Written by Lee Chun Hang
A New Alpha in The Making
If Wolves’ first team is described as a wolf pack, then Raul Jimenez would certainly be one of the alphas of the group, spearheading attacks and constantly harassing opposition defenders with his strength and pace as a complete forward. The Mexican contributed with 43 league goals in his first two season, helping Wolves to consecutive 7th place finishes since their Premier League baptism.
Jimenez’s contribution goes further than the goals he scores. Take away the goal contributions, and you would still have a brilliant focal point for the team, bringing players like Adama Traore and Diogo Jota into the fold with his link-up play and passing range. You’d also see him relentlessly press defenders, making himself a nuisance for oppositions to deal with, as well as his commitment to drop back deep to defend for the team.
Unfortunately, this season has seen Wolves’ greatest nightmare come true, with their alpha suffering a skull fracture after a horrendous clash with David Luiz. Many feared the worst, for these injuries could leave substantial damage to one’s career, even leading to retirement. Thankfully, the operation was successful, and the Mexican is en route to full fitness with reports suggesting he could return for the final game of the season.
Goals has been scarce for Wolverhampton as they have only scored 24 goals in 25 games since the incident, barely averaging a goal a game. Despite not featuring since the incident, Jimenez remains as one of Wolves’ top scorers with 4. Perhaps what is more damming with that, is when you consider the other 2 players who outscored him in the league this season only have 5 each. Needless to say, without their alpha male, Wolves are rather toothless up front.
That said, there seems to be a new alpha emerging in the midst of chaos, providing much needed spark in the final third. If there is anything the Wolves’ faithful can cheer about this season, it’s definitely the breakthrough of Pedro Neto. Sadly, a recent injury has ruled him out for the remainder of the campaign but his performances throughout the season has brought in a glimmer of hope for the club, as they have another superstar in the making.
The dashboard below shows why Neto is highly regarded as one of the best young talents of his generation and his importance to Wolverhampton when compared to other forwards in the league. This analysis will cover the Portuguese’s performance with club and country this season. All figures below are based on performance per 90 minutes played, according to FBref via StatsBomb.
Pedro Neto has been a phenomenon this season for Wolverhampton, as he tops both the goalscoring and assists charts. Capable of playing across the front three, Neto is widely used as a left winger this season but is equally dangerous on the right. Playing for Nuno’s system would require versatility and high tactical intelligence as players would often interchange in positions throughout games. Whenever tasked to play on the left, he is often more direct in his approach, looking to isolate defenders before carrying the ball to the penalty area. When playing on the opposite flank, he plays as an inverted winger, constantly looking to drift centrally where he poses as a goal threat or play key passes. This creates an overload in the center of the pitch, with Nelson Semedo overlapping from right wing-back, providing the width.
As a left winger, the Portuguese would often look to stay wide on the pitch, stretching the defence whenever in possession and look to beat fullbacks in 1v1 situations with his arsenal of skills. When compared against other forwards this season, Neto is ranked inside the top 10 in successful dribbles with 2.61 per90. He beats the likes of Jack Grealish and Eberechi Eze in this metric, both players known to be league’s more technical sound players capable of gliding though defence with ease. This is partly due to his brilliant technical abilities as well as his pace, providing him with the agility to burst past defenders after manipulating the ball. Standing at 5’8 ft, his low center of gravity also plays a crucial role as it provides stability when shifting balls from left to right, often throwing off defender’s balance in the process.
The winner he scored against Southampton brilliantly illustrates his composure and technical quality when coming 1v1 against defenders. As Neto receives a through ball into the box, he comes up face to face with 6’6 ft Vestergaard. Neto shows brilliant composure as he brilliantly throws the defender off balance with a fake shot before maneuvering the ball forward and taking it past the defender in a tight space. Maintaining his balance, he expertly finishes it past McCarthy from a very tight angle, demonstrating his technical prowess.
Neto sending Vestegaard for a hotdog before scoring the winner
Fast & Furious
Under Nuno, Wolves prefer to have their wingers to be as direct as possible and constantly carry the ball forward in quick transitions. The obvious go-to man when looking to progress the ball forward would be Adama Traore, with the Spaniard accumulating 10.5 progressive carries per90. Neto has proven to be another of Wolves’ reliable ball carriers with blistering pace often leaving defenders for dead. This season has seen the Portuguese accumulate 9.65 progressive carries per90, with 3.18 carries into the final third. To put it in context, he has beaten the likes of Marcus Rashford and Allan Saint-Maximin in this metric, both players regarded as their club’s more direct players and often relied upon in quick transitions due to their immense speed and trickery.
His goal against Chelsea was a result of his brilliant ball carrying abilities. As he received the ball just outside the middle third of the pitch, he drove forward and carried the ball into the penalty area before scoring the winner. He could’ve won a penalty earlier in the game as well had it not been VAR when he carried the ball forward from the center of the pitch to Chelsea’s penalty box, outpacing N’golo Kante in the process.
