‘Few sides in the Premier League will have a better midfield pairing than Wolves’ Portuguese football analyst Alex Goncalves talks Moutinho, Nuno and Mendes

He’s the football analyst and journalist whose knowledge of the Portuguese game has seen him develop an unlikely following from Wolves fans.

But as Wanderers continue to import a wealth of talent from Portugal you can be sure Alex Goncalves will be a familiar name among supporters for a good while yet.

Alex, who is from a Portuguese family but grew up in the UK following Benfica and Arsenal, has given an in-depth insight into Portugal’s new found alliance with Wolverhampton.

Firstly Alex I have to ask, the signing of Joao Moutinho, did you see that transfer happening and what can Wolves fans expect?

At the very start it did take me by surprise. This is the third most capped player in Portuguese history we’re talking about, one of the footballing legends in the country, and from a personal view, one of my favourite footballers of all time. He’s a phenomenal signing and someone I’ve enjoyed watching regularly over the last decade.

Although there were also a lot of signs that he was on the move from as early as the Friday afternoon he wasn’t on the bench for Monaco’s match against Paderborn, which was unusual. I knew Wolves were after a central midfielder and with Moutinho associated with Mendes, add to this the clear link that has emerged between Monaco and Wolves over the years and with the strong rumours circulating that Wolves were on the verge of signing a Portuguese international, I became increasingly confident that he was the man moving to Molineux. To Wolves’ credit they kept it very well hidden, which only made it even more exciting for fans waiting patiently for the big reveal.

In terms of what he’ll offer, Moutinho is an incredibly technical player, with excellent passing ability and a great awareness of what’s going on around him. No doubt his major asset is his passing, able to ping chipped balls into space to allow the forwards to get in behind and will cause real problems for any side. His footballing intelligence and his composure on the ball also means that he dictates the tempo of the game and will add incredible experience and leadership to the side. And don’t let his supposed lack of physicality fool you; his footballing brain, desire and work rate means that he’ll put in a real shift defensively, cutting out passes and winning back the ball just as regularly as he looks to play those threaded through balls. He offers a lot to the side both defensively and on the attacking front.

It’s likely Moutinho will partner Ruben Neves in midfield is this a partnership that has the making of something special?

That truly is something special – incredible really! Let me tell you, few sides in the entire Premier League will have a better central midfield partnership than Wolves next season, that is for sure. It is virtually Champions League calibre. Having both Neves and Moutinho, two incredibly talented, technical, hard-working players, together in the middle of the park, spraying passes around and helping the game tick over, is something incredibly exciting and I can’t wait to watch them play together this season.

I know a lot of people are concerned about the lack of physicality in the centre of midfield, but it actually does a bit of a disservice to Neves and Moutinho, who are both very accomplished defensively with good reading of the game and tackling. Their tenacity means that they will not be dominated in the middle of the park when they play together. And we should also bear in mind that Manchester City won the league comfortably last season with Fernandinho playing as the main defensive midfielder – not a man who could be described as a real physical presence.

Rui Patricio was another shock transfer, what can he offer Wolves?

It’s incredible the speed at which Wolves are making these high-profile signings!

I haven’t got a bad word to say about Rui at all; just incredibly consistent, very reliable, good command of his area, excellent shot stopper and reflexes, and good distribution to go with it. Honestly, he will win Wolves points on his own, he’s that good. I would go as far to say that he is in the top 5 goalkeepers in the Premier League now, certainly at least top 20 in all of world football.

This is Portugal’s number one goalkeeper, an incredible servant to the national team and to his previous club Sporting, and he’s worth more than £20million in today’s market, even aged 30. The fact he played every minute in Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph, a tournament built on defensive resilience and a strong team ethic, shows what an important role he played for the side to help us win our first major trophy in history.

And, I’ve said it before but, while the signing of Ruben Neves was shocking in its audacity and ambition, particularly while the team was in the Championship, the signing of Rui Patricio is on an entirely different level. This is a fully-fledged international, perhaps, other than Ronaldo, the first name on the national team sheet – and now Wolves have him. And I’m excited for him to be able to show his capabilities to an entirely different audience, he deserves to show that he is truly world-class to an audience outside of Portugal.

When Wolves signed Helder Costa on-loan and Ivan Cavaleiro became our then record signing did you see Wolves doing so much business with Portuguese football?

Not particularly, certainly not on this scale. I was perhaps a bit naive and ignorant to the incredible project Wolves were building to be honest. Obviously I was fully aware of Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro moving to Wolves, and was, of course, incredibly impressed by the business being done at the club. But at the same time, they weren’t household names; for all their obvious natural talent, they had never really managed to do it at Benfica and, with the cut-throat nature of Benfica’s highly prestigious youth academy, some players will always have to move on.

The moment that I first truly sat up and took note of Wolves was as soon as Nuno Espirito Santo was put in charge, that really was the turning point for me. That was the moment Wolves had gone from impressing, to competing; attracting the Porto manager, and his entire coaching staff, to the club, while still in the Championship, was not normal. Far from it. After an incredible spell at Rio Ave, an excellent first season at Valencia, and a rather disappointing but ultimately solid season at Porto, there was something incredibly intriguing happening at Wolves, you could just feel it, and I knew I wanted to follow the club very closely from that point forth – the sky was seemingly the limit. That proved to be exactly the case. It’s incredibly exciting to watch as a ‘neutral’, so I can hardly comprehend just how ecstatic all you lifelong Wolves fans must feel about it all. It’s just great.

