Manchester United are reportedly preparing an offer for talented Sporting Lisbon defender Gonçalo Inácio.
As per multiple reports earlier this month, the Red Devils were strongly linked with a summer swoop for the 20-year-old defender. The Portuguese starlet, primarily a centre-back who can also turn out at left-back, has been tracked by United chiefs for ‘some time’, with their interest now ‘real’ ahead of an Old Trafford rebuild under Erik ten Hag.
Newcastle United are also believed to be interested in a possible move for the young centre-back, who has a €45m (£38.5m) release clause and has previously been hailed as ‘underrated’ by Zach Lowy.
There are indeed many gaping holes within the current Man United squad especially in midfield, in the wide areas and upfront, with Cristiano Ronaldo about to be their only number nine when Edinson Cavani’s contract expires next month.
However, it’s at centre-back where the club have indeed been dreadful all campaign, and incoming new boss Erik ten Hag is reportedly looking to strengthen that area for next season.
Despite massive amounts of money being spent on new defenders for what feels like every single summer, the Old Trafford club are still struggling to keep shots and goals out for much of the season.
Harry Maguire bought for £80m, Raphael Varane signed for £36m, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly for a combined £65m have all so far failed to provide security and safety for David De Gea in the United goal this season, unable to stand firm against even the weakest opposition in the division, failing to keep clean sheets with injuries, lack of fitness and form a key reason for the club’s demise this season.
They have been carved apart easily on too many occasions during this season, which is really not acceptable for a club of United’s standing and stature.
Only five Premier League sides have conceded more goals than Man Utd this season, which goes to show that a defensive overhaul is desperately needed ahead of Ten Hag’s first season on charge.
Goncalo Inacio could be a shrewd signing both in the short and long term as he’s been a regular for Sporting during the current campaign and has even weighed in with five goals in all competitions.
With over 40 appearances in all competitions already, “The Portuguese Boss”, as he is regularly nicknamed, has played a crucial part in his team’s success alongside Sebastian Coates, excelling tremendously at the heart of Sporting’s backline.
The club sit second in the Portuguese Liga NOS, six points behind new champions FC Porto, holding the second-best defence in the division with just 23 goals conceded, and Inácio has proven a pivotal figure in their defensive success this season.
His performances have seen Sporting brace themselves for transfer offers this coming summer, and United should indeed jump at the chance to acquire his services considering his enormous potential and current abilities.
Below I will attempt to evaluate Gonçalo Inácio in-depth using The Eye Test and Underlying Stats to come to a conclusion about the potential effectiveness of this signing and if I believe the Portuguese starlet could become a success at Old Trafford.
THE EYE TEST
*Note: This is based on my personal evaluation of the player. I will be drawing on extensive hindsight knowledge, in-game footage as well as YouTube highlight reels to evaluate Inácio in this section*
No role in modern football is as difficult to perform as a center-back. For most teams, central defenders are the starting point of their attack and are required to be accomplished and effective on the ball both through dribbling and passing.
As more and more teams across the continent adopt high-pressing systems, today’s centre-backs are required to be capable of resisting pressure from an opposition press when building from the back, mobile enough to cover in behind if the press is broken, and aerially dominant to stop the opposition from performing long raking balls over the top.
Given the variety and difficulty of these tasks, talented center-backs who perform these actions in abundance are seemingly always in high demand. As such, it’s no doubt that various clubs such as Manchester United are interested in acquiring Sporting Lisbon’s Gonçalo Inácio.
The £16.2m-rated colossus is the instantiation of a ball-playing centre-back. Primarily a ball carrier, he is good with both feet (the left being his dominant), exceptional at reading space around opponents when ball-carrying, and has the perfect physique to be mobile and incredibly agile central defender.
When in possession of the ball, he constantly scans his surroundings to find the best available pass. Not only is he safe when distributing, but when given the opportunity and freedom to, he is capable of dissecting opposition lines and picking his more forward-thinking teammates in more dangerous areas of the pitch.
He is also a telling long passer, if you need any evidence check out his incredible assist for Pedro Gonçalves last season, picking up the ball deep in his own half before playing a superb long-raking pass for the forward to comfortably slot home past the keeper.
Additionally, one other element Inácio is incredibly competent at is his ability to carry the ball forwards, evading pressure and driving his team up the pitch whenever possible.
For a player as young as he is, you’d think he’s the more experienced centre-half rather than his partner, Coates, in that he is incredibly brave in possession and has no qualms in trying to dribble and onrushing presser and bypassing him. He is very adept and deceptive when performing these attributes. Opposition attackers will think he is going one way, but he will then swiftly manoeuvre himself to go another direction.
It’s worth noting that the 20-year-old is arguably his team’s primary outlet for progressing the play and, in some instances, can even be a creative outlet.
Sporting manager Ruben Amorim gives him license to push forwards and roam as a center-back in possession, much in the way Rio Ferdinand used to regularly do during his decorated days as an Old Trafford centre-half.
If you can break a team’s first initial branch of pressure with your centre-back, you can surely pose problems for them in deeper defensive areas, unbalancing them structurally and opening gaps that can be exploited by more advanced team-mates.
