Arguably one of the biggest matches in football’s history took place last weekend—the first leg of the first ever Copa Libertadores final between Argentina’s two biggest clubs: Boca Juniors and River Plate. The two played out a thrilling 2-2 draw with both sides having a plethora of opportunities to steal a victory. Any Real Madrid fan watching the match, will have had their eye on 20-year-old Exequiel Palacios. There will be no better venue than Boca Junior’s home stadium, La Bombonera— bursting at the seams with some of the most passionate fans in the world, to watch how this potential new arrival will cope with the demands and pressure of the Bernabeu.
Speed of Thought & Vertical, Direct Passing
Within the opening 15 minutes, River Plate very well could have, and most probably should have, scored three goals with the chances they created. River Plate adjusted tactically throughout the match, but started the game in a 5-3-2 with Palacios operating as a right center midfielder. The thing to note about Palacios, is that he is not a defensive anchor nor an attacking midfielder; he is an old school pure box to box center midfielder. One of the key assets to his game is his speed of thought. The Argentinian is a quick thinker, he has an idea of where he wants to pass the ball before he receives. That element of his play will be critical as he moves to the higher levels of Europe. Palacios is not one of those players that could be dubbed “a side-ways pass merchant”, he is constantly looking for vertical outlets—he is River’s connector from the defense to attack:
Time and time again, Palacios quickness of thought got him out of a difficult press executed by Boca. He’s constantly taking pictures in his head before he gets the ball, so he already knows where he wants to put the ball next. Even if the pass does not come off, he looks to go direct and distribute the ball straight down the oppositions throat. A theme throughout his game, was the quick one touch passing to beat his defender and pick the ball up again.
Work Ethic — Defensive Attributes
What has surprised me most about Palacios is the defensive side of his game and his relentless work ethic off the ball. Boca Juniors took the lead in the 34th minute, but mere seconds later River Plate equalized. Immediately after the goal, River Plate Manager Marcelo Gallardo, grabbed Palacios and told him to operate in a deeper defensive role. Palacios does not hide from the dirty work, and on multiple occasions could be seen tracking the opposition into his defensive corner of the pitch:
His willingness to run, fight, and defend—something that seems to be apart of the South American culture, particularly Argentinians—will remind Madrid fans of Angel Di Maria and his unbelievable engine.
Areas to Improve
River Plate played very narrow in the second half and shifted their formation to a 4-3-1-2, similar to Zidane’s diamond formation. This meant Palacios had to cover huge amounts of space, both centrally and out wide. The average player only has the ball for a total of 2 - 3 minutes of actual game play, so what is vitally important is what one does during the 88 minutes without the ball. One tactical tweak Palacios will need to make to his game is his positional discipline. He wants to win the ball back so badly and be involved in closing down the opposition, that he gets over zealous and leaves huge gaps in dangerous central zones:
In the graphic above, Palacios should tuck in centrally and open both his hips and shoulders to be able to see the ball and the man. Instead, he gets sucked into the play leaving acres of space open in the midfield and turning his shoulders to close off his vision of that part of the field. Mistakes like that will be easily exploited at the higher levels. This occurred throughout the match and unfortunately was not a one-off.
By the 70th minute, Palacios was clearly exhausted. River’s tactical changes stretched the midfield too thin and did not get the best out of the youngster. Kroos and Modric fell victim to the same problems last season with the diamond formation. The body language alone in the clip below demonstrates how tired he became:
Marcelo Gallardo did no favors for Palacios in the way he set his team up, but despite the tactical shackles, the youngster was able to show flashes of what his game is all about. A pure box to box center midfielder that connects defense to attack with direct and vertical passes. Palacios is a quick thinker, he is often one step ahead of the opposition and always has an idea of where he wants to play the ball. A theme throughout the match was his quick one touch passing to break through Boca’s pressure. His engine is second to none and he is not afraid to get down and do the defensive work—similar to Angel Di Maria. His athleticism is something that differentiates him from other midfielders especially those in Madrid’s current squad. All that being said, he does have areas to improve—he can get over eager in his desire to win the ball and leave massive gaps in midfield. His dribbling is average, no where near the levels of a Modric, Kovacic, or Ceballos. It’s difficult to see where he would fit in Madrid’s current midfield if things remain “as is”, he likely will not be displacing any of the names mentioned above as he is still a raw talent. Madrid would be wise to see him remain at River for the rest of the season and depending on off-season movements, loan him out to a European team or keep him with the first team, with the potential departures of Modric, Kovacic, Llorente, and a Valverde loan? In Valverde, Madrid have another supreme South American talent—different style of player to Palacios, but as of right now looks the slightly more complete. Managing and developing the vast amount of young talent at Madrid will be the club’s biggest challenge in the future.