Things are getting back to normal at River Plate after a season in the second division and a difficult first semester back in top flight. The “Millonarios” are once again challenging for the title and its thanks to the return of legendary coach Ramón Díaz and good performances by a team that blends experienced players like Ponzio and Ledesma with youngsters like Lanzini and Eder Alvarez Balanta, a Colombian centre-back most commonly referred to simply as Balanta (though Alvarez is his first surname).
He follows in the footsteps of Mario Alberto Yepes, the first Colombian to make an impact at River Plate. Falcao is another Colombian who also came through the youth system of the Buenos Aires team. Balanta has won wide acclaim for his performances in the current Torneo Final. Despite not being allowed to join the Colombian U-20 side for the Youth World Cup in Turkey this year, his manager has already suggested that the “cafeteros” senior national team should start to take notice. Meanwhile, Daniel Passarella, club president and former defensive great for Argentina, has not wasted any time in setting a price of 10m for 50% of the player’s rights.
Born in Bogotá, on the 28th of February 1993, Balanta arrived in Argentina early in 2011 by the hand of Silvano Espindola, his manager and a former player for Buenos Aires side Argentinos Jrs. After a brief trial with that team, the Colombian tried-out at River and was promptly signed to their famed youth divisions.
In Colombia, he started as an offensive midfielder, a #10 type player, for Deportes la Equidad and later Academia Compensar, but was later moved back into a central defensive midfield role. Once in Buenos Aires, he was switched to the left-back role as there were already quality prospects at the academy in his former position. He was later moved once again to play as a central defender.
Balanta first trained with the senior team in early 2012, during a pre-season trip. He was later back in the youth ranks and played a part in River’s U-20 team that won the youth version of the Copa Libertadores in July of that same year.
His shot at the first team came against Racing in an away game on the 7th of April 2013, with the more experienced Jonathan Botinelli suspended for the match. River won that game 2-0 and suddenly Balanta, who had played an excellent match and showed confidence beyond his years, was all over the sports pages. Two games later he would score his first goal, latching-on to a cross from a set piece for the winner away at Godoy Cruz, and in his fourth game, he added a second to his career total with a powerful header. Starting in his first Superclásico a month after his debut, Balanta once again won praise and was rated by leading sports daily Olé as the best performer amongst the River players in the 1-1 draw.
The left footed, 1.81 metres tall kid from Bogotá, has by now played 7 games for River (he was sidelined through a muscular injury later in May) and is a crucial part of the “Millonarios” set up.
Eder Alvarez Balanta featured in our list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch-out for in 2014. He was at #7 in our list of defenders. See the entire list here.
Style, Strengths & Weaknesses
Its not his confidence as a 20 yr old that are surprising but, rather, the calm and precise style in which he plays. Always focused on the play, Balanta is superb when faced with one-on-one situations. He has the perfect timing and skill to know when to put his leg in for a challenge and when to take it out to avoid a foul. So far, he’s shown this time and again.
He’s also very good at reading the game in defensive situations. Add to this the fact that he is quick on his feet and it becomes easy to explain how the Colombian often beats an opposing attacker to the ball. He is also strong when the time comes to use his weight to put pressure on the ball-carrier and rarely gets carried away into making a clumsy challenge.
A rarity amongst defenders in the top flight of Argentina, Eder Alvarez Balanta is quite a good passer of the ball and actually prefers to play the ball to a team-mate rather than clearing with power as is so common. When passing to a player near-by he chooses to play it across the surface, but when his target is further away he usually makes sure to pick-out a player with enough space to control a higher pass.
Its worth noting that his raised head when on the ball, and his good timing when off it have to do with his background as a central midfielder. That it was probably there that he developed those skills is something that a former Racing and River Plate great Roberto Permufo (also a DM turned centre-back) recently pointed out in a column.
When it comes to aerial challenges, his height is certainly not a problem. Not only is Balanta good with headers, he’s also got very strong legs and can jump as high as he needs to in order to win a ball. While scoring goals is not his priority, the fact that he’s already scored two from set piece situations shows how good he can be at winning crosses on both ends of the pitch.
In general, he’s positioning is quite good and he’s always making himself available for team-mates to pass the ball back to him. When it comes to marking players, he’s often successful and knows how to show rivals away from goal-scoring situations and into tight corners.
Despite having all the appearance of a mature defender, there is no substitute for experience and that is something that, off course, he lacks having only played in seven matches at professional level. This means that, occasionally, he’ll be eager and can be drawn out of the box into tackles that he can’t win, allowing the opposition to exploit the space behind him. Also, he’s not had the chance to face world-class strikers in terms of their speed or cunning eye for goal, let alone players of the size of Zlatan Ibrahimović or Robert Lewandowski.
Because of his speed in getting to the ball, Balanta prefers standing challenges and rarely makes sliding tackles. Also, it remains to be seen how good he is when forced to play the ball with his right foot.
Balanta started the season with a youth contract which meant that he could only play a part in a maximum of 9 games before being considered a foreign player. That would’ve made him ineligible to play as River’s first team have already registered the limit of three foreign players. There was early talk that he would be offered a contract nonetheless and when this finally happened, he was cleared to play for the rest of the tournament as the player brought in from the youth ranks.
Things get more confusing, though. As of today, River Plate have not made an official announcement that the player has signed the contract (that would make him a first team player) which would start later this year, after the end of the Torneo Final. The question remains as to what would happen if another team approached Balanta. There have already been reports that Milan are interested in signing him.
While its expected that Balanta will stay on at River for at least one more year, keeping top talents is very difficult for Argentinean teams. Often in debt and nowhere close to matching the wages of European powerhouse clubs, teams like River can only keep their best players for so long before they move abroad.
Stany Sirutis is a writer based in Bogotá, Colombia. His work has been featured in magazines like The Blizzard and on sites like In Bed With Maradona and Slavic Football Union. Follow him on Twitter @RetoricaFutbol and feel free to check out his blog at www.retoricafutbol.com.