At times though, Inácio sometimes invites opponents towards him in order to beat them, but this makes any potential pass out of trouble more difficult – something he’ll need to be wary of if he does make the move to a bigger and advanced European division.
Defensively though, the Almada-born defender is incredibly sound. Standing at 6 foot 1in, he may not be as physically imposing as his defensive partner Coates who is 6’5, but he is very good at utilising his frame and positioning to quickly engage his opponents and win possession back for his team.
He is also very good at deviating from his backline shape and engaging attackers when they least expect it. In fact, while Coates will cover in behind him, the Portuguese is tasked in breaking forward and trying to dispossess onrushing forward, of course, if he does make the move to the Premier League in future, he may have to temper that notion as the strikers and wingers in the English top-flight are more imposing, quicker and more explosive.
However, with more development, learning and coaching, Inácio could make that characteristic an art form at the top level.
Also, when facing off against dribbling wingers, he is quick enough and agile to stay level with them and not get beaten for pace, as well as more importantly dispossessing them. When he senses the threat of the attacker, he is more than capable of assessing the danger, reading what his opponent is going to do and stopping them before they can progress even further.
With the capacity to respond quickly to the on-ball movement of opposition players, the Portuguese U21 star is able to track opponents and pick his moment to make tackles.
The 6-foot 1inch defender’s strength, tackling, and mobility to cover the space behind if needed means he can make the seemingly risky defensive approach extremely fruitful.
*All stats are from SofaScore and are based on each game played.*
In 27 starts this season, the defender has registered five-goal contributions (four goals and 1 assist) plus he is the eighth-best rated player in the squad for his tremendous performances this season, given an average rating of 7.11.
Per game, he records 84.1 touches highlighting just how crucial he is to Sporting’s possession play and also representing the fact that from deep, he is partly their main source of ball progression, registering 0.3 key passes per game whilst also successfully completing 91% of his passes – the fifth-highest passing rate in Liga NOS.
An incredible statistic especially for a player so young which means he is certainly capable of translating that to the big leagues in the future if provided the freedom and opportunity within a progressive system.
Going forward, Ten Hag prefers to build up from the back, starting by circulating the ball laterally between a centre-back and a deep-lying playmaker – in Ajax’s case both Jurrien Timber and Lisandro Martinez.
The team usually move into a more advanced position with the centre-backs right behind the central line and the full-backs often going past it to overload the opposition half and provide width. The team’s main strategy is to use high pass frequency and a lot of movement to bypass the opposition pressing structures and advance the ball to the final third.
Ten Hag’s current Ajax side average about over 600 passes per game and possess the highest pass completion rate in the whole division, underlying the players’ strong positional sense and connection. Inácio could well be moulded into the perfect outlet for this kind of system if he isn’t already. He successfully completes 94% of his passes in his own half again showcasing the idea that he is a crucial cog in Sporting’s slow, and patient build-up, performing passes in order to disrupt and bypass the opposition’s shapes and structures.
For long balls, the Portuguese man performs them at a rate of 4.4 per game with a success rate of 62%, another impressive underlying statistic. Again, when given the opportunity, he’ll attempt a long-ball to find his attacking in more dangerous areas or more importantly when making off-the-ball runs behind defensive lines.
His positional sense and the team’s advanced position allow him to have a great contribution to their attack. He performs 26.7 passes per game in the opposition’s half with a success rate of 86%.
He can easily hold onto the ball and deliver it to the advanced areas and has a passing range that allows him to make combinations with his teammates and exploit spaces.
In his defending stats, the Portuguese again excels tremendously. He’s contributed to 13 clean sheets for last season’s champions, all while registering 0.9 interceptions, 1.4 tackles and 2.3 clearances per game. He is a highly engaging and combative defender. He’s won 56% of his total duels and 61% of his ground duels which is higher than both Harry Maguire (60%) and Victor Lindelof (51%).
Aerially, he’s quite respectable in that area winning 49% of his aerial duels which doesn’t scream that he is one of the best, but its vitally important to take note of his age and the fact that this is only his second campaign playing top-flight football, the stats he has managed to accumulate is very impressive considering. Again with more refining and development in his game, he will only become more well-rounded and complete in his defensive work.
Inacio might not be a proven commodity like Maguire, Varane, and Lindelof but neither was Ruben Dias when he joined Manchester City at the start of last season and look at how he’s turned out to be, making the stark transition from the Portuguese top flight to England.
The 20-year is certainly an exciting product who if properly groomed and developed has the potential to play an integral and crucial part in Erik ten Hag’s long term future plans at Old Trafford.
As shown through his underlying stats, he fits the mould of the kind of centre-half the Dutchman could want; capable of playing out of the back, progressing play as well as being quick off his feet and a highly engaging defender.
It’s high time the Old Trafford club start to refresh and rebuild the whole squad with young, exciting and hungry players rather than the so-called “marquee” stars that have plagued the club ever since Sir Alex Ferguson departed in 2013.
Gonçalo Inácio is indeed a young, exciting and hungry footballer, as well as possessing the incredible potential and ability to become a future star, so acquiring his services really is a no-brainer for Ten Hag and Manchester United.