Tom Robinson looks at a promising new generation of central defenders coming through the ranks for Argentina as the Albiceleste is enjoying something of a central defensive renaissance.
Argentina has never had a problem producing exciting attacking talents but over the last decade or so the defensive talent pool has slowly dried up. Since the retirements of Roberto Ayala and Walter Samuel, the Albiceleste has lacked a truly world class centre back, while at full back, with the notable exception of Pablo Zabaleta, they have suffered an even greater dearth of elite level options since Javier Zanetti hung up his boots.
The reasons for this downturn in defensive production are numerous and not mutually exclusive. Be it the AFA resting on its laurels and neglecting youth development after a period of unfettered success, or the increasing economic disparity between Europe and South America causing a focus on producing attacking players to bring in the biggest profit, or simply that every young kid in the playground wishing he was the next Lionel Messi and not the next Ramiro Funes Mori.
The nadir of this defensive shambles was brought into stark focus at the 2018 World Cup with a slow and creaking back-line and midfield being torn apart first by Croatia and then France without either side having to get out of third gear.
A period of reflection and rebuilding has followed and, whisper it quietly, the green shoots of a promising new generation of central defenders appear to be emerging.
Juan Foyth was one of the first to be fast-tracked into the senior set up after impressive performances for the U20s and a encouraging start to life at Tottenham. Comfortable on the ball and daring but still raw and prone to mistakes, the versatile 22-year-old has found himself filling in at right back – arguably Argentina’s biggest problem position – and remains one of the young hopes Argentina looks to build around, even if his star has fallen somewhat due to injury, lack of form and upheaval at club level.
Another fairly recent addition to Scaloni’s side is 24-year-old Lucas Martinez Quarta, who has been rewarded for his fine form for River Plate over the past couple of years. Though he only has 2 caps to his name, he surely would have more had it not been for River’s run to the Libertadores final and a number of clubs in Europe have been linked with a big money move for him.
Arguably the shining light though is Nehuen Perez. On loan at Famalicao from Atletico Madrid, the 19-year-old’s stock has shot through the roof in the last year after fantastic displays for the Argentina U20s and how quickly he has adapted to top flight football in Portugal. A leader on the pitch, Perez has great anticipation, timing and strength and has all the makings of a future national team captain.
But the list doesn’t stop there. In the Eredivisie, ball-playing Lisandro Martinez (22) has slotted into the Ajax first team alongside compatriot Nicolas Tagliafico with ease. Despite questions over his height, the ex-Defensa y Justicia man is an intelligent passer and is capable of filling in at left back or even defensive midfield, making him at least deserving of a place in Argentina squads in the near future. Meanwhile, over at Feyenoord, Marcos Senesi (23) has impressed at De Kuip with his proactive approach, decent passing, pace and strength. The former San Lorenzo stopper might be flying under the radar but adds to the growing depth from which Argentina can chose from.
Another prospect making a name for himself abroad, Cristian Romero must surely be in contention for an Argentina debut too. The 22-year-old from Cordoba made a low profile move to Genoa in 2018 but has shone for Il Grifone, so much so that Juventus shelled out €26 million to sign him last summer before loaning him back to Genoa. The strong and aggressive centre back has been capped at U20 level in the past and was part of the U23s that qualified for the Olympics, providing Scaloni with yet another option in the heart of defence.
Much like Foyth, Leonardo Balerdi is another centre back who is highly thought of by the national team set up and has been fast-tracked into the team. After just 5 games for Boca Juniors, Borussia Dortmund swept in and whisked him off to Germany for the princely sum of €15 million, hinting at the esteem in which he is held. While no-one can doubt Die Schwarzgelben’s excellent record at youth identification and development, the 21-year-old hasn’t seen too much playing time yet but nevertheless has 2 caps for the national team under his belt and will no doubt accrue many more if he can fulfil his potential.
Delve even deeper and there are some prospects in the Argentinian top flight that could also go on to join this ever-growing list of talented young defenders. Facundo Medina, still just 20, has impressed with Talleres as a left-sided centre back who can also fill in at full back and has received praise from none other than Roberto Ayala. He formed a good partnership with Nehuen Perez for the Argentina U23s at times and has developed into one of the better young defenders still plying their trade in Argentina.
In his debut season with Lanus last year, 21-year-old Lautaro Valenti made a splash, quickly establishing himself as a regular for El Granate. Boasting a tall and strapping figure, quick across the ground and with the penchant for the odd goal, it’s still early days in his career but he remains one to keep an eye on.
Younger still, there is Bruno Amione, a highly-rated 18-year-old cutting his teeth in the second division at Belgrano who could follow in the footsteps of former Pirata Cristian Romero, Elias Machuca, a sought after 17-year-old at Racing, and Santiago Ramos Mingo, an 18-year-old who recently traded Boca for a move to Barcelona’s B team. All have yet to prove themselves but suggest that the current crop isn’t just a fluke generation but that there may be a steady flow of options at centre back for years to come.
While things might be beginning to look rosy at centre back, the signs are not so hopeful at full back. Tagliafico has the left back spot locked down and Gonzalo Montiel has developed into a good if not spectacular right back, but other than that there aren’t really any other bright spots at all. Given the versatility of some of the aforementioned defenders, could we be entering a phase that will see an increase of converted centre backs at full backs for the national team? And what repercussions might that have on the tactics and formation going forward? Only time will tell.
Even if central defence looks as if it’s experiencing a renaissance, some questions and concerns over other areas of Argentina’s defence will be harder to shake.