As the summer and January transfer windows have become increasingly imposing attractions over the last decade and a half, a handful of often-touted moves that never materialise become a kind of running joke.
There is, of course, the regular-as-clockwork, twice-yearly japes about Manchester United once again being “in for” Wesley Sneijder, and long-time Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger became a figure of transfer-related fun due to his insistence that he almost signed so many world-class stars before they hit the big time.
Portuguese playmaker João Moutinho also occupied similar standing among the sharp-witted transfer-market humourists, having been linked with a move to the Premier League – almost always to either Tottenham Hotspur or Liverpool, and invariably for £30million – from the time he broke through as a supremely gifted teenager at Sporting in the mid-2000s, throughout his three years at Porto and into his subsequent spell with Monaco.
Finally, in the summer of 2017, approaching his 32nd birthday and for significantly less than £30million (the officially undisclosed fee was reported to be in the region of £5million), Moutinho arrived in the Premier League, signing for newly promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers.
By then, though, thoughts of what Moutinho could bring to English shores had long faded. Despite being a champion in Portugal and France and with Europa League and European Championship winners’ medals, there is a sense that, having never made it to one of Europe’s elite clubs, Moutinho never quite got to the level initially anticipated of him, and he was unlikely ever to as he moved into his 30s.
But, a crucial centre-piece in Wolves’ ascent into contenders for a Europa League-qualifying position, Moutinho has showed the Premier League what its been missing all these years.
Nuno Espírito Santo’s side are often happy to cede possession, particularly when up against one of the top-flight’s established powers, aiming to contain their opponents and launch rapid counter-attacks when the ball is regained.
This strategy means Moutinho often see less of the ball than he was used to at his previous clubs, all of whom were among the most dominant in their respective leagues.
But the 32-year-old comes with vast experience. In the years since he first began to attract Premier League transfer rumours he has gone on to accumulate 113 caps for Portugal and passed the 600-appearance mark in senior club football. There is little that can surprise him at this stage of his career and he has adapted to the demands of his new surroundings perfectly.
Indeed, while he has always been a supreme technician with the ball at his feet, capable of dictating tempo and splitting defences with his passing, Moutinho’s tenacity and ball-winning skills have come to the fore at Wolves, with his average of 3.69 tackles per 90 minutes the third-best among Premier League midfielders this season.
Once they have the ball, there is no Wolves player more trustworthy with it than Moutinho, who has created more big chances than any colleague. Always precise in possession, the playmaker has picked out an old gold shirt with 85.6 per cent of his passes and he betters 86.3 per cent of Premier League midfielders when it comes to creating chances from open play (1.26 per 90).
Moutinho has even demonstrated he can be a direct goal threat when the occasion arises, too, scoring a sublime, left-footed effort in a 1-1 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford in September. The midfielder, despite rarely finding himself in such situations, showed quick feet on the edge of the penalty are to evade a challenge before curling into the top corner.
Stationed alongside compatriot Rúben Neves in the centre of Wolves’ 3-4-3 formation, Moutinho will see much of his younger self in his 21-year-old team-mate. Like Moutinho more than a decade ago, Neves was the great teenage hope of Portuguese football, tipped for big-money moves to Europe’s biggest clubs, only for a year or two of stagnation to halt his progress.
At Wolves, Neves has relaunched himself as one of the continent’s premier young playmaking talents, with reported interest from Manchester City. He and Moutinho share many stylistic traits, both at home in a deep midfield role, conducting play and passing accurately over all ranges.
However, matching his younger colleague’s technical attributes and owning a greater accumulation of experience, Moutinho has outshone Neves this season. As one match-going Wolves fan notes: “Neves had been the best player I’d seen in a Wolves shirt technically … until Moutinho came along. If Wolves can keep Neves and Morgan Gibbs-White, they’ve got a top master for the apprentices there.”
Therein perhaps lies the reason Moutinho is thriving so quickly upon finally arriving in the Premier League: while his late-career switch to England may preclude his longevity in the division, he now brings a wealth of experience, a deep understanding of the game’s minutiae, masterfully parlayed with his natural gifts; a recipe for instant success he didn’t possess when first attracting attention all those years ago.