Sizing Up Rúben Neves, the Creative at the Center of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Championship Climb

By: Kevin Chroust | January 11, 2018

Wolves are leading the Championship by no small margin, and with that kind of team performance comes plenty of attention from outside clubs directed toward the talent responsible for such an ascent. STATS Playing Styles explores methods to address the inevitable valuation and recruitment questions facing Wolves and clubs interested in their players.

Wolverhampton Wanderers shelled out a Championship-record £15.8 million to bring in Rúben Neves over the summer, and the rewards have been considerable as the 20-year-old joined forces with fellow Portuguese youngsters to open up a considerable gap at the top of the table.

With promotion to the Premier League looking likely, the central question now becomes one of how Wolves reconcile whether to keep him for a top-flight campaign should bigger clubs come calling with enticing money. And not just him. Given the level of success the club has had this season, potential buyers taking note and assessing the team’s talent is a matter of when not if. So how do Wolves determine whether to sell? How do clubs in pursuit determine whether a given player is appropriate?

Predicting how one player fits in another system surrounded by entirely different players is difficult, and particularly so when the players in question are climbing a division. Those decisions are no longer exclusively left up to the unquantifiable, fallible nature of opinion, and the goal is to fuse expert opinion with stronger empirical evidence. STATS Playing Styles isn’t setting out to replace the professional eye, only augment it with contextualised data.

Playing Styles uses Tier 6+ data, STATS’ highest level of event data, to establish a more objective framework to evaluate what takes place on the pitch from team and individual perspectives. Possessions and involvements are broken down into direct play, counter attack, crossing, high press, maintenance, build up, sustained threat and fast tempo.

The tool can be used by the world class and working class alike. We used Playing Styles to assess a potential Philippe Coutinho move to Barcelona this fall, and we used it to show how Huddersfield Town recruited practical players for a particular playing style in their move to the top flight after success under narrow margins in last season’s Championship.

Wolves are a different case. They opened their pocketbook this summer in record fashion, and they may have considered the Neves decision a safe move because they were acquiring a player who had 59 senior appearances under his belt with Portugal’s top club.

But they also likely invested in the Porto product with the long game in mind – that being the possibility of selling him at a considerable profit. Clubs might not come out and say this directly because it’s understandably in poor taste to refer to players as stock, but it is an indisputable part of football at all levels and a vital means for smaller clubs to do good business.

Before getting to the individual assessment, let’s first look at how Neves and teammates such as 21-year-old fellow Porto product and Atlético Madrid loanee Diogo Jota have collectively transformed Wolves’ styles from one season to the next. Wolves finished 15th on 58 points in 2016-17, and it showed with very middling Playing Styles numbers when considered against league averages. The only area in which they distinguished themselves positively in the slightest was high press, where they operated 13 percent above Championship norm:

This season, Wolves have become a more ball-dominant attacking club, and their 3-0 win over Brentford to begin the new year pushed them 12 points clear of second-place Derby County and three points ahead of last season’s 46-match point total in just 26 games. Most importantly, there’s a 14-point gap between Wolves and those presently in playoff position to contend for the third promotion spot.

The manifestation of the summer changes is the most up-tempo attacking club in the Championship, posting a plus-30 goal difference that eclipses the next two clubs on the table combined:

Fast tempo is of course the style that stands out, but Wolves have also spiked in maintenance and build up after operating below league averages a season ago.

Neves is unsurprisingly a substantial part of it. His 1,739 overall possessions rank eighth in the league and third on the team behind midfield partner Romain Saïss (1,865) and Matt Doherty (1,829). His 148 fast-tempo involvements rank tied for fifth in the league. His 392 in build up are 12th. He’s even contributing in areas where Wolves have fallen off a bit. Neves’ 16 high-press regains are tied for 10th in the Championship, despite doing that for a side that’s outside of the top half in high press (+2 percent, which ranks 13th). And, on a more basic level, he’s scored three goals with his expected goals at 2.2, which means he’s finished slightly better than expected given the opportunities he’s had.

Possession counts are one thing. Assigning efficacy is another. Playing Styles does so with STATS Ball Movement Points, which complicates the assessment of Neves.

