The curtailed 2019/20 Argentine domestic season ended in dramatic fashion, with Boca Juniors pipping rivals River Plate to the Superliga title by just a single point.
Following December’s election of Jorge Ameal as club President, which resulted in the immediate return of Riquelme as Sporting Director and Miguel Ángel Russo as coach, Boca went on to secure 19 points from their remaining seven matches to snatch the title from under the noses of River, who were only able to draw their final two games. River’s stumble means that despite considerable success in the confederation competitions, including two Copa Libertadores titles, Marcelo Gallardo is still waiting to secure his first league title with Los Millonarios.
Boca’s success was built upon vast experience in their ranks, spearheaded by the talismanic veteran Carlos Tevez, who scored six times in the final six games. Of players to appear in at least 50% of all available on-field minutes, only one player, Sebastián Villa, was under the age of 27.
The cancellation of the Copa de la Superliga means that River will have to wait until 2020/21 to get revenge on their bitter adversaries, and will have to do it without at least one of their exciting crop of young stars who appeared for them during the campaign.
In January, 21-year-old midfielder Exequiel Palacios joined Bayer 04 Leverkusen for a reported fee of €21.5 million. Prior to his move to Germany, Palacios was a key player in River’s ball retention. Operating in a central role, he provided an outlet across the middle third, receiving 67 passes per 90, more than any other player in the league. When distributing the ball, he also completed 66 passes per 90, again substantially more than any other Superliga player, with an 85% success rate.
Palacios was one of several young players at River who caught the eye of clubs both at home and abroad.
In this second and final part of our series looking at emerging South American prospects, we profile some of the other young players who may be looking to follow in Palacios’ footsteps and make a move to leading European clubs.
River’s Young Creative Force
In contrast to title rivals Boca, River Plate fielded five players aged 23 or under who featured in over 50% of all available league minutes: Palacios (52%), Gonzalo Montiel (82%), Lucas Martínez Quarta (80%), Robert Rojas (57%) and Nicolás De La Cruz (65%).
Three of this quintet, Montiel, Martínez Quarta and Rojas featured in River’s backline, with Palacios and De La Cruz operating in central midfield. Whilst Palacios controlled possession, it was the latter who was the main creative spark in their title assault, contributing five assists, including four from open play.
The Uruguayan’s total expected assists output for the season, 2.9, was the most of any player aged under 23. He was also the only player in this age bracket to appear in the league’s top five assist providers during 19/20.
De La Cruz’s outputs share similarities with another player who previously made his name at River, Gonzalo Martínez. Now plying his trade in MLS with Atlanta United, Martínez’s numbers from his first top-flight season in 2015 look remarkably alike.
Young Guns Providing a Goalscoring Threat
Vélez Sarsfield’s Nicolás Domínguez agreed a move to Bologna in August, but as part of the deal remained with his club until January.
Domínguez appeared in 14 matches before heading to Italy, contributing 5 goals and 1 assist. His xG differential of 2.4 (actual goals – expected goals) was the highest of any under 23 player in the league.
By having a hand in six goals, Domínguez ranked in the top five U23 players for combined goals and assists, with Talleres striker Nahuel Bustos coming top.
After returning from a disappointing 12-month loan spell with Pachuca in Mexico, where he made just four substitute appearances in the league, only River Plate’s Rafael Santos Borré and Matías Suárez had a hand in more goals than Bustos, representing a strong return to form for the six-capped U23 International, who has been linked with a number of Serie A and La Liga clubs in recent weeks.
Another emerging player to make significant contributions in advanced areas of the pitch was San Lorenzo’s Adolfo Gaich. The 6-foot-3 centre forward missed the opening weeks of the campaign whilst helping Argentina’s U22 team secure the gold medal at the Pan American games, which in part resulted in him only featuring in 653 on-field league minutes.
However, of those to appear in at least 500 minutes during the season, he was the only player aged under 23 to rank in the league’s top five for goals scored per 90.
Gaich, who also scored three times in four matches at last year’s U20 World Cup, scored five goals from just fifteen attempts, with an xG per shot output of 0.23. Gaich enjoyed the highest shooting accuracy of players attempting at least 10 shots in the Superliga, hitting the target from two out of every three attempts.
When we compare this season’s attacking outputs of Gaich, Bustos and another attacking prospect, Maximiliano Romero, against that of one of the Superliga’s most successful recent attacking exports, Lautaro Martínez, we can see that while all three players were not quite able to match the outputs of the Internazionale forward’s final season in Argentina, their performance suggests their development is worth monitoring.
Heading towards Europe?
With speculation growing that Martínez will be joining Barcelona this summer and with Palacios, joined by another former River Plate starlet, Lucas Alario, now playing their part in Leverkusen’s push for a Champions League berth, it will be interesting to see if the likes of Bustos, Romero, Gaich and De La Cruz stay in Argentina or will be amongst the next wave of players who make the move across the Atlantic once football resumes globally.
Either way, all four can be added to those previously identified in Brazil to keep an eye on for the rest of 2020, as the next generation of South American players look to make their mark at the highest level.