It’s no secret that Jorge Mendes has been crucial in drawing quality to Wolves but he’s had similar dealings with the likes of Benfica, Porto, Valencia, and Monaco in the past. How is Mendes viewed by fans of those clubs?

Mendes no doubt divides a lot of opinions in Portugal – he’s certainly not worshipped in the same way as he is by Wolves fans. Sporting fans, of course, dislike him quite profusely, with Sporting’s previous president Bruno de Carvalho doing very little business with Mendes clients during his reign. Sporting fans also see that he had a role in Patricio leaving for Wolves, so obviously have a further vendetta against him. And I wouldn’t say Benfica or Porto fans like him particularly either; many see him as someone who is there for his own personal gain and never has the club’s best interests at heart, which is perhaps why we see the best players in the league leave regularly before they get to their peak level. But some also see that he actually promotes Portuguese football on a more global stage and can get some of the best young Portuguese players to some of the big clubs in Europe, so it’s not an easy question to answer.

Fans of opposition teams seem to be scratching their heads as to why many players are swapping sunny Portugal for sunny Wolverhampton (I’m sure there are many Wolves fans are too). Having been to Portugal I’ve found the culture to be laid back do you think this has helped them settle into a small city like Wolverhampton?

I think so, they’re all grounded individuals, quite relaxed and, when you have a blossoming Portuguese contingent already at the club, it makes it so much easier to be able to settle in quickly. From what I’ve seen they’ve all really enjoyed their time in Wolverhampton so far. Portuguese people are also incredibly family-oriented and will be happy wherever they are so long as their family is around them. That’s certainly the case for all the Portuguese boys at Wolves, and to have their compatriots at the club too really is the icing on the cake.

In 12 months Nuno has gone from a coach unfamiliar on these shores to a demi-God figure in Wolverhampton. He’s adored here, how is he perceived in his homeland?

I’d actually say when he left Portugal for the second time – to join Wolves – he was quite harshly looked upon in the country, certainly Porto fans in general didn’t rate him as highly as you may think, and I would say opposition fans in the country may have thought the same.

He actually managed Porto for just one season, where he ended up finishing second in the league, runners-up only to Benfica. By no means a disgrace but fans of Portuguese football will know that Porto, who weren’t particularly fancied at the start of the season, were flying for the first half of the season and had many opportunities to actually win the league – many would argue that they actually should have done.

But just three wins in their last nine league fixtures meant that Porto wasted a golden opportunity to claim the title and put an end to Benfica’s domestic dominance. Indeed, Benfica slipped up three or four times at the end of the season too, but every time they did so, Porto failed to capitalise. It did not make Porto fans very happy, to say the least.

Under his guidance, whilst improving Porto’s defence significantly, the attacking side of his game came into question quite regularly, with Porto during his reign struggling to break down stubborn, well-organised sides, suffering six or seven very disappointing 0-0 draws over the course of the season. He also performed poorly in both national cup competitions, and in the Champions League only finished second in a favourable group and got knocked out in the round of 16. After a trophy-less season, Porto fans were actually quite glad to see the back of him, and he probably didn’t do his national reputation any favours.

However I’ll be honest, I always felt that such opinions were very harsh indeed; the job he did at Rio Ave a few seasons earlier, for example, was spectacular, getting the club into the Europa League for the first time in their entire history as he also led them to the final of both the Portuguese Cup and the League Cup. An incredible achievement which earned him a move to Valencia. So I always thought it was an exceptional appointment for Wolves, and, even if he wasn’t rated quite as highly as you’d think in Portugal, I think practically everyone in the country agreed that it was still a real coup for a Championship side.

Wolves may not be popular among Sporting fans and one newspaper described us as ‘the most hated team’ but how do the Portuguese football fans view Wolves?

I disagree entirely with that suggestion to be honest, certainly from what I’ve experienced, Portuguese fans are very much behind Wolves and are actually very excited by the project that’s developing in the country. To see so many Portuguese players move to a single club abroad is completely uncharted territory and it’s a wonderful experience for all. There will be no fan of the Portugal national team hoping that the Wolves project fails, it would be quite catastrophic in many ways with our number one goalkeeper and top central midfielder both now playing there.

So, on the other hand, I can understand why some are perhaps concerned about this influx of Portuguese talents to Wolves, just in case the project does happen to fail, however unlikely that is, but hating the club and wanting them to lose? Not from what I’ve seen, far from it. The only fans that will be disgruntled with the club are Sporting supporters, with their fans quite angry at the manner in which Patricio left the club. But once the season begins and Wolves show what they are truly capable of, those in the minority which do dislike Wolves will change their minds; Portuguese people tend to be incredibly patriotic, and are incredibly proud of what they achieve, especially being quite a small country, and so seeing their contingent take the Premier League by storm would be something Portuguese people would love to see. This suggestion that they’re viewed as the most hated team in Portugal is just wrong, really.

Finally, of the Portuguese contingent at the club who do you believe can have the biggest impact in the Premier League?

That is a tricky question. I would probably have to say Rui Patricio, purely because I think what he does and the impact he will make will be most noticeable on the pitch; he will make a huge difference to Wolves, and his consistency will be a big factor in helping the club realise their ambitions. But that’s not to say Moutinho won’t also have a huge say in the upcoming campaign for Wolves, he’s arguably the most talented, all-round central midfielder Portugal have ever had, and we’ve had a few very good central midfielders over the years. And he’s also an incredibly consistent performer and one of my favourite footballers of all time. I would say he’s the most impressive signing of them all for Wolves. It’s a very tough question, although I am incredibly excited to see them all play for Wolves, week-in-week-out, in the Premier League.

*You can read more from Alex at his website http://www.tugascout.com


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