We’ve used BMP quite a bit in past posts, but here’s the quick rundown: BMP considers ball movement made by an individual player from a start zone to an end zone and assigns value. These scores accumulate during a match or across a season to indicate the value of a player’s ball distribution. BMP considers every involvement a player has in a possession to credit or discredit decisions with the ball and reward creativity. It’s what football minds could always see but never calculate. It goes beyond expected assists by looking at the full chain of passes, weighing the probability of that pass leading to a shot later in the play. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he has generated passes to lead to or defend one shot. It expresses the level of threat or wastefulness that can be attributed to a player. It’s broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+, dBMP-) with net values telling the more conclusive story.

Given what’s been established with Neves’ categorised involvements, it might follow that his oBMP could be considerable. He’s possessing the ball a great deal, it seems he’s possessing it in consequential areas on the pitch, and he’s regaining it in a high position more often than others. However, his oBMP is 2.35, which ranks 22nd in the Championship and third on the team behind Doherty (2.70) and Saïss (2.55).

It’s a bit odd considering the amount of credit he’s given within the club’s midfield. A contextual example, granted up a tier, is Kevin De Bruyne’s Premier League season that many figure will win him some individual silverware. Now seems like a good time to iterate that we’re not comparing the players; rather, we’re comparing their involvements and efficacy in their respective divisions. That seems fair given Neves is being lauded as one of the best Championship players in years. KDB is fourth in Premier League possessions (2,027) and has a league-leading 6.15 oBMP, which, to digress, means he’s putting together a Premier League campaign rivaled in recent seasons only by the distributive talents of Mesut Özil.

The obvious place to check first is whether Neves’ oBMP- is dragging his net value down. In other words, is he being wasteful? Neves’ -0.60 oBMP- is one of the best on club and is considerably better than other top-level Championship players such as Ryan Sessegnon (-1.72) and James Maddison (-1.76). He is objectively not a wasteful player.

So what should we make of this? Some of the answer for the Neves oBMP discrepancy might lie in breaking down another style of play: sustained threat.

Wolves sustained threat is minimal at +1 percent of the league average – though it should be stated they’re effective with 16 goals on which the style is present while percentage leaders Fulham (+39) have scored only one more. Even when the style is present for Wolves, it often runs through other players. Doherty (315), Ivan Cavaleiro (255) and Jota (247) lead the club in sustained-threat involvements. Neves’ 154 such involvements rank 96th in the division. This matters because Ball Movement Points are weighted based on where the player’s possession occurs – not all passes are created equal, nor are all positions on the pitch from which they materialise or end up – and sustained threat possessions occur in the attacking third, where passes are more highly contested and of higher attacking consequence. De Bruyne is first in sustained-threat involvements (508), which gives him great opportunity to succeed or fail with oBMP.

That’s not to say Neves is incapable if he had the ball more in those situations, but it hints he might be unproven or unpracticed in that specific attacking role. Or, for whatever reason, he’s just comparatively absent in the system that’s working for Wolves. This is where we’ll reiterate that Playing Styles is meant to supplement the expert’s eye. Data such as this can alert an analyst – whether it’s one at Wolves or a club studying Neves from a valuation standpoint – and they can then go to the video to determine what to make of it. Without contextualised data, that may go unnoticed.

Neves may very well be deserving of the hype. He clearly does a lot for Nuno Espirito Santo, and at 20 is for good reason going to be attractive to bigger clubs after showing he could adapt to the particularly unforgiving style and intense schedule the Championship throws at a young player.

But others within Nuno’s system are also thriving, and without the hysteria referring to them as once-in-a-decade Championship players. So when other clubs consider how they can be smart with their money and look to what’s driving results for a club such as Wolves, they might be able to target players who have contributed to Wolves success and find value elsewhere should a bidding war develop for the biggest name.

There are any number of personnel decisions facing Wolves in the coming months. Will they try to keep loanee Jota? How do they determine his value when negotiating with parent club Atlético? Should a Premier League club notice Doherty’s evolution as a player, Wolves could be prepared with data to show how he’s maximised his own talent by being surrounded by more of it.

Empirically speaking, Playing Styles has plenty to say about those players as well.