Neves has spent the past four seasons with Wolves, joining them from Porto along with manager Nuno Espiranto Santo where they helped the club achieve promotion to the Premier League and qualify for the UEFA Europa League. He’s been capped 22 times by Portugal which is probably where his bond with Fernandes formed.
For United, it’s a good thing that Fernandes works in the ‘first team players’ department of the club and not as a scout or analyst as Neves doesn’t check any of the boxes United need in a midfielder.
United’s biggest issue(s) in midfield right now are that Nemanja Matic is old and can’t cover ground, and that the McFred pivot currently requires two players to do the job of one. They need a midfielder who can do the job of one player all by himself. That is not Ruben Neves.
Neves does have some really good defensive qualities. Over the past year, according to FBref, Neves was in the 80th percentile for tackles, 95th percentile for blocks, and 61st percentile for interceptions among players in Europe’s top five leagues.
Those are pretty good numbers but FBref only accounts for raw numbers without adjusting for possession. Neves plays in a very defensive side which gives him more opportunities to make tackles, interceptions, and blocks.
Adding to that, United - who see a lot more of the ball than Wolves - already have a player whose raw numbers put him in the 88th percentile for tackles, 97th percentile for blocks, and 90th percentile for interceptions.
His name is Fred.
Statistically, every scouting service be it FBref, Statsbomb, Smarterscout, Wyscout etc rank Neves and Fred as very similar players with Fred having the edge.
Defensive ability has never been the problem with Fred, it’s his passing that leaves a lot to be desired and that’s where Neves would be an upgrade.
That’s in theory because the stats tell a bit of a different picture. Fred has higher pass completion percentage, completes a higher percentage of long passes, makes more key passes, more final third entries, and plays more progressive passes than Neves. Creatively Fred also has a higher xA and more shot-creating actions. These numbers are true from last season as well as their averages over the past three seasons.
Neves does play far more passes that result in offsides suggesting that he looks for runners breaking for counter attacks. That sounds like something that’s useful for United but that’s not an area where they’re currently lacking. Their struggles come when there isn’t room to send runners in behind.
Where Neves beats Fred is shot volume. Neves loves a shot from distance and as United fans know - he can score from there. Or at least he’s scored from two of the 112 shots from outside the box he’s taken over the past two seasons. As Carl Anka said on The Busby Babe podcast, United don’t need more players who like to shoot from distance, they need less of that. The fact that Fred put a higher percentage of his shots on target than Neves last year just lets you know how many more possessions would end in goal kicks.
There is the caveat that Neves comes from a far more defensive system than Fred and isn’t asked to do as much as Fred is exactly the problem. Neves is good for Wolves because he does exactly what Wolves need him to do. That’s not going to be the same thing that Manchester United need him to do.
Fred is at his best when playing against teams where United don’t have a lot of the ball. United don’t need to upgrade on him in those situations, they need players that can pass through the lines when the lines are organized. There’s nothing about Neves’ time at Wolves that suggest he’ll fit that.
£35 million is a decent price for Neves but unless Fred or Scott McTominay are going the other way you’d just be adding another mediocre+ midfielder to the mediocre+ midfielders United already have. That doesn’t solve any of the midfield problems for United but hey, Bruno wants to play with his friend.
Ultimately I’ll let Carl Anka sum it up because he does a much better job at it than I do.