The path from Sporting Clube de Portugal to stardom in the Premier League has become a well-trodden one. Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Bruno Fernandes have all thrived and thrilled in England after making their name at the Lisbon club. And the latest gem about to land in the EPL with the Sporting seal approval has the attributes to make just as big an impact.
Portuguese football journalist Tom Kundert has the lowdown on the 18-year-old wingback wonder, Nuno Mendes.
Sporting have enjoyed their most successful season for nearly two decades, winning the Portuguese title for the first time since 2002. A handful of seriously talented youngsters have fuelled the most unexpected of triumphs, none more so than the brilliant Nuno Mendes, who had not even been born the previous time the Lions were crowned champions of Portugal.
Making an instant impact has been a feature of Mendes’s young career. He was handed his full debut for Sporting at 17 years of age and straight away looked like he belonged at elite-level football. The very next day he signed an improved and extended contract, with a €45 million release clause in it. He has been a first-team regular ever since. His ongoing development throughout the season led to another contract review when his release clause was increased to an eye-watering €70 million. That has not put off his many suitors, with Manchester rivals City and United rumoured to be fighting for his signature.
So impressive has Mendes been since he exploded onto the Portuguese football scene less than a year ago that it was no surprise when he was selected by Portugal coach Fernando Santos for Portugal’s recent World Cup qualifiers, playing in all three matches in March. Again, he took the step up seamlessly, producing assured displays and earning widespread praise from the Portuguese media and pundits. It was a matter of course when Mendes was named in Portugal’s European Championship squad last week.
So what makes Mendes so special?
Attributes and playing style
A recurrent line of discussion in recent years is based around the argument that full-backs – or wing-backs depending on the team’s system – are very possibly the most important players in contemporary football. They obviously remain integral to the way teams defend, but are increasingly difference-makers when it comes to attacking too. With old-style wingers hugging the touchline a thing of the past, and inverted wingers all the rage, it is often up to the full-backs to provide the width and who are the chief suppliers of crosses into the box.
This explains why Dani Alves in the recent past, and Trent Alexander-Arnold nowadays, have often been Barcelona and Liverpool’s most potent attacking threats despite playing for teams furnished with a constellation of superstars. Nuno Mendes has the attributes to legitimately aspire to such heights.
Mendes has strength, speed, focus and timing to ensure defensive solidity, in addition to refined technique and a propensity to attack with purpose. He has been perfect for Rúben Amorim’s 3-4-3 system, with his tireless engine enabling him to patrol the entire left flank from the first minute to the final whistle. Despite the above considerations about the importance of full-backs and wing-backs in today’s game, most of them are either strong attackers but display defensive weaknesses, or are rock-solid defenders but lack offensive verve. Nuno Mendes excels at both sides of the game.
Sporting had by far the meanest defence in Portugal this season, conceding just 20 goals in 34 games (and a quarter of those in the final two matches when the title was already sewn up). Mendes is a robust defender, putting in forceful and well-timed tackles but without being overly aggressive. He has picked up 5 yellow cards in 44 senior matches for Sporting and Portugal. Moreover, despite often flying up the pitch in support of attack, he is seldom caught out of position from the defensive point of view, and on the rare occasions when he is behind the play, his speed gets him (or his teammates) out of trouble.
And it is not as if Mendes is shy at pushing forward. A common tactic of Sporting’s this season has seen Mendes regularly receive the ball in the final third when it is pinged to him from long range by one of the three centre-backs. His instantaneous control, regardless of the velocity or angle of the pass, leaves him perfectly oriented to attack the flank, pass, or move infield to keep Sporting’s offensive momentum going, or simply make sure possession is retained.
Yet above all those qualities, it is his mature decision making and football intelligence that makes him truly stand out from the many other promising peers in his age group. Mendes has the pace, power and the skill to strike fear into his direct adversary, but he does not exaggerate on individual plays, and is content to opt for the simple pass when that is the right option.
