Pedro Goncalves (or Pote) is a name that has been echoing from Portugal to the rest of Europe this season. The attacking midfielder is Liga NOS’s top goal scorer and is on course to lead Sporting CP to their first league title since 2002.
A notable trend in 2020/21 has been the resurgence - or rather evolution- of number 10s championed by the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Jack Grealish and Hakan Calhanoglu. Pote has been continuously compared to his fellow countryman and ex-Sporting player Fernandes. They are, fundamentally, players with stand-out tactical intelligence over raw technical attributes.
Just how accurate is this comparison? And with interest from the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United, is Pote ready to make it at the highest level? This scout report provides a statistical, technical and tactical analysis aimed at comprehensively equipping you to answer these questions.
A major debate that Pedro Goncalves’s statistics incite is a classic ‘acting on a breakout season’ dilemma. The eye-catching aspect of Goncalves’s game which has garnered interest from other clubs is his ability to score goals. However, based on one season, the overperformance of his xG may be viewed with scepticism. Nevertheless despite the lack of data, his efficiency in the final third is unquestionably excellent and hard to ignore.
The above Dashboard provides an apt foundation on how to approach Goncalves’s profile. His radar chart on the top-right is lean and underlines his output in the most important statistic in football i.e. goals. Pote has scored 15 goals this season, outperforming his xG of 5.93 by almost threefold. This is the first season where we’ve seen Goncalves record these excellent numbers. Pote had previously scored 5 goals for Famalicao in 2019/20 and 3 goals for Wolves in 2018/19. The difference between his goals and expected goals of +9.07 can be viewed as either an overperformance or an indication of his game finally clicking. He is only 22 and Bruno at a similar age - pre 2017/18 - was scoring a maximum of 5 goals a season before he too went into overdrive in terms of productivity (and has not stopped since).
The scatter plot on the left visualizes the ball progression (conveyed here by Dribbles and Deep Completions) of attackers in Liga NOS. Compared to his peers, Pote places around the mean and median of both metrics – averaging 3.51 dribbles/90 and 0.96 deep completions/90. This creates a tricky situation for analysts – though the Portuguese youngster stands out in an output metric, he doesn’t stand out in input metrics that are essential to progress a team's possession from passive to potent.
Furthermore, his overall touches per game are not very high. Yet, out of the 3.92 successful attacking actions that he averages, Goncalves is especially clinical in front of goal. This can be attested by the fact that he further averages 2.8 touches in the box/90 on one hand and records 2.28 shots/90 on the other hand Thus, you may not see him on the ball very often, but he has the ability to output key chances without recording a high volume of input metrics.
What about his consistency? Consider the following visualizations that analyse his weekly output in key metrics this season.
The graph on the right plots the frequency of Goncalves’ goal scoring in 2020/21. We notice that he has scored a whopping 5 braces this season (2 home, 3 away). Furthermore, averaging a goal every 2 games, one could argue that the Portuguese youngster is a stable goal scorer.
However, the very nature of this metric is highly volatile. For instance, Pote was on a roll, and consistently at that, in November and December – scoring 4 of his 5 braces. Between February and March, however, though he managed to score, he was unable to maintain the gargantuan levels that he was previously performing at. As a result, Sporting dropped points to a worthy Porto halting an 8-game win streak in all competitions.
Though this is normal even amongst the best attackers, it is noteworthy that Goncalves contributes 33% of all of Sporting’s goals. Thus, expecting him to perform this way for consecutive seasons from central midfield is a tall, albeit not outrageous, order. The box plot on the left focuses on the variance of his Shots-per game. Goncalves is surgical in his shooting, having 52% of his shots on target. In addition, his goal conversion percentage is a strong 30%. Pote is consistent in recording 2 or more shots at home and has higher peaks for the same away from home.
Overall, as far as his consistency goes, potential clubs may want to monitor his performances for another season to determine whether his current form is in isolation or reflects superior quality. The biggest counterargument to this is comparisons to Bruno Fernandes, who had a similar breakout season at Sporting CP. How can we predict whether the youngster can break out like his ‘narrative induced’ predecessor? A logical starting point is to compare the shapes of their radar charts.
