The illusion of Rúben Neves

“And Rúben Neves goes for the spectacular! Well you would not put it past him would you?”

“He’s done this before, he has history”

So said the Sky Sports commentators when Neves’ volleyed effort was tipped over the bar by David de Gea in Wolves’ eventual 1–0 victory over Manchester United. After all, he is one of those players with the uncanny ability to score outrageous goals from long range due to his incredible technique. We’ve seen him do it time and time again in the Premier League, haven’t we?

As it turns out, no. We haven’t.

Neves has, over the course of 3 and a half seasons and 127 appearances, amassed 12 Premier League goals. 7 of them, 5 of which were penalties, came from inside the box, leaving us with 5 goals from roughly 200 shot attempts outside the penalty area.

Note – in this article we are concerned only with shots from outside the box, so all shotmaps will exclude shots from inside the box

Of those 5, three were from direct free kicks. The other two were assisted by a set piece, one a corner and the other a free kick.

This brings us to a very neat and surprising, albeit slightly sneaky, statistic that I have often repeated on twitter – Rúben Neves has never scored from outside the box in open play in the Premier League.

A lot of the time when I say this I’m met with links to videos of his goals from set pieces – either from direct free kicks or assisted by a set piece – or even goals from other competitions altogether during his younger years at Porto and his season in the Championship. But there is a difference, even if it seems a trivial one, and the above shot map shows a lot of attempts without a single goal. And yet, the tag of ‘long shot specialist’ remains above his head. If you’re to be labelled one of the best long range shooters in the Premier League, I feel like you should probably have scored one of your nearly 120 open play shots from outside the box.

I should point out here that I don’t have any issue with Neves as a player or person. I don’t think he’s a bad footballer and even if I did, that wouldn’t be particularly relevant here. I am only concerned with analysing and hopefully dispelling the belief that he is among Europe’s elite long range goal scorers.

As mentioned, outside of the Premier League it was a different story for Rúben. Two of his three Primeira Liga goals at Porto came from outside the box in open play, although this still only amounts to less than 1 screamer a season. More impressively, each of his 6 goals in Wolves’ Championship winning 17/18 season were from outside the box. Two came directly from free kicks, the other 4 were from open play, and all 6 involved outrageous technique.

This poses an interesting question – was that incredible Championship season, which is likely carrying the reputation of his outside the box escapades to this day, an outlier? In the 3 and a half Premier League seasons in which he has totalled 127 appearances and roughly the same number of open play long shots, Neves has failed to replicate his form from the second tier.

His midfield partner and fellow countryman João Moutinho has actually had more success from range in the English top flight despite taking far fewer shots and possessing nothing close to Neves’ mercurial stature. He’s scored three in open play from outside the box, the third of which was the only goal in the aforementioned win against United. Something tells me, though, that for many fans Neves’ saved volley will live longer in the memory.

So, why is it then that Rúben has this reputation for long range excellence among Premier League fans when the only time he has shown proof of such skill was 4 years ago in the second tier?

It would seem that because he arrived in the league with this label and still has the same technique and eagerness to shot from range, he doesn’t even need to produce the same outcomes to maintain his somewhat illusory image. The same hush of anticipation and baited breath still shoots around a ground when Neves gets his head down and lines up an effort from 25 yards. The commentators reinforce this image, and conjure up memories of a youtube compilation you’re sure you watched a few years ago. There’s just something about the way he does it that fills you with apprehension. The ball whistling an inch wide of the post is, if anything, scarier than seeing it nestle in the top corner. It’s a warning.

‘We got away with one there! The defenders need to sort themselves out. You can’t give someone like him that much space to shoot.’

When the alternative is closing him down and subsequently allowing space for a ball to be played through to an attacker to work space for a shot from a much better position, it turns out it probably is safer to just let Neves have a crack.

I’d love to pretend this was all written with a larger, more important point in mind but to be honest it’s just a pet peeve of mine that I’ve mentioned a fair few times before and wanted to flesh out a little. If there was a wider point, I suppose it would be that a lot of what is accepted to be common knowledge among football fans is based on our limited and selective memories, and is reinforced by our fellow football fans and their own biased memory; reality doesn’t always agree.

A higher profile example might be Cristiano Ronaldo’s supposedly elite free kick taking ability; everyone can recall that one time against Portsmouth, or the one against Spain at the Euros, but he really doesn’t score very many relative to how many he takes. At Juventus, he scored 1 free kick from over 70 attempts. His technique might be incredibly aesthetically pleasing, but it isn’t consistently effective. Neves seems to share this characteristic.

Football players and clubs will often unwillingly and unwittingly take on stereotypes and preconceptions based on a limited set of examples that are strengthened through being socially reinforced rather than with tangible examples on the pitch. One match, one single moment even, can immediately assign you the label of, for example, ‘clutch’, ‘inevitable’ ‘xyz skill specialist’ or if you’re less fortunate, ‘bottlers’. Take it from me, a Spurs fan, it’s not so easy to shake these labels off.

Thanks for reading! As always, these articles wouldn’t be the same without data visualisations from my stats nerd twitter friends. Huge thanks to Harsh Krishna (@placeholder2004 on twitter) for the shot maps present in this article. If you’d like to make your own shot maps, Harsh has published the matplotlib code here – https://github.com/harshkrishna17/matplotlib-code/blob/main/ShotMap.ipynb. The dataset for these shot maps is taken from understat.com.

And if you don’t already, you can follow me on twitter @spagyama for plenty of football based content to come, Rúben Neves related or otherwise.

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