Neto carrying the ball forward before scoring the winner
Wolves’ Chief Creator
Perhaps an underrated feature of Neto’s game is his playmaking abilities. Doesn’t matter which flank or position he occupies; he is equally dangerous and efficient in creating chances for his teammates. This season sees the prodigy register 2.12 key passes per90, which is the highest in the squad. Neto has also accumulated 0.85 crosses into the penalty area per90, indicative of the wide positions he takes up in games. Only Ryan Fraser has more in the league this season with 0.87.
Though predominantly left-footed, the Portuguese is capable of producing quality crosses with his right. He assesses the situation well and determines the best option given the scenario, this highlights his game intelligence and maturity beyond his age. During the game against Luxembourg, the opponents were caught out in a quick transition with Neto dribbling on the right flank. With one glance, he sees Ronaldo sprinting towards the box and quickly produces a brilliant cross with is weaker right foot instead of using his left, which would stall more time. Though Ronaldo missed, it did showcase Neto’s decision making.
Knows when to utilize his weaker foot
Being comfortable with his right opens up a different dimension to his game, not only is he quick and skillful, but he is also unpredictable, capable of creating chances with both feet. He grabbed an assist in the same game against Luxembourg, this time on the left flank but with his right foot. Upon receiving the ball outside the box, he taunts the defender with a body feint before shifting the ball to his right and crossing it towards Jota, who heads home the equalizer.
Neto teasing the defender with body feints before crossing with his right foot to Jota, who scores
Neto is also fairly capable at distributing diagonals to attackers between the lines. Whenever dropping deep to receive the ball, Neto would instinctively look up the pitch for teammates, in hopes of picking them out with a long ball. His assist against West Ham perfectly depicts his quality. Upon receiving the ball at the halfway line, he looked up and picked out the on-running Fabio Silva with a brilliant diagonal who scores, showcasing his ability to dictate play from deep when called upon.
Neto’s assist against West Ham showing his ability to play long diagonal balls forward
With 6 assists this season, Neto remains as Wolves’ top assister but he arguably could’ve gotten much more considering the number of chances he creates for his teammates. This season, the young winger has produced 3.92 shot-creating actions per90 but only 0.32 goal-creating actions. Though there are high volume of chances created for his teammates, poor finishing has been a common theme throughout the season.
In the dying embers against Arsenal, Neto drives forward to the final third upon receiving the ball from the center of the pitch. He picks out Vitinha with a lovely pass, but his compatriot agonizingly misses the shot, driving it off target. Chances like these must be converted and Neto may have felt aggrieved he could not claim more assists this season.
Vitinha missing a glorious opportunity against Arsenal
Past vs Present
When Diogo Jota departed for Liverpool in the summer transfer window, a direct replacement was not signed as the club believed they already have a replacement through the ranks in Pedro Neto. This begs the question, did Neto fill the massive void left by Jota? I have decided to compare both Portuguese international with each other, to see how the current messiah fares against the past. The dashboard below highlights attacking attributes in Non-Penalty Expected Goals and Shots on Target, playmaking abilities in Passes into Penalty Area and Expected Assists, as well as ball progression attributes in Progressive Passes and Progressive Carries.
As presented, Jota is clearly more of a goal threat than Neto, with the former blowing Neto out of the water with Non-Penalty Expected Goals (0.17 v 0.49) and Shots on Target (0.74 vs 2) per90. Jota has been playing upfront for Liverpool and it is unsurprising to see him develop into an elite finisher. Neto on the other hand, has continued his development as a winger rather than the focal point of the team. The average distance of the shots taken from Jota is 13.7 yards whereas Neto’s shots are taken 18.8 yards away from goal, further indicating that Jota has been much closer to goal this season compared to Neto, who generates more long shots.
As expected, Neto dominates Jota in the playmaking department as the former is known to be the more creative outlet of the two. As the team’s main creativity hub, the playmaking burden is heavily placed on the young winger’s shoulders, but he has responded well with the added responsibility and has registered 1.38 Passes into Penalty Area and 6.2 Expected Assists per90 this season. Jota on the other hand is often the beneficiary of the chances created by his teammates, showcasing the lethal forward instinct he possesses.
When it comes to ball progression, it is Jota who excels in Progressive Passes with 3.83 per90. Knowing the counter attacking style Liverpool adopt in quick transition, the instructions must’ve been to play the ball forward to one of Salah or Mane, which would explain his high volume of progressive passes. Similarly, in quick transitions, Wolves would look for either Traore or Neto to carry the ball forward into the final third, which would explain Neto’s high volume of progressive carries this season with 9.65 per90.
The Next Alpha Male
This season has seen Neto go from a young pup to an alpha male in the group, all whilst maintaining a constant beam of positive energy in the dressing room. He has taken up responsibility as one of the team’s main creative hub to shed the burden of Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho and Adama Traore, becoming one of the team’s more reliable players in this tough campaign. As shown in the graph below, his teammates are constantly looking for the 21-year-old on the pitch, which signifies his importance to the team.
Despite Wolves’ not hitting the heights of previous seasons, Neto has proven to be one of the league’s most exciting prospects. The performances shown this season suggests that both he and Wolves, will continue to grow and thrive in the Premier League.
Though an injury suffered against Fulham isn’t helpful, you can be sure Neto will be eager to pick up where he left to play a captivating role for Wolves next season.