Similarities and differences between the two players shown above hint at where Goncalves currently stands and areas where he needs to develop. Pote has a similar mould to Fernandes on one half of this comparison (Goals, Tackles + Interceptions, Dribble Success and Key Passes). However, his xG and creative attributes (Assists and Shot Assists) could be improved. Bruno Fernandes is a top chance creator with goals in him to back it up, not the other way round. Having a solid and consistent foundation in chance creation is a tried and tested formula that is more reliable at the top level.
Yet, Pedro Goncalves has a high match IQ consisting of strong positioning and reading the direction of play. These are better highlighted through a technical and tactical analysis of the Portuguese youngster.
Goncalves’s technical profile is driven by an intuitive and positive approach in the final third. Technically, he isn’t necessarily the best dribbler, passer or shooter; but is adept at using them to the fullest. Stylistically, he doesn’t favour one attribute over the other and approaches the game based on what the situation requires. For instance, consider the above position highlighting Goncalves’s intuition on when to take an extra touch in the penalty area.
When encountering a keeper adventuring out of goal, a player from the above position would blindly attempt a chipped shot. However, Goncalves’ clever ball control allowed him to, in fact, nutmeg the keeper allowing him to take an easier shot into an empty goal. In addition to his ball control and balance, Pote’s understanding of the keeper’s charge permits him to not commit to a shot for half a second. His consequent touch allows him to eliminate the keeper and arrive at an almost assured goal probability.
Moreover, his commendable shot accuracy percentage can be attributed to his innate talent to shoot a half-volley. As introduced above, Pote is a surgical shooter – prioritizing accuracy over shot-power. His efficiency from 15-20 yards in front of goal permits Goncalves to be a potent threat anywhere around the box. Consider the following position.
Initially positioned 5 yards deeper, Goncalves’s timed run meets the flighted pass in a dangerous zone with no players marking him. Consequently, his flawless technique on the half-volley permits him to find the top right corner effortlessly. The technique required to not only arrive at the highlighted position but also beat the keeper flat out from around the edge of the box is noteworthy.
Due to his advanced position, Goncalves isn’t too defensively industrious in his own half. However, the Portuguese has a solid role in pressing traps higher up the pitch. Consider the following sequence.
After applying high pressure to the opposition right-back, Pote shows enough pace to discourage the only viable passing lane for the opposition’s number 6. This permits him to not only win the upcoming duel but retains possession triggering a counterattack. Joao Mario swiftly falling back in conjunction with the number 6 presumably being right-footed enabled Goncalves to engage in a successful defensive action higher up the pitch.
Thus, Goncalves’ technique doesn’t have a particular attribute that stands out. Yet, his well-balanced skill set is notably refined. This makes Pote a threat from a variety of areas on the pitch. The following position combines these into a sequence.
In a routine tactical sequence, Goncalves drops deep to receive a vertical pass from Sporting’s centre-back. After a quick scan of the players behind him, his ball control on the turn in conjunction with a shoulder drop afford him free space. Consequently, his piercing long ball breaks the lines as it finds the intended player on the left-wing.
This is a case of the Portuguese youngster presenting himself as a pivot and creating chances from a typical midfield position. And the diverse roles played by Pote within the 90 minutes is discussed in the following section.
Goncalves plays many roles on the pitch. In the above-analysed position, it is noteworthy that Sporting plays with 3 centre-backs that are closely positioned alongside their number 6 - Joao Palhinha. At the centre of the pitch, Sporting progress the ball through medium length vertical passes. And Goncalves routinely drops deep to receive the ball where he’s in a position to play a line-breaking forward cross around the opponent’s box. This is an example of Goncalves playing the role of a number 8 at times.
The half-spaced position of the ‘2’ in a 3-4-2-1 is especially tricky. The two second-strikers are positioned in an awkward position between the opposition’s centre-backs and holding midfielders. This means that making a lunging challenge always comes with the risk of conceding space in a dangerous area. And Sporting’s wide players facilitate this even further by being eliminating checks for Goncalves. As a result, though his total touches throughout the 90 minutes are below average, Pote seems to always find himself in uncannily unmarked positions.