It has been a joy to see him combine cleverly with a variety of teammates as Amorim chopped, changed, and reinvented his attacking players throughout the season. It made no difference to Mendes. Whether he found in his scope of action the tenacious winger Nuno Santos, the cerebral Pedro Gonçalves, the lightning fast Jovane Cabral, or the space-hunting Tiago Tomás, Mendes connected smoothly with a range of colleagues who had a variety of playing styles. This stood him in good stead when called up for Portugal in March, where he was thrust into the first team to replace the injured Raphaël Guerreiro.
Before playing, Portugal coach Fernando Santos was asked if he was worried Mendes would adapt well given that Sporting play with a wing-back system, whereas the national team play with a back four.
“Portugal U21s play with a 4-man defence and he has been a regular for the U21s. He’s going to adapt,” replied Santos confidently. “He’s a high-quality player, the full-backs in my teams tend to be attacking players and Nuno has these attributes, as well as showing quality in his defending.
“It’s more a question of players changing the “chip” when they play for the national team. They should forget their club and respect the identity of the Portugal team. And then when they go back to their clubs it’s the reverse process. And the players are able to do this, although obviously it has some effect. In the case of Nuno Mendes, given the experience he has acquired at U21 level, I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”
Santos looked relaxed and he had reason to be. Mendes went on to earn rave reviews for his performances against Azerbaijan, Serbia and Luxembourg. He did not put a foot wrong in his defensive duties, provided a perfect assist which Cristiano Ronaldo uncharacteristically spurned against Serbia and came close to a stunning individual goal against Luxembourg. Some analysts went as far as to suggest Borussia Dortmund left-back Guerreiro, the uncontested owner of that berth in the Portugal team for the past five years, could see his place come under threat.
Given the age difference (Guerreiro is 27), provided Mendes avoids injury this changing of the guard is inevitable; it is a question of when, not if.
The reaction of Mendes himself, in the post-match interview after his debut against Azerbaijan provides another clue to his success: “It’s a really good sensation to be able to play alongside elite players. I’m really happy to be here,” he said. Despite his meteoric rise to stardom, Mendes effuses an almost disconcerting sense of composure in his every action, on and off the pitch, with no sign of the fame going to his head.
Former Portugal international Maniche believes his humble background has been an advantage in his rapid rise to the top. Mendes was raised in Sintra in the Lisbon suburbs in one of the many poor neighbourhoods largely populated by descendants from Portugal’s former colonies. The roots of the Mendes family are in Angola.
“In football, those coming from humble origins are successful because they are fiercely hungry for it,” says Maniche, himself an example of a ‘rags-to-riches’ footballer. “Mendes has talent, has quality and when his chance came he took it. Being brought up in a poor neighbourhood gave him maturity, and this spirit of sacrifice. And he’s been helped along the way, because Sporting have done an excellent job with him.”
Destined for the top
Another former long-serving Portugal international and Champions League winner with FC Porto, Costinha, has no doubt that Mendes has what it takes to reach the very pinnacle of the game.
“If I was a scout for Europe’s biggest clubs, I’d be watching him very closely,” says the coach and pundit. “He’s 18-years-old and there are not many left-backs in the world of his quality. I would definitely choose him. He’s strong physically and mentally. He’s a top talent and I don’t think he’ll be at Sporting for long. Maybe not even next season.”
The final appraisal goes to Sporting manager Ruben Amorim, the man who knows Mendes’s football attributes better than anybody. It is under Amorim that Mendes has flourished, although the coach admits he did not expect to see so much progress made in so little time.
“Nuno Mendes has been a surprise to me. When I arrived at Sporting I saw other excellent young players but they were more mature than Nuno Mendes, and I thought his development would take some time. But I was wrong; he has undergone an incredible transformation. He’s very adult the way he plays, and physically strong.
“You can see a certain level of tiredness when he plays every game and also plays for the national team, but that’s part of his growth. Young players are not used to this rhythm, but they get there, and Nuno Mendes is a pure talent. I think he’s going to be the regular starter at left-back for Portugal for many years.”