In the aftermath of Argentina’s worst World Cup in a generation in June, the public went through all the predictable reactions.
The vast majority of football fans called for the manager to be fired and yet another appointed (the fourth since Brazil 2014). They also lamented that Messi has never been able to recapture his Barcelona form consistently whilst playing in sky blue and white.
However, once the dust settled and the structural analysis of the failure got underway, everybody agreed on one thing: Argentina has a surprising lack of top class midfielders.
This sounds odd to a generation of football fans who grew up watching Verón, Simeone, Riquelme, Aimar, Cambiasso, Gallardo, and so many others represent Argentina so skillfully.
Their depth of midfielders was so strong back then that Marcelo Bielsa even afforded himself the luxury of not calling up Boca’s legendary no.10 Juan Roman Riquelme for the 2002 World Cup in Asia. Nowadays, Verón, Simeone, or Riquelme in their prime would go straight into the XI.
The present might be painful for Argentina’s massive following both at home and abroad, but that does not mean the future necessarily will be.
The country already has high hopes for several midfielders including Zenit’s Esteban Paredes, and Betis’ former PSG star Giovanni Lo Celso, who was inexplicably given no game time in Russia.
On top of that, one young midfielder has embarked on a meteoric rise in the short time since the World Cup, just when his country needed it most. That man is Exequiel Palacios.
Since June, Palacios has evolved from a talented youngster making small cameos and cup appearances for River Plate, to a mainstay of both his club and country’s midfield. His rise may have catapulted him all the way to the biggest club in the world – Real Madrid.
In winning a permanent spot in River’s lineup, the 19-year-old has unexpectedly displaced more experienced players such as Enzo Perez, Nacho Fernandez, and Juan Fernando Quintero.
Palacios is from Tucumán in the Andean north west of the Argentina. He moved down to Buenos Aires at a young age when River Plate spotted his considerable talent and brought him into their youth setup.
Since then he has represented Argentina at U-20 level in the World Cup in South Korea, and waited patiently for a chance at club level.
His style of play could be exactly what Argentina are lacking, for he is a true box-to-box midfielder. To describe him as an attacking or defensive midfielder would be misleading. He is a central midfielder who is as comfortable helping in defence as he is surging forward in attack.
Palacios already possesses the complete skillset necessary for a modern midfielder. He is comfortable in possession, has a good range of passes, presses well without the ball, makes sensible decisions, and is impressive in front of goal.
All these attributes were on display in a recent league superclásico between Boca Juniors and River Plate in September. He swarmed around Boca’s midfield when they had possession, and he had the legs to outpace and get behind them moving forward.
That performance led Argentine media outlet Varsky Sports to declare “Man of the match: Exequiel Palacios. It’s scandalous how good this kid is.”
The point at which River Plate fans were convinced he was genuinely world-class came a few weeks earlier during the Copa Libertadores last 16 clash with Racing Club.
The tense knockout match was delicately poised at 1-0 when Palacios cleared a mishit Racing free-kick from the edge of his own area.
That led to a River counter which Racing were poorly prepared for, and within 10 seconds, Palacios drove into the Racing box to make it 2-0 with a cool left foot finish.
He got very lucky with a deflection that fell perfectly into his path in that move, but the point remains that he was able to clear a dangerous free kick from his own area and apply the finishing touch to a counter attack in the opposing box within 10 seconds.
That passage of play is Palacios’ young career in a microcosm.
Watching his progression carefully, interim Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni wasted no time in integrating the youngster into the national team. He was immediately called up to make his senior international debut in friendlies in the USA in September, and only missed the October friendly against Brazil due to injury.
2018- Palacios’ breakthrough year- ended with him becoming an immortal hero at River Plate alongside his teammates, as they won the club its fourth Copa Libertadores crown by beating fierce rivals Boca Juniors in the final. The club had never achieved anything that sweet in its illustrious 117-year history, so the fans will be forever grateful to Palacios regardless of what he decides to do in the future. The young star was even involved his side’s crucial equalizer that sent the game to extra-time.
🔝⚪🔴⚪ ¡7⃣ toques para un golazo! @PrattoLucas_ definió tras una gran jugada colectiva para marcar el 1-1 de @CARPoficial ante @BocaJrsOficial en la final de la #CONMEBOLLibertadores. pic.twitter.com/JF1HCklzcs
— CONMEBOL Libertadores (@Libertadores) December 10, 2018
What does the future hold for him?
If the Spanish press is to be believed, then he has already sealed a deal to move to Real Madrid, and will make the switch in January 2019. This is no less than his talent and hard work deserve.
One possibility being debated on both sides of the Atlantic is Real Madrid buying him then loaning him back to River for the next six months, a move similar to the one they made with Vinicius Jr’s transfer from Flamengo.
His next step is a critical one. If he ends up without regular first team football – something quite possible in a squad as strong as Real Madrid’s – that could limit his progression. However, if his talent is nurtured wisely, he could be making those box-to-box runs for both Argentina and top European clubs for the next decade or more.