It's hard to argue with the Premier League's status as Europe's top division right now; not only are EPL clubs capable of paying staggering transfer fees and player wages to attract the best talent in the world, most of the top coaches on the planet are also operating in the English top flight in 2023.
However, the league hasn't reached this status on its own; Premier League clubs have vast scouting networks set up across the world to ensure that the best young talent is recruited to the UK. And over the years, certain locations have earned a reputation as particularly impressive breeding grounds for excellent players. One of those locations is in Portugal, specifically at Liga Primera club Benfica.
In recent years, Benfica have developed and sold on a large number of high-profile footballers who have gone on to establish themselves as world-class. From centre-backs to star strikers, the club is now known as a serious talent factory. But how have they reached this point? In this article, we'll be answering that question by diving into what makes the Benfica model a success.
The list of top players who have honed their skills at Benfica before moving on to even bigger clubs across Europe and beyond is pretty staggering. Below is a list of some of the best players to have played for Benfica in recent years.
In 312 appearances for Manchester City, Portuguese midfielder Bernardo Silva has registered 56 goals and 60 assists, a seriously impressive return that reflects his crucial creative role in Guardiola's side. A Benfica academy graduate whose talent was clear from the start, Silva's dribbling, attacking vision, smart finishing, and clever movement caused him to be signed by Monaco for just under €16m in 2015. Two years later, he was brought to City for a potential total fee of €70m, a testament to his quality.
The introduction of the strong, reliable, and technically proficient young centre-back Ruben Dias in the summer of 2020 made Manchester City an incredibly dominant force during the 2020/21 season, and since then the Portuguese international has only improved.
Having cut his teeth at Benfica, his transfer to the Premier League earned the club a rumoured fee of around €70m, making him one of their most lucrative academy products ever.
Another former Benfica player who commanded a huge transfer fee — one that in this case, has arguably created unnecessary pressure everywhere he goes — is Joao Felix. The 23-year-old joined Benfica in 2015 having emerged from the youth ranks at Porto, and after developing his skills in the B team he exploded onto the scene during the 2018/19 season, before Spanish giants Atletico Madrid triggered his buyout clause and paid a staggering €126 million for the youngster.
A tactically intelligent player with a great football brain and bags of technical ability, Portugal star Joao Cancelo is another star product of the Benfica academy. After leaving the club in 2015, he's commanded multiple substantial transfer fees: €15m to Valencia, €40m to Juventus, and then a deal worth around €60m to Manchester City which made him the most expensive right-back ever. He shone in Pep Guardiola's side, pioneering an inverted full-back role and regularly getting the headlines for attacking contributions such as his trivela assist in the Champions League against Borussia Dortmund.
It's not just Portuguese stars that Benfica produce — the shared language means that they have strong roots in Brazil (as well other parts of South America), and they've developed some excellent Brazilian talent in recent times. Perhaps the pick of the bunch has been Man City goalkeeper Ederson, who headed to the Premier League in a deal worth €40m in 2017.
The Argentina midfielder was one of the best players at the 2022 World Cup, an integral part of his nation's first win since the days of Diego Maradona. His performances on the world stage persuaded Chelsea to pay a staggering €121m in January to trigger his release clause and bring him to the English top flight. The move made Enzo the second-most lucrative sale in Benfica history, behind Joao Felix.
In 2022, CIES Football Observatory (also known as the International Centre for Sports Studies) ranked Benfica's academy as the most profitable in the world. Since 2015, the club has generated €379m in sales of former academy players, trumping second-placed Real Madrid, who made €330m in the same period.
How is that the Portuguese club is able to develop so many talented footballers, despite operating with a fraction of the budget of big European clubs like Madrid or Barcelona? There are a number of different factors that come into play here.
In terms of scale, Benfica's academy operation is bigger than most. The club has five talent centres across Portugal, meaning it is able to pluck talent from various different regions around the country and be ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying all the best Portuguese rising stars.
While Premier League clubs are only permitted to have 250 academy players on their books, Benfica has around 500 players, and 115 coaches helping develop their skills, an excellent ratio that means young players are given plenty of time and individual attention on the training ground (with 90 additional members of staff also ensuring the young players have everything they need).
