Livescore Thursday, April 25
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This summer we are running a series profiling 50 exciting players under the age of 25 — who they are, how they play and why they could be attracting interest in the coming transfer windows.

So far we have run the rule over Florian Wirtz, Moussa Diaby and Rasmus Hojlund.

Next up, it’s Benfica striker and the man who took Cristiano Ronaldo’s place at the World Cup… Goncalo Ramos.

For a second summer in a row, Benfica could lose their star striker.

Last June, Liverpool pounced to bring Darwin Nunez to the Premier League after a 26-goal haul in Primeira Liga, which left the Portuguese club in desperate need of a player to replace his attacking output.

The man who filled the goalscoring void? Goncalo Ramos.

The 21-year-old made a blistering start to the 2022-23 campaign, bagging nine goals in 11 league starts to earn himself a place in the Portugal squad for the 2022 World Cup. And for many, those performances in Qatar were a first introduction to Ramos’ skill set.

He played twice in the groups and then netted a hat-trick on his first international start during an emphatic 6-1 win against Switzerland in the round of 16 — after replacing Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal’s starting line-up.

Ramos, who finished the season with 27 goals for Benfica in all competitions, now has many admirers across Europe — but which of his on-field traits are the most impressive?

Allow The Athletic to answer…

Along with centre-back Antonio Silva, Ramos is the latest academy product in Benfica’s long production line of talent.

The Portuguese starlet has made light work of becoming Benfica’s main man this season and has made each step up look easy since he joined the club’s Seixal academy when he was 13 years old.

To highlight how quickly he adapts to each new challenge, it is worth mentioning that Ramos scored for Benfica’s juniors, under-23s, B team and the first team in a single season (2019-20) as his development soared.

“That is one of our biggest trophies when that happens,” says Pedro Marques, Benfica’s youth technical director. “We can win the under-15s league, but a real trophy is when those players achieve their dreams: when they play for Benfica in the stadium and they see the eagle. There is no better feeling.”

Fortunately for Benfica, they did get their hands on a real trophy this season after securing their first Primeira Liga title since 2018-19 — and it was Ramos who spearheaded the attack with 19 league goals.

While Porto’s Mehdi Taremi was the league’s top scorer with 22 goals, seven of them were penalties. Going off non-penalty goals, Ramos was the most prolific man in Portugal’s top flight this season.

So, the big question — could Ramos perform on a bigger European stage? All evidence suggests so.

The 21-year-old’s seven goals in 14 Champions League games (including qualifiers) this season helped Benfica reach the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier club competition, after topping a group containing Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus and beating Club Bruges in the round of 16. They were knocked out in the last eight by eventual finalists Inter Milan.

Ramos has played as a deeper second striker — drawing comparisons with Thomas Muller — in the past, but Benfica’s number 88 was used almost exclusively as an out-and-out striker in a 4-2-3-1 for Roger Schmidt’s title-winning side this campaign.

It is rare to see a prolific goalscorer possess an archetypal goal, but a lot of Ramos’ strikes this season have followed a similar pattern — a one-touch finish at the near post.

Against Club Bruges in the Champions League in March, Ramos is hovering at the far post as Fredrik Aursnes looks to play the ball to the overlapping left-back Alex Grimaldo.

Ramos stays on the blind side of defender Abakar Sylla but makes a darting run to the near post as Grimaldo drives it across goal…

… getting across his man to finish first time with his weaker left foot.

It was Grimaldo once again providing for Ramos in the league against Santa Clara in January. A low, driven cross, a run to the near post and a deft first-time finish.

Grimaldo has been an important creative hub on the left side of Benfica’s attack this season — his nine league assists topped the charts for the club — but the team use their width well on both flanks to provide for Ramos.

Whether it is a low, driven ball, a cutback or sometimes a headed finish, the patterns look similar for Ramos when the ball is delivered from the right side.

Provide him with service and he will get across his man to finish.

As Ramos’ shot map (first graphic) highlights, a large share of his finishes are within the width of the six-yard box, which suggests that those 19 league goals are likely to be a reliable indicator of his future output.

