Sporting CP are well-known for producing the best talents of World Football. Cristiano Ronaldo is the Lisbon clubs most famous son, along with many others, as the club maintain their impressive track record of promoting youngsters. Most of these young players leave their homes and venture abroad to establish themselves in World Football. While some fail to justify the promising potential in the early parts of their career (a la Ricardo Quaresma who came through with Cristiano Ronaldo), others have become established footballers. Tiago Ilori is the latest talent to come through from the famed academy, with a lot of potential that needs to be used wisely.
Tiago Ilori was born in London to a Nigerian father and Portuguese mother. Football was his prospective career path, and a chance to join a fledging academy was always an option. He, however, wouldn’t stick around in London instead following his mother to Portugal where he enlisted in Imortal Desportivo Clube’s academy to enhance his football education; he then signed for Sporting CP’s academy spending the 2006/07 season with the club. As is popular with many young Portuguese footballers, Ilori earned a loan move to Estoril Praia the following season while still a youth footballer, playing in the Junior C division. He returned to Sporting and continued his progression, impressing the world-class management.
He played for the Sporting youth side in the Junior B Division Regional Championship between 2008-2010 playing a total of 60 games, scoring 6 goals. During his time in the Junior B Division, he also made his first appearance for a Portgual national side, playing the full 90 minutes for the U-18s against the United States in a friendly and following it up with a 45 minute cameo against Netherlands.
The 2011/12 season was a mini-breakthrough for Tiago Ilori under Sporting’s then manager, Domingos Paciencia. He made his U-19 debut for the Portuguese national team against Ukraine, before earning a call-up for the U-19 European Championship. This earned him a promotion to the Sporting CP senior side as he was initially an unused substitute in the Europa League against Romanian club Vaslui in the group stage. He made his first team debut against UD Leiria in the Portuguese Primera Liga, following that up a week later with an appearance against Lazio in the Europa League. That’s as good as it got for Ilori as his next first-team appearance came nearly a year later as Sporting struggled with management issues which translated onto the pitch. Paciencia was sacked 3 months after giving Ilori his debut, his replacement Ricardo Sa Pinto failed to promote the younger players and he too was sacked before finishing a full-season.
In the meantime, Tiago Ilori continued his impressive progress as a footballer with Sporting’s B team in the Segunda division and the 2012/13 NextGenSeries. It was in the latter tournament that Ilori made a name for himself and made football fans take notice. It was in that same season under Belgian manager, Franky Vercauteren, that Ilori made his return to the first team. The youngster made a 6 minute appearance against Genk in the Europa League and was an unused sub against Basel as Sporting were embarrassingly dumped out in the group stage, finishing bottom (Hungary’s Videoton was the other side in the group).
By the time Ilori returned to the first team, Vercauteren was already sacked as Sporting’s horror season continued. Jesualdo Ferreira was appointed and the Portuguese manager took a different route to ensure Sporting’s poor first half of the season didn’t mirror the second half. Unlike the previous managers before him, Ferreira opted to utilise the services of the younger generation. Ilori, along with Bruma & Dier, were promoted as first-team regulars and this proved to be the biggest break in young Tiago’s career. His next return to the first team came in the form of a league game against Gil Vicente in a 3-2 away victory. Ilori scored in the same game after just 6 minutes, while fellow youngster Bruma opened the scoring in the first minute. Ilori went onto play 11 first team games under Ferreira last season, playing the full 90 minutes in each of those matches as he formed a commendable central defensive partnership with Argentine, Marcos Rojo.
This summer, as the rumours continued, Ilori was a part of the impressive Portuguese U-20 World Cup side. Filled with five Sporting youngsters, the highest representation, Portugal stormed through the group stages and were quickly installed as one of the favourites. A shock defeat to Ghana in the Round of 16 ended the run, but Ilori and co. had already made their impressions on the footballsphere.
When Tiago Ilori arrived at Sporting CP’s illustrious academy, he was played in a striker’s role. The management however saw something more in his game and moulded him into a centre-back. Although he plays in the back four, he has still managed to retain some of his traits from his striker days, increasing his versatility. A place in the central defensive role is Ilori’s strong suit. Although he is capable of playing at left-back, it puts some of his attributes to waste.
Ilori’s stature is what one notices first. Traditionalists prefer a centre-back to be one who can compete aerially in the defence; standing at 6’3″, Tiago convincingly makes the grade. This allows him to effectively deal with headed duels, protect his side against set-pieces while also having the ability to deal with a tall target-man striker.