More prominently, he plays the role of being the last man of Sporting’s possession chain. This season, his positioning between the opposition midfield and defence has been impeccable. Goncalves has played as a number 9 from approximately 15 yards deeper. This can be observed in the following position.
Goncalves’s movement in the above sequence is two-fold. His first stride is aimed at occupying a key central zone in the box. It prompts his marker (highlighted above) to hurriedly cover the free space on the left-hand side of the box. In addition, the centre-back (last man) is constantly wary of the two Sporting players hovering on his blind spot.
Consequently, Pote’s second stride recognizes his marker’s zone-focussed approach as he cleverly halts his run. This leaves the Portuguese youngster unmarked in his favourite spot on the pitch – 10-15 yards from the goal. Ultimately, a well-timed shot found the bottom right corner for his team.
Though he operates from attacking midfield, Goncalves has the instincts of a poacher. His spatial awareness combined with his movement in the box is notably refined, and a trait that even highly rated false 9s lack. In many ways, Goncalves’ role is the reverse of a false 9.
The false 9 begins his position from a striker position and heavily contributes to the possession chain by dropping deeper. A practical drawback of this is that though they are positively contributing to the possession chain, they aren’t at the tip of the structure to finish it. This is normally why false 9s are paired well with goalscoring wingers.
Conversely, Pote starts his position from a false 9 position, lightly contributes to the possession chain, but importantly, succeeds in being clinical in front of goal. This is due to his intelligence in half-spaces. When receiving the ball in these half-spaces, Goncalves’s spatial awareness and unpredictability permit him to reliably transfer the ball from one dangerous area to another. In the following position, Pote receives the ball from a central position 5 yards deeper and arrives at the following frame.
The xG for the above shot is not high. However, Pote appreciates the position of both his markers, the goalkeeper and his teammates in the frame. Note that he arrived at this frame by cutting outside (as evidenced by the body position of his marker on the left). From this position, opting for the correct shot (near post instead of far post) that finds the bottom left corner demonstrates a high level of tactical understanding and technical execution befitting a potentially prolific goal scorer.
This circles back into his role as a reverse false 9. The traditional false 9 has a heavily concentrated heat map on the pitch whereas Pote’s is notably condensed. Yet, the Portuguese youngster tends to observe the game and position himself in key positions where his presence would pick apart the opposition’s defence. And this is facilitated by Sporting’s tactics that are centred around him. Consider the following position.
The above position is an example of using second balls to utilise Goncalves’s golden zone (10-15 yards from goal). The purpose of the aggressively weighted cross in the frame is not to win the receiving position, but the consequent second ball that falls into Pote’s zone. This has been a recurring tactic that involves Goncalves being a scavenger in the box.
All in all, it is evident from the above examples that Pedro Goncalves plays a unique role that makes him one of the top goal-scoring attacking midfielders in Europe. Though his technical and tactical abilities are refined and mature, the inherent statistical question that arises is the ‘acting on a break-out season’ dilemma.
We find that despite the comparisons to United’s shining light, Goncalves’s big move away may be slightly premature due to his non-goal numbers. His overall consistency might be a cause for concern for clubs that may be reluctant to build their tactics around him. Yet, the 22-year-old’s technical and tactical profile finds a well-balanced, tactically intelligent and surprisingly clinical player that could be the best in his role under the right circumstances.
Currently valued at €15 million, signing Goncalves would nevertheless be a bargain. Even though Sporting CP will look to sell him for more, this valuation could be realistically met by a big club. All in all, Pedro Goncalves has everything it takes to be a top player in the future. And his countryman Bruno Fernandes has set an example for a player of his technical and tactical skillset to perform at the top level. This is an important decision that will be crucial for his career and one that should not be rushed.
Nikhil is a tactical analyst based in Sweden who obsesses over full-backs. He also thinks he can beat you at chess.