“You pay for quality.”
Abel Ferreira should know quality when he sees it. He was the manager in charge of Palmeiras for one of the most successful periods in their history, having won the Copa Libertadores twice in consecutive years, with the Serie A title as well as two Campeonatos Paulista titles.
So when he laments the departure of Danilo, who has been at the heart of this team for the past two years, as he did this weekend, it is a good indication that a special player may have just arrived at Nottingham Forest.
And all this would not have happened if Danilo had followed his instincts when he was fifteen years old.
He has been at Bahia, the Brazilian club that is part of the City Football Group, since the age of seven, but as is the case with many promising young players of that age, he was released as a teenager.
Disillusioned, Danilo decides to give up playing football, at least professionally. He came from a poor family – when he was young, his father had to take out a loan to pay for his training. That’s a lot of pressure. Maybe it wasn’t for him, maybe it wasn’t good enough, maybe it just wasn’t worth the effort.
Luckily for him, Palmeiras and now Nottingham Forest, he was persuaded to stick with it, at least in part by an old family friend, Diego Freitas, a football coach and community organizer who ran a project called “Os Deguinhos da Bola”. This project uses soccer to help disadvantaged and at-risk youth through soccer, and had a team that Danilo would sometimes play for when he wasn’t in Bahia.
“I told him it was his family’s dream, my dream, is for him to be able to help his family in football,” said Freitas the athlete.
After a while, Freitas used his connections to get Danilo a trial with Cajazeiras, then a Serie B team, and while playing for them, he caught the attention of Palmeiras, and joined their under-17s team.
“No one in Bahia knows how to recognize his talent,” says Freitas, “but thank God Palmeiras saw the potential in the boy. He had to leave the state to fulfill his dream.”
This was in 2018: within two years he was a regular in their first team, and by the time the 2020 Copa Libertadores final came around, he was a regular for the South American champions. It was thanks in part to Danilo’s direct guidance (more on that shortly) that Palmeiras scored the winning goal in the 98th minute of that final: he played a long, almost haile-marie pass from deep to Rooney, who crossed for Breno Lopez to head home.
Often in these stories there is a moment, or realization from the player, that they have to work harder or improve their behavior to succeed. But with Danilo, it’s not as if that’s the case: his rapid rise from Bahia junk to continental champion seems to be explained by a combination of the player being a slightly late developer, but also the manager seeing something in him that others might have missed.
Former Brazil national team and Real Madrid coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo, who coached Palmeiras in 2020, needed some help in the central midfield thanks to a series of injuries. He was watching an under-20 match, and noticed a quality in the tall midfielder in the middle of the park that he liked.
“I saw a left player, a good player who won (the ball) here, won it there,” said Luxemburgo last year, “and there was something else that caught my eye at the time: he didn’t pass the ball to the side or back, only up front. He would win the ball and play it forward.”
Simple game, right? That was enough for Luxemburgo, who put Danilo straight into the side, and he hasn’t let go since, quickly establishing himself as one of their key players, despite still only being 21 years old. “He was the heart of the team,” says Francisco de Laurentiis, who covers Palmeiras for ESPN Brazil. “He’s a player who doesn’t feel pressure.”
His importance to Palmeiras has been underlined on many occasions, but perhaps none more so than in the two-legged Paulista final against Sao Paulo last year. Danilo was injured in the first leg and, in De Laurentiis’ words, looked “loser” on the way to a 3-1 loss. He returned for the second game, opened the scoring, led the way overall and his team won 4-0. “It was perfect from start to finish,” says De Laurentiis.
It was this kind of form that earned him a call-up to the Brazil squad just before the World Cup, a call-up he famously welcomed assuming it was the end. “I was asleep, and then (Palmeiras midfielder) Gabriel Menino called me. I even thought he was joking. It would fit perfectly with the banter of the English dressing room.
Danilo emerged when Palmeiras faced Chelsea in the Club World Cup final last year, taking on the man he says closely models his game. “(N’Golo) Kante is a different player because of what he does on the field: he’ll run, get the ball and come back, he’ll never get tired,” he said. “He is one of the players I watch the most at Chelsea and he inspires me the most.”
He definitely has Kante’s cruelty. Observers talk about him being absolutely everywhere, and Freitas recalls a game when Danilo was still 13: “It ended in a draw, and it went into overtime. Danilo played very well, he had two assists in overtime and his father wanted me to take him out because He was very tired. But he didn’t want to. When it was over, Danilo had to leave the field with help, because he didn’t have the strength to walk. “
Other observers compare him – in style, if not yet in quality – to Blaise Matuidi, or even Jude Bellingham, a combination of physique (Danilo is around 6ft 2in – or 188cm), dynamism and technique that set him apart. On The Totally Football Show this week, Brazilian soccer expert Natalie Guidra compared him to Rodri, but faster.
Perhaps all of these comparisons are unfair, especially when he has so many qualities that set him apart on his own. The passing positivity that Luxemburgo points out is something that comes up most often when you talk to people about Danilo. Of course he’ll pass the ball sideways to the back when that’s the sensible option, but his instinct is always to play a pass forward, short or long, to get the ball forward as quickly as possible.
