From Wolves cast-off to 'next Bruno Fernandes' – Goncalves is Sporting CP's key to stunning Man City

By Sports Desk February 14, 2022

In 2019 there were murmurings of fan frustration at Wolves after the club allowed a couple of young Portuguese players leave Molineux.

Joao Dias had not made much of an impression in the Midlands, and so his exit to Famalicao – who had just been promoted to the Portuguese Primeira Liga for the first time since the early 1990s – was not a huge shock, but the fact his compatriot Pedro Goncalves went as well did stir some modest disgruntlement.

Granted, Goncalves – who turned 21 just a few days earlier – had never even been on the senior team's bench for a league game, but many of those who watched the club's Under-23s felt there was sure to be a rotational role, at least, up for grabs.

A report by The Athletic last year claimed Wolves allowed Goncalves to depart for a combination of reasons.

For starters, they were apparently unconvinced – despite his obvious talent – there was a role available for the attacking midfielder, given Nuno Espirito Santo at the time played with a fairly set deep-lying midfield and two wingers.

Additionally, it was reportedly felt a loan might not be in Goncalves' best interests because the possibility of a recall offered him a safety net – instead, he was sold for a small initial figure that would be boosted by percentages of his next two transfers fees.

But ahead of Sporting CP's Champions League last-16 clash with Manchester City on Wednesday, it's difficult to not think Wolves dropped the ball with this one.

The move to Famalicao wasn't as random a destination as it might've looked, however. The club's rise from obscurity was influenced massively by 'super agent' Jorge Mendes, who also has an interest in Wolves and Valencia, where Goncalves – or, Pote – initially played youth football prior to his brief stint in England.

Nevertheless, Goncalves quickly established himself at the Primeira Liga newcomers, the talents that were perhaps undervalued at Wolves coming to the fore. He wasted little time before showing his array of skills, from close ball control and deft throughballs, to clever lurking and instinctive finishing – his very first goal against Pacos Ferreira was a fine example of the latter two traits, as he held his run to create space and that ensured the pressure on him was minimal as he buried a rebound from 12 yards.

This Famalicao side had an emphasis on young players, and that youthful vibrancy helped propel them to a sixth-placed finish – Goncalves more than played his part, scoring five times and setting up another five.

Sporting were on the hunt for a replacement for Bruno Fernandes at the end of 2019-20, having seen their talisman and captain depart for Manchester United a few months earlier. Little could they have known the remarkable – bordering on freakish – campaign Goncalves would go on to have after arriving for roughly €5million.

And more importantly than his individual numbers, Goncalves' efforts helped Sporting achieve something even Fernandes couldn't: becoming Portuguese champions. Their Primeira Liga title success last term was their first since 2001-02, finally ending the dominance of their bitter rivals Porto and Benfica, who had won the previous 18 championships between them.

There's little doubt Goncalves was vital in their conquest.

He led the league's scoring charts with 23, only two of those coming from the spot. But what makes that haul even more incredible is the fact his chances (excluding penalties) were only worth 9.98 expected goals (xG). Of course, such form is hardly sustainable over the long term (we'll come to that later), but Goncalves was lethal on an unrivalled scale.

That gave him an xG overperformance of 11.02 – the next best record in that respect in the Primeira Liga was Toni Martinez, who scored seven times from 2.99 xG.

In fact, no one in the top five leagues got near that kind of efficiency. Marcos Llorente boasted the best record over those competitions (8.59 xG overperformance). Of course, Goncalves was playing in a division regarded as being lower in quality, but it still highlights just how abnormal his season was.

Don't get the idea that Goncalves suddenly became a poacher, though. Only one player (Ivo Rodrigues, four) bettered his three goals from outside the area, and he also remained a creative presence.

Sure, his three assists was hardly gobsmacking, but only Jesus Corona (68) and Ryan Gauld (75) laid on more chances than Pote (51), while his 6.8 expected assists (xA) was also the third-highest – the differential between his assists and xA potentially down to poor finishing by team-mates.

His output of six league goals from 17 games this season effectively proves the unsustainability of his productivity last term, but that's not to say he's playing worse – in fact, in many areas he proving even more threatening.

His non-penalty xG per game is up to 0.43 from 0.33, he is laying on more chances (1.9 up from 1.7) and his xA is also up on a per-90-minute basis (0.27 from 0.22).

He missed the dramatic 2-2 draw with Porto at the weekend through injury but has been back in training since, a massive boost to coach Ruben Amorim.

While even he may not be enough to stop the juggernaut that is Manchester City, his presence will certainly make progression a little less implausible.

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