Ruben Neves: The Strangest Transfer of the Year
Wolverhampton Wanderers have just pulled off the most surprising transfer of the summer.
A couple of months ago, Ruben Neves was preparing for a three-way battle between Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool for his signature. It seemed only a matter of time before the pieces would fall into place and he would be playing in the Premier League.
Neves had been valued as high as £30 million, yet his career path has suddenly taken an unexpected turn and the FC Porto midfielder has joined Championship side Wolves in a deal worth £15 million.
So, how on earth has this happened?
It's a bizarre, confusing transfer that I have been taking a closer look at to break down how Wolves have pulled off such a sensational deal.
How Good Is Neves?
Neves is the golden boy of Porto. Well, he was.
He emerged through their youth set-up and, aged 18, captained the club in the Champions League—becoming the youngest-ever player to do so.
He has seemed destined for huge things throughout his developing years and already has 92 Porto appearances behind him, at the tender age of 20.
"He is a classy deep-lying midfielder with a heck of a long-range pass on him," Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe explained. "He sprays the ball around with ease and accuracy. Early on, comparisons to Xabi Alonso flooded in—and rightly so."
Yet things started to change for him in more recent times. Although he featured for Portugal at the European Under-21 Championship, Neves was steadily marginalised on the club scene.
"Porto in the 2016-17 season were brutish, direct and relied on set pieces to win," Tighe said. "It didn't suit Neves at all, and as a result, he didn't play much."
Neves made just six league starts—but he is still regarded in Portugal as a top talent.
How Did Wolves Pull This Off?
Dig a little below the surface and it begins to become clear how Wolves have been able to land Neves.
The club were taken over by Chinese group Fosun International, in July 2016 and immediately set their ambitions high.
With football taking hold more than ever in China, it was felt that buying an English club would make sense to the business model.
The owners vowed that they would do everything in their power to take them back to the top level of English football, and they have shown plenty of intent.
The fee for Neves takes Fosun's transfer-fee spending to £47 million in the past year, and his £15 million fee is the third time they have broken their transfer record—having signed Ivan Cavaleiro for £7 million and then Helder Costa for £13 million.
The truth is, £15 million should prove an absolute steal for Wolves. A year ago, it would have seemed unimaginable Neves could be purchased at that price.
The Man Behind the Deal
A man who needs little introduction, Jorge Mendes has become a major figure at Wolves because of his links with the Fosun Group.
A Fosun subsidiary bought a minority share in Mendes' agency, Gestifute, and as a result of the tie-up, Mendes has become a heavy influencer at Molineux.
Having him in such a position has proved controversial. It upset manager Paul Lambert during his time in charge last season.
He ended up quitting the club after it became clear Mendes would have control of player recruitment this summer.
Lambert's frustration was understandable, but Wolves clearly feel they have more to gain from Mendes' contacts than the manager's nous.
The list of A-list clients for Mendes includes Cristiano Ronaldo and David De Gea, but he has a huge stable of talent, and Wolves have been able to tap into that.
Signings such as star winger Costa, defender Roderick Miranda and midfielder Cavaleiro are Mendes' clients.
The View from Portugal
Initially, the rumours about Neves joining Wolves fell on deaf ears back home. It made little sense given the calibre of clubs that had previously shown interest.
But now it's happened, everyone is having to accept the news.
Portuguese journalist Luis Mira told me he would never have expected Neves to end up in the second tier of English football.
"This story is a bit of a surprise because Porto have just appointed a new coach," Mira said. "There was some expectation that Ruben Neves would finally be able to get some playing time again.
"He found playing chances very limited last season when he worked under Nuno Espírito Santo, who struggled to find an identity for the team.
"The system deployed was very confusing and did not bring out the best in his players. Under Julen Lopetegui, Neves had been a key member of the team, but with Nuno Espírito Santo, he simply found himself on the fringes of the action.
"Still, being the highly-rated player that he is, a move to Wolves is surprising—even though they have signed many players with ties to Jorge Mendes in recent months."
How Will He Fit in at Molineux?
The deal is signed, sealed and delivered, and Neves will now become a star of the Championship.
His progress and all-round improvement has been clear over the past three seasons at Porto.
On top of his brilliant passing game, Neves is adding physical attributes. He has been winning more tackles per game and a higher percentage of midfield duels than ever before. Those skills will prove crucial as he enters English football.
Wolves plan for him to become their central playmaker and, quite simply, his ability should push them towards promotion.
There is already a Portuguese vibe at Molineux, so he should have no trouble fitting in.
One factor that remains intriguing, though, is the identity of Wolves' new manager. The man in charge is Nuno Espirito Santo—the same man who left him on the bench last season at Porto.
This really is the strangest transfer of the summer.