Take this example from a game at the end of last season. International Fabricio Bustos volleyed a ball forward from the touchline, and Danilo returned to his own half to intercept under pressure from his opponent Estevao.
Danilo has three teammates – Luan, Mike and Murilo – available for a back pass, as they can easily spin the ball around and build an attack. Thus, the cautious, perhaps even sensible thing to do would be to pass to one of these three, but instead…
… Danilo intercepts the ball, spins it around and slams it forward in one motion, before passing to Jose Manuel López, who continues attacking. It’s a simple example, not particularly dramatic, but it illustrates Danilo’s passing preferences.
This may be an indication of why Forrest is so keen on him. They have looked most dangerous on the counter-attack in recent weeks, with the two goals against Leicester setting an excellent example. This requires moving the ball up the field as quickly as possible, without its hoof, so having someone with such a positive passing intent in midfield is ideal in theory.
It will be interesting to see exactly where he fits in Forest. At Palmeiras, Danilo played largely as one of the sitters in a 4-2-3-1 – interestingly mainly on the right flank, although he’s left-footed – but Steve Cooper’s side thrived with three in midfield. In theory, his most natural position would be the deepest of the two quarterbacks, center back, but Remo Freuler has settled for a good rhythm in this role.
Danilo certainly has the dynamism to work as one of the more forwards on either side, so this looks like the most likely place he’ll open, complementing nicely the Ryan Yates movement on the right.
Danilo is a threat to get ahead, if not always directly. He didn’t score a lot of passes, and his shot from outside the penalty area needed a lot of work. But he tends to play the pass before the assist, and on many occasions in Brazil this pass has been played to Gustavo Scarpa, who will once again be his teammate at Nottingham. Their understanding will be key to his integration into the team, off the field as well as on it: the two are good friends, and Scarpa welcomed his friend to England with an Instagram post of the snow falling in the East Midlands.
Although not as prolific, his goalscoring record is improving: he scored seven goals last season, five of which came from corner kicks, either from heading or generally using his physicality to bother and be in the right place, at the right time. It should be noted that all of those angles were taken by Scarpa.
He’s also an expert trick trader too, as you can see from the clip below. Choose this. I played and got. probably.
Nunca vou me esquecer do dia que o Danilo Isquecer a bola, eu saí xingando e quando voltei o time tava comemorando o gol. pic.twitter.com/8gNnJ086LW
– Erlan Jesus (@ErlanJesus7) January 14, 2023
He scores, gets into the area, helps mark. He’s a complete midfielder in Brazilian football,” said Danilo’s Palmeiras team mate Dudu ahead of the Club World Cup.
“He’s a star, he has to play in the Premier League. I always say to him, ‘You should play for Manchester United or Arsenal.’ He has to keep calm, he’s a kid who tries his best, but I tell him, ‘You’re a player for Chelsea, that kind of the difference”.
Perhaps this, counterintuitively, is where alarm bells might start to ring a bit for Forest fans: if people think he should be playing for clubs at this level, why is he at Forest? The short answer to that is: Forrest came up with the money quickly, while the others had other priorities. Chelsea, Monaco and Arsenal were all interested, the latter being more interested last summer. But on that occasion Palmeiras was in the middle of the Brazilian season and could not sell their star.
Thus, they have promised Danilo’s agent that if an offer of €20m (£17.7m) arrives when the season is over, he will be allowed to leave. Forrest put their money on the table and staged a major coup.
If it all sounds too good to be true, there are a few caveats. Obviously, he’s only 21 and has never played outside of Brazil before. It will obviously take some time to get used to the pace of the Premier League. “He likes to get the ball, look for the best passing option and play,” says De Laurentiis. “In England, he’s going to have to get the ball and play.”
At a basic level, the Brazilian season ended before the World Cup, so he hadn’t played any competitive football for over two months. He’ll probably need what amounts to a pre-season before he can get up to speed.
Additionally, the numbers don’t paint an impressive picture. This Smarterscout chart indicates that his stats are basically average across the board, when adjusted for the Premier League standard. In terms of his gradual passing (passes over 10 meters into the field) he is average for a defensive midfielder. He is similarly average in his defensive size (recovering the ball and disrupting opponent’s moves) and defensive impact (preventing the opponent from advancing further).
But as the graph shows, he is well-rounded in his actions (also almost average at playing shorter, sharper passes to a close teammate – link-up play size), including running with the ball (carrying size and dribbling). In terms of stats, there’s nothing particularly outstanding, which you can spin one of two ways: either it’s outstanding at nothing, or it’s good at almost everything or less.
Danilo is Forest’s 24th signing since winning promotion in May. While some of these have proven to be inspiring recruits, and there are enough caveats to inspire some caution about this young Brazilian, there is a case to be made that he is the most exciting of them all.
“He was born to shine and won everything in Brazil,” says Freitas. Now is the time to win in Europe.
(Top photo: Ricardo Moreira/Getty Images)