Among all midfielders and forwards in the Primeira Liga, no player averaged higher than Ramos’ 0.79 non-penalty xG per 90 this season. Crucially, only two players had a higher shot quality than Ramos’ 0.21 xG per shot.

Put simply, Ramos combines quality with quantity when it comes to efforts on goal.

Ramos’ output should also be contextualised against his young peers.

Across the top seven European leagues this season — which includes the Dutch Eredivisie and Portuguese Primeira Liga — only Folarin Balogun (21 goals for Reims) and Xavi Simons (19 goals for PSV Eindhoven) can match or better Ramos’ 19-goal haul among players aged 21 or under.

Perhaps part of what makes him such a lethal finisher is that the Portuguese forward does not get heavily involved in Benfica’s build-up.

His 17.9 passes per 90 puts him in the bottom half of forwards in the Primeira Liga — a statistic made starker when considering the fact Benfica are the most possession-dominant side in the league (63.2 per cent).

As evidenced by his attacking touch map in the Champions League in the past two seasons, Ramos is likely to reserve his touches for attacking areas. However, he is still comfortable dropping deep to link up with his team-mates.

Rather than a Harry Kane-esque progressive pass from deep, Ramos will most often look for a simple pass into midfield that drags opposition defenders out of position and therefore creates space for his team-mates.

In Benfica’s quarter-final first-leg clash against Inter in April, Morato fizzes a ball into Ramos who is dropping in while opposition centre-back Francesco Acerbi tracks his run.

Ramos plays a simple, first-time square pass to Aursnes on the left wing but the speed of play allows Rafa Silva to exploit the space vacated by Inter’s defence.

As Silva receives the ball, Benfica are now bearing down on Inter’s back line, with their rotations in attack and third-man runs allowing them to work the ball from back to front at speed.

Ramos’ link-play is integral to such attacking sequences — it might not be extravagant, but it is certainly effective.

Ramos does have room to improve his technical play in possession, with his 2.1 miscontrols per 90 (in the top 15 per cent of forwards in the Primeira Liga this season) highlighting his occasional loose touch.

At just 21 years old, this can easily be refined on the training pitch, but as his manager attests, Ramos offers an invaluable contribution out of possession.

“I love Goncalo, not just for his goals,” says Schmidt. “His attitude is excellent, he scored goals but really helps with hard, defensive work and knows how to play with the team.”

Defensive strength was a key part of Benfica’s title-winning campaign, as they logged the lowest PPDA — and therefore, highest pressing intensity — of any side in Portugal’s top tier, regaining possession in the final third more than any other side. Ramos is often key to pressing from the front.

In Benfica’s final game of the season against Santa Clara, he is intelligent in herding the opposition to exactly where he wants.

First, as the ball is played back to goalkeeper Gabriel Batista, Ramos closes him down while angling his run to block a passing lane into the midfield.

As Batista is forced to play the ball to centre-back Italo, Ramos arcs his run to similarly shepherd man and ball towards the touchline and force a further pass to left-back Matheus Nunes.

With Ramos preventing the return pass to Italo — and Silva joining the press — Nunes is forced to hit the ball up the touchline and Benfica regain possession.

This was a sequence where Ramos did not touch the ball but was integral to his side’s defensive action.

With Manchester United known to be keen admirers of Ramos, his energy out of possession will be music to the ears of manager Erik ten Hag, who has improved his side’s front-footed defensive aggression — regaining possession in the final third more often than in their previous four seasons.

If United are the club to sign Ramos, they can be encouraged by the output of another purchase they made from the Portuguese league.

No one has scored more Premier League goals for United than Bruno Fernandes (44) since he joined in January 2020 from Sporting Lisbon, but there is understandably variation among players’ outputs when moving between leagues — an adaptation period is required more often than not.

For a player who is still so young, there are bound to be question marks over Ramos’ future output and his ability to step up in a higher-quality league.

He is strong, but is he strong enough to consistently hold off imposing centre-backs bearing down on him? He is quick, but does he have the blistering pace to scare defenders in a one-on-one duel?

Currently, the signs suggest he is more than capable of going to the next level.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)



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