Unlike most tall central defenders, Tiago Ilori is surprisingly not slow when it comes to his movement. In fact, he is exceptionally pacey; not just for a defender. At Sporting CP’s academy, the club staff conduct speed tests on players and Tiago Ilori currently holds the academy record beating the pace set by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo & Nani before him. This is a great asset to have in a defender, although not a prime one. Given Tiago Ilori’s figure, you wouldn’t except the youngster to be speedy, but once he’s on the ball he’s bound to surprise you.
That is another great feature of Ilori’s game. The youngster, unlike most young defenders, is always willing to have the ball at his feet. He doesn’t nervously hurry for clearances but rather prefers to take his time on the ball. Give him the slightest invitation and he will readily advance forward with the ball at his feet taking on the opposition before either attempting a shot or picking out a pass. It’s crucial that the opposing manager encourages his forwards to close down Ilori when he’s on the ball. Once he ventures forward, he’s difficult to stop. He could have adopted these traits from his days playing as a striker. Keeping with his tendency to take his time on the ball, Ilori also has a key eye for a pass. His vision of the game is exceptional. He’s often seen completing excellent long-balls over-the-top with pin-point accuracy, enough to make any deep-lying playmaker jealous. As it was seen at the U-20 World Cup in Turkey, the Portuguese side often looked to Ilori to get the ball rolling. He has the ability to start attacks, and also provide his team-mates an opportunity to get into the right positions when he is on the ball. It makes him a valuable asset in attack.
Tiago Ilori thus epitomises the modern-day attacking central defender, constantly seen moving towards the half-way line rather than playing the role of a rigid deep lying central defender. It’s a role that requires extreme tactical awareness as certain defenders have been found guilty of being caught out of position. The likes of Carvalho & Lucio have been excellent in such roles, but a younger attacking central defender like David Luiz has come under immense criticism. There’s a fine line that has to be maintained. Ilori is still very young and inexperienced, the early signs though are good for him to be deployed in such a role.
Despite being an attacking minded central defender, Ilori showcases immense tactical discipline and organisation. He has the ability to form a solid pairing with a central defender, and although he does venture forward, he is back in his position during a defensive phase.
His reading of the game is tremendous as well. You get a clear impression that he has been brought up in a top footballing academy, such smartness in play can only be taught & learnt. His awareness about when to move out and when to remain deep allows him to effectively make regular interceptions without compromising his role in the back four. This is another attribute often seen in a defensive midfielder/deep-lying playmaker, one that constantly frustrates the opposition while cutting service to the striker. Ilori is not afraid to leave the ground either, as he often refuses to get too close to his man, giving him the opportunity to slide in and stop an attack.
His attack minded game and aerially ability make him an almost perfect central defender, but there are some parts of his game that need to be worked on. For instance, he’s not the strongest and most solid defender when it comes to dealing one-on-one with a player. His intelligence makes up for it, but he could develop into the best defender in the World if he works on his strength & fitness.
Another aspect that Ilori is sometimes guilty of is over-committing. Attackers have the ability to get in behind the young Portuguese defender as he occasionally moves out to make an interception. A smart & experienced striker can take advantage of this with exceptional ease creating further problems at the back. Although Ilori possesses natural pace, a swift moving striker can easily shake him off his back. Given his participation in attack, Ilori is bound to make some errors in defense, as was seen most recently at the U-20 World Cup against South Korea; Hyun Kim was supposed to be marked by Ilori but the defender was left stranded allowing Korea Republic to score their second goal.
All in all, Ilori is an immensely talented footballer with a great bit of versatility. His height and pace is an unusual combination for a central defender, which tempts potential suitors even further; a rare type of player that is bound to attract top clubs.
“Ilori was thrown in at the deep end and looked a bit nervous. However, he has got better and better and looks like a classy centre-back, rather than a ‘Rambo’ type. More Ricardo Carvalho than John Terry, you could say.”
—Tom Kundert, Portuguese football expert, quoted by Sabotage Times
Tiago Ilori has been regularly linked with English side, Liverpool FC, over the course of last season. Those reports have gained momentum this summer, and there seems to be a genuine interest from the Merseyside club to swoop their man. His current contract runs until the summer of 2015, but it’s unlikely that Liverpool have to shed too much finances in signing the youngster. Personally i’d be very surprised if the fee exceeds €7-8 million; an absolute steal that. Given Sporting’s financial troubles, the club would be willing to listen to any offers that may arrive.
English journalist, Duncan Castles, recently stated in this piece that Chelsea too are interested in signing the London-born defender. It’s just a matter of time before Ilori earns his move abroad, and between Liverpool & Chelsea, he has the option of playing for two top sides. Given his previous stop-start career experience, he may just be tempted to join the Reds as he’s bound to get more of an opportunity there.
Tiago Ilori is destined for greatness, he is one of the best young defenders I have seen in recent times and it’s inevitable that he will establish himself at the top of World football.
UPDATE: Tiago Ilori has joined Liverpool.