to complete the pass and consistently plays into his teammate’s correct foot. That ability to send a message with his pass is one of the reasons Sporting made him the record debutante with the first team.
Beyond his contributions in possession, Essugo is a tremendous defensive player. As mentioned, his ability to cover ground made him one of the standouts at the U17 Euros. Whether protecting his two centrebacks from the central channel or moving into the wings in anticipation of the opponent’s finding a drifting #10, his awareness, quick response and pace were obvious.
He did well to start more centrally, complicating the most direct route to goal. That typically forced the opposition to funnel their attacks into the wings. Once the opposition rerouted their attack and moved a player between the lines to receive, Essugo was quick to arrive and apply pressure.
That’s exactly what happened against France. Looking for a high target, Essugo, who was 5 to 10 m behind his opponent, saw that France was prepared to advance through the wings. With the opposition committed to his left, limiting the odds of progression through the central channel, Essugo made his move.
His opponent took his first touch on the half-turn assuming he had an open field in front of him. However, Essugo quickly stepped between his opponent in the ball to win possession.
Another quick note on that sequence is the young Portuguese’s tackling technique. He uses his arms very well, impacting the opponent’s centre of gravity with his initial contact. Between that, hip contact and Essugo’s quickness, which is often superior to his opponents, he routinely wins his tackles.
Finally, his defensive work was on display further down the pitch as well. Again showing his ability to protect the backline, Essugo reads cut-back crosses into the box extremely well. He does well to identify runners as they approach the box, but he never forgets his zonal responsibilities either. Even on the fly, he shows a very good understanding of how to read the opposition’s attack and get into the right spaces to eliminate the threat.
But being among the best players at the U17 Euro tournament and claiming a starting eleven spot with the Champions League club are very different levels of play. That’s where the scout report is heading. Having finished our analysis of his U17 Euro performance, we will now look at his season with Sporting, their B-side and their UEFA Youth League team.
Primeira, Liga 3 and UEFA Youth League
The biggest difference between his matches with club and country is that with the former, his opponents are typically full-grown men and seasoned professionals. Even in the UEFA Youth League, he was competing against some of Europe’s top academies like Ajax and the Bundesliga superpower Borussia Dortmund.
If there was a red flag during the club matches we studied, it was certainly the frequency at which he deferred to negative passes. While there is a time and a place for negative passes, which Domagoj Kostanjšak showed in his tactical analysis, there were many instances that showed a lack of awareness of available solutions. You may recall from the Palhinha analysis that Rúben Amorim’s tactics did not require the Fulham target to fully utilise his passing range. Perhaps that’s the case with Essugo, but the more likely explanation is that he’s a young player still developing his tactical awareness and spatial orientation.
Though he moves well in tight spaces, Essugo is still missing consistent scanning and spatial awareness. Especially in a flat, four-man midfield, he does have to continue developing his understanding of how to progress the ball without the kind of midfield connections he would see with a three-man triangle.
In the image below, Sporting is playing Dortmund in the UEFA Youth League. The first image shows Essugo playing negatively while his teammate looks on with arms outstretched wondering why he didn’t receive the ball. In the second clip, Essugo receives the return pass. His positioning is decent between the Dortmund lines but his body orientation is closed and he hasn’t scanned for options.
Moving to frame 3, Essugo has the ball at his feet and again chooses to play negatively to the left-centre-back. Meanwhile behind him is another teammate with outstretched arms, which is especially clear in image four. Between images three and four, look at the options available to him and the ease with which Sporting could have played out. Instead, he deferred to the left-centre-back, putting Sporting under duress, leading to a long pass attempt and turnover.
When he’s at his best, Essugo is not only finding quality spaces, but he’s also arriving with intent. The image below shows exactly what this means. As the pass arrives, he already has the next pass picked out. So long as the Leiria midfield doesn’t close the gap, which they didn’t, he’s free to play. In this instance, he plays forward with the second pass, splitting the midfield and playing into his target between the lines.
There does seem to be some progress over the course of the season, which is exactly what you would hope to see from a 17-year-old making the full-time jump out of the academy.
We got a nice glimpse of the progress he’s made with his speed of play late in the season with the Sporting first team. After collecting the ball in the box, Essugo dribbled into the right-wing towards his right midfielder. After a quick little combination to bypass a defender, he received the ball again in the right half-space. On his first touch, he bent a beautiful first touch pass to his left midfielder, completing the switch of play for Sporting.
During that sequence in particular, once he released the ball, you can see him pick up his head and quickly scan the pitch. He identified his options well and was able to release the ball quickly. That’s precisely the kind of growth the Leões hopes to see from their starlet.
Essugo is a very good passer, which is helped by his ambidexterity (though his right foot is slightly stronger than his left). His two-footedness is quite the boon on the dribble too.
With his slick technical skill set and his physical qualities, Essugo is an opponent’s nightmare in the open field. His body control, acceleration and strength help him break tackles with ease and unlock the opponent’s midfield. Our next image features two examples.
First, we have Essugo receiving a negative pass against Oriental Dragon in the Portuguese Liga 3. As Essugo receives the pass, a little shoulder feint and croqueta take him by the first defender as he holds off the second. He breaks their pressure and puts the away side on their heels as Sporting B make a move to the goal.
2.1 and 2.2 are from the UEFA Youth League against Dynamo Kyiv. After receiving a pass from his centreback, Essugo took an aggressive first touch at the next defender knowing that he was left alone to pressure with space behind him. In 2.2, a quick shoulder feint again puts the defender off balance allowing Essugo to burst past him on the right. The execution of the feint and acceleration past the defender was so well done that it left his opponent lying helplessly on the floor.
Essugo can use his dribbling ability equally well to run at the backline or to set up distribution to the teammates in front of him. That’s exactly what he does in our final sequence. Taking possession of the ball in the central channel, he manages to fend off two Leiria players, then play a well-weighted ball over the top into the path of his right forward.
The raw talent is there and he has a strong foundation to step into the number ‘6’ role at Sporting. With a few tactical advances, which should come naturally in his development and with more experience with the first team, Essugo has the potential to not only be a first-team regular but a standout player in the league within the next few years.
Sporting is naturally very high on the youngster’s talent. As much as Ronaldo is revered in the Portuguese capital, it’s Essugo who is now the earliest debut for the Verde e Brancos. Essugo also holds the distinction of being Portugal’s youngest player in the Champions League. He’s immensely talented and just a few short seasons away from being a top player.
Though there are a couple of areas for growth, the speed of play in the Portuguese Primeira Liga and first-team training sessions will expedite the learning process.
With Palhinha heading out the door, the opportunity is there for this Kanté clone. Though he certainly has a different profile from his predecessor, Essugo has all the prerequisites to leave his mark at the historic Lisbon Club.
Watch for Essugo. His time is quickly approaching.