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Daniel Busch provides some expert insight into the latest on the list.
For any young, talented, diminutive Argentine forward the moniker of ‘the next Lionel Messi’ is always a title to which they will almost certainly fall well short of. For defensive midfielders of this generation the same can be said of Javier Mascherano but for Santiago Ascacibar it has been a comparison which the young number five has relished and following his meteoric rise he’s best placed to succeed El Jefecito.
Since making his senior debut for Estudiantes at the start of 2016, Ascacibar has barely put a foot wrong. Immediately establishing himself as one of the best ball winners in Argentina, the academy product maintained that level and earned a move to Bundesliga club Stuttgart, where the €8 million fee will likely be looked back on as one of the bargain prices of recent years.
Born in La Plata, Ascacibar joined Estudiantes at the age of nine and even at this early stage was said to have left an impression on the coaching staff for his hunger and desire to improve. Omar Rulli, father of goalkeeper Gerónimo and coach at the time, described the youngster as a ‘training fanatic’ and ‘obsessive in improving his technique.’
This admirable quality still shines through every time Ascacibar is on a football pitch and after progressing through the ranks under the watchful eye of now Argentina youth coordinator Hermes Desio, the teenager was almost set for the first team.
Being named the best player at a youth tournament in Malaysia in 2015 and with Estudiantes surprisingly opting to sell defensive midfielder Gastón Gil Romero, Ascacibar began 2016 firmly in manager Nelson Vivas’ plans.
A supposed friendly Clásico Platense in January, in which a late Ascacibar tackle sparked a bench clearing brawl, provided a baptism of sorts and there was no looking back as the league season got underway.
No player would average more tackles per game than the destructive presence in front of Estudiantes’ back four and as El Pincha enjoyed an excellent campaign, Ascacibar would cement his reputation as one of the best young players in the Primera.
This level would rarely dip and even when captaining the Argentina under-20s or playing for the Olympic side, Ascacibar would be one of the very few to come away from the tournaments in a positive light.
These tigerish displays in central midfield, notable for their tackling and interceptions but also their awareness, understanding, maturity and leadership were creating interest and prompted Diego Simeone to proclaim, “Ascacibar has the highest potential of any Argentine player, he is the future of Argentina.”
Stuttgart swooped to complete what was a considerable coup for the recently promoted Bundesliga outfit in August 2017 and even though Ascacibar had only racked up 18 months worth of experience, for a league well used to players leaving for Europe prematurely, El Ruso had already outgrown his environment.
Upon arriving in Germany, Ascacibar told Kicker that Chilean Arturo Vidal was the player in his position that he most admired due to his all-round game but stressed that his idol was the man tattooed on his calf, Diego Maradona.
Vastly different to that famous Argentinian number ten, the number five role is almost as sacred and while Ascacibar is yet to show the box-to-box abilities of Vidal, the youngster is an underrated and efficient passer of the ball.
Stuttgart are now seeing this first hand and Ascacibar has stated that a place in the World Cup squad is his goal. That still looks some way off and despite having the nickname to match, a place in Russia would be a surprise. Mascherano and Lucas Biglia still command the area of the pitch for Jorge Sampaoli but Ascacibar remains central to plans beyond 2018.
“Ascacibar has quickly became an integral part of Stuttgart’s axis and does well tactically in their 3-4-2-1. He has a lot of power and stamina, but also problems with his discipline from time to time, collecting unnecessary yellows. How quickly he has adapted to the Bundesliga has been impressive and his aggression and mentality certainly helped him. If he continues to adapt to the higher pace, he could avoid more unnecessary fouls in the future.”