“You only need several minutes to see his natural football talent,” Wolves chairman Jeff Shi once said. But as the second anniversary of Fabio Silva’s £35m signing approaches, the wait for that talent to blossom goes on.
A season-long loan move to Belgian club Anderlecht will see him depart on the date of his 20th birthday having not scored a goal for Wolves in 17 months. Time is on his side but this still feels like a huge season for Silva. His long-term development is unclear.
Can he still become, as Shi once claimed, a “generational talent” or will his signing – just days after Wolves sold Diogo Jota to Liverpool – come to be seen as an expensive mistake?
Even if he does eventually emerge as an elite player, what was the opportunity cost of investing £35m in someone so far away from being ready to shine in the Premier League? He remains the club’s most expensive acquisition. Indeed, he remains one of the most expensive teenage signings in the history of football.
“A high-quality player at the right price,” according to Shi. But the fear is that Silva becomes a cautionary tale regarding Wolves’ working relationship with Jorge Mendes, the agent linked to so many of the signings made since Fosun acquired the club in 2017.
Silva deserves better than to become a byword for the risks that come with that policy. He may have been overpriced but he is not a myth. The potential that thrust him into Porto’s first team at 17 was real. He is as much a victim of the hype as a beneficiary of it.
Serious injury to Raul Jimenez exposed him quicker than was ideal and that has only increased the sense of a career stalled. He played more minutes in that first season. Four goals had appeared a modest return but it was four more than he managed in his second.
In truth, there have been indications of improvement, a point made by both Conor Coady and Ruben Neves as Silva contributed to the team in the second half of last season.
Following his first start for three-and-half months against Sheffield United in the FA Cup, he received a standing ovation.
Against Aston Villa in April, his first Premier League start of the season at Molineux, he caused Tyrone Mings all sorts of problems in what would turn out to be Wolves’ final win of the campaign.
But no amount of optimism and goodwill can mask the fact that 26 appearances for Wolves last season did not yield a single goal. Many of those outings were brief but it still amounted to 853 minutes – more than 14 hours of football – without scoring.
There remains a desire to see him succeed. Some supporters believe Silva might have received more minutes than he did last season given that Jimenez, the senior striker, has not been at his very best since returning from a serious head injury.
Indeed, despite Jimenez being regarded until recently as among the more complete forwards in the Premier League, Silva’s expected goals per 90 minutes is actually higher than his colleague – and everyone else at Wolves – since his arrival at the club.
Could Wolves have provider better supply for the pair? Undoubtedly. Silva is not Pedro Neto or Adama Traore, capable of catching the eye by creating chances for themselves. He relies on service, particularly from wide areas, that too often has not been forthcoming.
The broader problem for Silva is that his greatest gifts are relatively subtle. There is the hold-up play that brings others into the game, the intelligent movement that finds space others cannot and the composure to keep calm in front of goal.
These were traits that saw him identified as a rare prospect at age-group level and they are still there to be seen when he links up with the Portugal U21 side – scoring six goals in eight games at that level.
But those qualities are irrelevant in isolation.
He cannot showcase those one-touch lay-offs if the centre-back has bundled him off the ball before it arrives. Movement might buy him a yard in which to manoeuvre but against top-class players he sometimes needs two. Composure can soon seem like dallying.
Silva often looks like a player still waiting for his body to catch up.
Think of the Premier League forwards who have made the biggest impact at a young age and there tends to be a precocious physical trait that sets them apart from their peers.
Michael Owen had speed to frighten anyone at the age of 17. Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey were even younger than Owen when they made their Premier League debuts because they already had the physique to outmuscle markers twice their age.
Silva has neither the speed to scare opponents nor the strength to bully them. The latter may come with time. It was an asset of his in youth football and he has worked to develop a more muscular frame.
Even so, despite the chance to play in the Premier League at such a young age, and Silva’s inclusion once more on the Golden Boy shortlist, the suspicion remains that he is the sort of striker whose development will take that little bit longer.
At the age of 20, Jimenez, for example, was yet to make his first-team debut in Mexico. The highest level of senior football that Steve Bull, Wolves’ all-time top scorer with 306 goals, had played by that stage of his career had come down the divisions with Tipton Town.
With Silva, perhaps we are privy to something that we should not be seeing. Instead of making his mistakes in the shadows, they have come in the full glare of the unforgiving Premier League spotlight.
But the bigger worry for Wolves given their financial investment in the player is that the decision to buy him might have actually hampered rather than hastened his development.
Consider another scenario, a world in which the machinations of Mendes and the global market had not sent Silva to the toughest league on the planet just weeks after his 18th birthday.
Perhaps Porto might have loaned him out for a season or two, learning the game in a less challenging league. Then and only then would he have returned to lead their line – emerging as a player of Premier League potential in his early 20s.
Instead of the 34 starts per season that Silva might have been using to help hone his skills, he has made half that many in twice the time. Outwardly, confidence does not appear to be an issue but there is nothing like goals to help a young player make the next leap.
The recent Golden Boy nomination is a reminder that in some respects Silva is still ahead of the game. He has made 54 appearances in the Premier League. Of players born since 2002, the next man on the list is Southampton’s Valentino Livramento with 28.
But if he is to fulfil his potential and come even close to justifying the Wolves chairman’s bold words upon his signature, the suspicion remains that something must change soon.
A move away, belatedly, offers that opportunity.
A new Silva must emerge.
If not, his story at Wolves might already be written.