Brazilians are great at football. There’s no getting around it. Each and every one of them. There are 50 year old road sweepers in the back streets of Sao Paolo who’d have Wayne Rooney comfort eating Greggs sausage rolls after one training session. One only needs to look at Watford’s one previous Brazilian jogador, Douglas De Mederios Rinaldi – arguably the most talented player ever to don the famous yellow (that’s Watford golden, not Brazilian canary) – for proof of the nation’s omnipresent talent. With that in mind, let’s look at the latest Pozzo revelation – Sergio Piccoli Neuton.
The legend began in the relatively small city of Erechim, in the southernmost Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. It was here that a young man honed his skills as a left back – occasionally centre back – forever dreaming of one day playing in the Campeonato Gaucho, the State Championship. With Brazil being as completely, ridiculously massive as it is, football is split into state pyramids, with only the bigger, better teams also competing in a national pyramid. Rio Grande is a fairly big region – covering about 280,000km2 (for reference, that’s twice the size of England) with 10 million official residents. Therefore, when the young Neuton was taken on by Grêmio, one of the two major clubs in the area, it was a pretty big deal.
He made the 6 hour drive down the BR-386 to Porto Alegre as a youth player and signed professional terms when he was 18; but his first team debut did not come until April 2010, a month after his twentieth birthday, when he started at left back in both legs of the final of the Campeonato Gaucho, a 2-1 aggregate win over city rivals Internacional. Reports suggest that Internacional focused heavily on trying to take advantage of the youngster’s inexperience, but that he stood firm, and even attacked with confidence, putting the defending champions on the back foot. He was, in fact, voted Man of the Match. Winning a state championship on debut isn’t a bad way to start a career, and Neuton proved a lucky charm for Grêmio in the nationwide championship – the Campeonato Brasileiro – in the second half of the season (the Brazilian football calendar runs from January to December; state football for the first five months and national from July to the end of the year). The Immortals finished fourth in the country, qualifying them for the Copa Libertadores, with Neuton a regular member of the match day squad, making 14 appearences overall, including one goal.
The impressive performances of his debut season alerted scouts the world over, with Manchester United heavily reported to have registered interest during 2010. Figures of up to £7 million were mooted, and descriptions of the 20 year old defender, nicknamed ‘Iceman’ in Brazil, were extremely positive: ‘he doesn’t have to play a spectacular style of play because his coolness allows him to make the right play under pressure, and he’s a smart one, his sense of positioning is top notch’. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like descriptions of Joel Ekstrand… and Nathaniel Chalobah… not Carl Dickinson.
Neuton remained at Grêmio until July 2011, playing eight games in the club’s unsuccessful retention of the Gaucho title, finishing with the best record, but losing in the playoff final to their GreNal rivals. He managed another eight in the national championship before Udinese became the first European club to make their move on the youngster and took him to Italy for €2.5 million.
His year at Udinese was not spectacular – he made only one start in Serie A, a 0-0 draw at Atalanta, which is to be expected for such a year of transition. Like Joel Ekstrand, the high point of his season came in the Champions League, where he made his debut alongside the Swede at Arsenal. After this tricky year, he’s here at Watford, on loan with a view to a permanent move.
In his interview with the Times yesterday (13/09), Gino Pozzo explained the theory behind Udinese’s scouting process: if a superstar is identified young enough, any team can get him. It’s a case of distinguishing talent at an early stage and taking a risk. Of course, this requires an excellent scouting system that leaves no stone unturned, but it also requires an awful lot of luck. For every Alexis Sanchez, there’ll be a Thiago Schumacher. Excellent write-ups like those that Neuton received for his early days at Grêmio have accompanied many a young superstar down through the divisions. Freddie Sears was the new Michael Owen, Freddie Adu was the new Pele – praise for your debut season means nothing if you don’t get the same praise in your second, third and fourth years.
Which is not to put a downer on Neuton. He’s got potential, and he’s had a fairly impressive career thus far. But coming into this Watford system, one completely foreign to English football, without any prior experience of British culture, language or sport, is a huge test for any young footballer. The bonus of having multiple loanees from one squad is that there will always be some familiar faces for the new guys, so feeling at home – if not meshing with the incumbent players – shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
So he’s added to the pile. He plays the sort of football that the Pozzos want to see, and he’s got familiarity with winning things (well, a thing), so we’ll see how he goes. He also offers versatility: as a left back, he’ll be duking it out with Pudil and Fanchone for the starting berth, whilst trying to win a place in the middle from his umpteen competitors for the position. Despite the massive competition for every spot, versatility could be a big advantage for the Brazilian. We have seen Zola experiment with a 3-4-3 formation, and to be able to switch between such set ups freely requires defenders capable of playing both wide and central. We’ve seen it tried with Dickinson, and I’ve no doubt we’ll be seeing it again before too long.
Good luck, Neutinho, in your quest to get a game for Watford.