The rapid rise of an archetypal modern full-back
Nationality: Portuguese (2 caps)
One of the main pillars of Benfica’s team, the title chasing side hoping to win a fourth consecutive league title this season, is right-back Nelson Semedo. Born in Lisbon, Nelsinho is the proof that even the brightest talents can escape the huge tentacles of the Portuguese giants SL Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting CP. Alongside Portuguese youth academies and extensive training schools and scouting systems, which help clubs spot the most prodigious young talent, there will always be some players who they aren’t able to detect at an early age. Some of those talents become lost at amateur level not really fulfilling their potential, and very few, like Nelson Semedo, are able to blossom late and still make a way to the top. Nelsinho made his debut at the age of 17 playing for his hometown club Sintrense in Portugal’s amateur fourth tier, the now extinguished III Divisao.
Playing as an attacking midfielder he quickly attracted the eye of a Benfica scout and was soon transferred to the Estadio da Luz, but he was first loaned out to third-tier club Fatima, where he spent one season where he remained in an attacking role. Returning to the eagles, he was offered a place in the reserve side, Benfica B. The manager had a plan for Nelson Semedo, wanting him to play as a right-back. Nelsinho, in a recent interview, stated that “at the time I did not think it was a good idea to play as a right-back”. But the truth is, as he himself admits, “I have to thank him for that decision”. This position change would be crucial in his evolution as a player. After two good seasons in the Benfica B side playing in his new right-back role, and with Maxi Pereira’s unexpected move to big rivals Porto, Rui Vitoria gave Nelsinho the chance of being part of the first team squad for the 2015/16 season. Rapidly he became an undisputed starter in the team and two months later received his first call-up to the Portuguese national team. Unfortunately, Nelsinho doesn’t have great memories of that debut, where he picked up an injury that would force him to miss part of the season. This injury also compromised any ambition of being called up for Euro 2016.
Completely recovered from that injury, Semedo is having an outstanding 2016/17 season, making him one of the most promising right-backs in the world. He has played in 44 games in all competitions this season, contributing with two goals and 11 assists across all competitions. In the Liga NOS, the right-back has an impressive record of eight assists and one goal in 29 games so far, numbers that clearly demonstrate the influence he is having in Benfica’s game. Benefiting from a model that contemplates two very offensive wing-backs, Semedo’s biggest strengths are his dribbling, crossing ability and pace. Some truly important attributes for a wing-back in modern football. His trademark play is to break through the right flank and make a cut back putting the ball in the center of the box, where he normally finds teammates ready to finish. An attack-minded defender, you don’t see Semedo being one of those wing-backs that make the simple pass back to the centre-back. He is always on the front foot, almost as if he was the main team organizer, always ready to break opponent lines and win the right flank or cutting back inside to make a crucial pass. Defensively he has also evolved a lot recently, making use of his impressive pace to stop opponents. He still needs some improving in terms of always having the right positioning in the back four, something that is understandable given the fairly short time he has been playing in this position.
An assiduous presence now in the Portuguese national team, Nelson Semedo fights for the right-back spot with Joao Cancelo and Cedric Soares. With this quick ascent, there are already numerous top european clubs following Nelsinho and the truth is that Benfica are unlikely to be able to keep him for next season. As per usual, Portuguese clubs have to sell some of their best players every year to keep the financial balance stable. Despite a release clause of €80m, a bid of half that value should be enough to convince the Portuguese giants to sell one of their most shining stars. Nelson Semedo might be the next big name leaving the Portuguese Liga NOS and joining one of the major clubs in the top European Leagues next season.
Rui Santos (Senior Football Analyst)
All Player to Watch articles are formed on analyst’s opinion rather than in-house statistics.
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