I half decided to pen this article when Javier Mascherano’s absence from Argentina’s forthcoming friendlies was confirmed. I’ve nothing against El Jefecito, who’s undoubtedly been an exceptional servant for his country, however, alongside Lucas Biglia he’d seemingly become a national footballing simile of The Muppet Show’s Statler and Waldorf characters!
Sure there had been cameo’s for the likes of Matías Kranevitter, Guido Pizzaro, Iván Marcone and even Éver Banega amongst others. But none of them had managed to definitively displace the central midfield duo.
Now under Jorge Sampaoli, there finally seems to be a new dawn. Much needed re-genesis, with the recently appointed Argentina boss confirming he sees the current Barcelona defender playing in that same position internationally.
Therefore somewhat unsurprisingly La Albiceleste’s first squad selection of the new era included four potential debutants vying for a place in the teams engine. With this in mind, and although it’s a distinct possibility that none of the four players may start the upcoming Superclásico de las Américas, I still decided it was time to shed some light on who’s who amongst this fresh-faced quartet.
Nacho your average midfielder – River’s metronomic maestro
Often football is not a linear process. Even in an environment that is as prone to promoting youth such as the Argentine game, there can be notable examples of late developers. One such situation would be that of Ignacio Martín Fernández, alias ‘Nacho’ within the domestic game.
At 27 years of age, he may seem like something of an elder statesmen in comparison to some of his other competitors. Nonetheless the metronomic midfield maestro has been weaving the wand of his left foot for some time now in his homeland. With his arrival at Marcelo Gallardo’s River Plate helping his game reach that elusive next level.
Eerily similar in appearance to (a young!) Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, Nacho has been dubbed by many as ;River’s Lead Guitar’, living up to the billing more often than not. Finding himself regularly amongst the top passers per game both domestically, and during his clubs successful continental adventures throughout South America.
Most suited to the role of an interior midfielder, the River Plate lynchpin will likely compete with Messrs Lanzini and Rodríguez for one of presumably two slots in said position. One things for certain, should he take the field, “Nacho” Fernández can be relied to ‘Paint it Black’ like the colour of his retro style boots.
Argentina’s hawk-eyed midfield general
Guido Rodríguez is yet another player with a River Plate connection in his career. In actual fact three out of the four new arrivals in Argentina’s engine room boast said credentials.
Truth be told said situation should hardly come as a major surprise given it’s a well known fact that Jorge Sampaoli is a long term admire of El Millonario. Sampaoli even going so far as having a poster of the legendary Máquina side of Muñoz, Moreno, Pedernera, Labruna, Loustau & Co. in the Sevilla dressing room last season.
However, although Guido Rodríguez owes a great deal to his boyhood club. It would be fair to say that his development to become an international calibre midfield is in no small part down to the tutelage of the current Club Atlético Independiente manager Ariel Holan.
The pair where brought together (for a second time) when the latter was boss at Defensa y Justicia, and the young midfielder joined on loan. Rodríguez has widely credited Holan’s tutorship in paricular in teaching him the ‘pre-scanning’ technique – a term used to describe how and where a player pre-scans the pitch/positions themselves to receive the ball and distribute effectively, taking into consideration the location of teammates and opponents on the field- as a key aspect in his development to being a top tier professional.
Said spell at El Halcón – The Hawk, as the Florencio Varela based side are commonly known, indisputably helped earn Rodríguez a lucrative subsequent move to Club Tijuana, in Mexico.
At Los Xolos the young midfielder would continue his steady progression within the game. So much so that he has recently been linked with a move to La Liga.
Albeit the influence of his apprenticeship in his homeland remains evident, and is possibly what caught Jorge Sampaoli’s eye when making his squad selection.
An all-round “Diamond Geezer” and midfield gem
Manuel Lanzini is the third and final River Plate alumni of Sampaoli’s newest midfield ensemble. The much-travelled diminutive playmaker has had to take a somewhat unorthodox path into the spotlight, but in doing so has nowadays confidently silenced the bulk of his critics.
Having long-since left his homeland to excel in the Premier League via a bizarre pit-stop in Dubai, his arrival in East London may have raised a few eyebrows at first. Nonetheless Lanzini’s performances (in particular in the all-important London derbies) have won over the fans to the extent the player, who back home had been christened affectionately as La Joya – The Jewel, is now considered an all-round Diamond Geezer amongst the West Ham fans!
Since arriving in the UK (and even more so subsequent to the departure of Dimitri Payet’s departure in January) Manu’ Lanzini’s versatility has been put to the test, and could well prove appealing for Jorge Sampaoli when constructing his Argentina XI.
If Sampaoli where to seek advice in this respect, he could do a lot worse than heed the console of Lanzini’s current boss and former manager of the Croatian international side Slaven Bilić, who not long ago noted: “He (Lanzini) could play in a number of positions but his best is wherever the ball is. So he has to be central where he can have most contact”.
Bilić going on to compare the soon to be international with another midfield maestro he knows all to well, in Real Madrid and Croatia’s Luka Modrić: “I have never seen a player who reminds me of Luka Modric as much as Manuel Lanzini. He is my prototype of a great midfielder.”
Italian craftsmanship added to Argentine flair
As fate would somewhat predictably have it, the only non-River Plate connected member of this midfield quartet would be a product of their arch-rivals Boca Juniors’ academy.
Leandro Daniel Paredes burst onto the scene as a prodigious 16-year-old, and indeed is strangely enough the youngest member of the Fantastic Foursome chosen to revamp Argentina’s engine room despite seemingly being around for an age already.
At barely 19 years old Leo Paredes would leave his homeland known in many circles as El Heredero – the heir to Juan Román Riquelme’s Boca throne, triumphantly returning now as a pure Italian ‘Regista’, in the elegant Andrea Pirlo mould.
Having cut his teeth in Serie A for some time now. With a particular formative spell at Empoli F.C., his newfound tactical and defensive discipline was quickly recalled by parent club AS Roma, for who he impressed in abundance last term. The Giallorossi star looking the most likely to be tested at the base of Sampaoli’s Argentina midfield over in Australia.