Most players join between the ages of six and 12, giving them plenty of time to get used to the academy structure and feel at home there.
Benfica invest a large amount of money into their academy, although when compared to the fees they manage to bring in in player sales, it's a drop in the ocean. According to Oakwell Sports, the club reportedly spends around €10-12m each year on running the academy, but given that it's able to consistently generate fees worth several times that during transfer windows, it's a sound investment.
The upshot of this cash injection is that Benfica's academy is extremely well kitted out, with nine pitches, accommodation for 90 players, and advanced welfare, nutrition, medicine and psychology departments.
Developing talented youngsters would mean nothing if these players weren't then given an opportunity to get regular first team football, and Benfica are well aware of this. There is a clear pathway to the first team, aided by the existence of a strong reserve league in which the most promising Benfica academy products play with Benfica B from a young age.
Each year, the club aims to have two academy graduates join the first team, and their game time won't be limited to a handful of appearances here and there, which ensures they are able to properly build up their abilities.
Another crucial consideration is that Benfica academy players are coached in a modern style focused around technical proficiency that allows them to adapt quickly and effectively to the big five European leagues. According to club chief executive Domingos Oliveira, "It's our core business to find the best players at an early age. We try to anticipate the player's future at the early stage of their development."
Then, it's all about using the right coaching methods to build up their skill sets. The approach is tailored to individual players, with staff members well aware of the importance of adapting to a player's needs; but generally speaking, there's a consistent focus on what Under 19s coach Filipe Coelho calls "positive play", revolving around numerical overloads, close connections between players, and smart passing.
4-3-3 is the dominant formation used across all age groups, and this helps create a smooth transition upward into the first team. However, there is also a level of flexibility and freedom at play here, with Coelho telling the Athletic "it's important not to over-coach or damage the players".
Benfica have two main facilities: there's the Caixa Futebol Campus near Lisbon, and the residential facility at Seixal, also not far from the Portugal capital, that houses 90 children with dreams of rising through the ranks. The latter facility, dubbed a "football factory", has 20 dressing rooms, two auditoriums, nine pitches, three modern gyms and a unique bit of technology called a 360S simulator.
Essentially, this is a lab where players head each week to practice technical skills in various simulated match environments. Modern technology like this is at the core of the Benfica academy project.
In any discussion about the success of Benfica's academy, it's important to note that the reason the club focuses so heavily on its youth system is because of the financial constraints it operates under. In the Portuguese league, they don't have access to anywhere near the level of commercial revenue or sponsorship money available to clubs in the Premier League or La Liga, so they are forced to find other ways to make cash.
Developing and selling on players has been a hugely effective way of doing so, particularly in the last decade, and it also reduces the need for signing players from other clubs, which can be much more expensive and risky than bringing through youth team players.
A number of players in the current Benfica squad have been tipped as potential targets for teams in Europe's big five leagues. Perhaps the frontrunner for a big move is striker Goncalo Ramos, who has stepped into the shoes of Darwin Nunez following his €80m transfer to Liverpool last summer.
Ramos made a splash at the World Cup, becoming the youngest player to score a hat trick at the tournament since Florian Albert for Hungary in 1962. The 21-year-old forward has bags of talent, and given the inflation of the transfer market in recent years, he could command a huge fee.
Elsewhere, Benfica have 24-year-old defensive midfielder Florentino Luis, a consistent high performer known for tackles, interceptions, clever positioning, and clear technical ability. Behind him is Antonio Silva, a tall, speedy, mature centre-back who is incredibly comfortable in possession.
His skill on the ball, and the defensive record enjoyed by the club with him and veteran defender Nicolas Otamendi at the back, means it would be no surprise if a richer club came in for Silva in the next couple of transfer windows.
By the time these young Benfica stars move on, who knows what kind of money clubs will be splashing on them? All we know is that the Portuguese club is doing extremely well out of their current situation. Yes, they may not be able to hold onto talent for more than a few seasons, but the cash they're generating from their excellent youth development system is laying the foundations for generations of success.