What’s next for Julián Álvarez, Argentina’s rising World Cup star?
The otherwise perfect image of Lionel Messi tossing the World Cup trophy into the sky while on Sergio Agüero’s shoulders contains one unfortunate blemish. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of what could have upset all this achievement. There is Messi, exalted, on a raft of Argentine players and fans in various states of ecstasy and euphoria, and then, behind and on top of him, ruining itIt’s Lautaro Martinez. Prior to the tournament, the 25-year-old striker had scored seven goals in 15 Serie A appearances for Inter Milan; he has led Argentina’s line for most of the last four years, playing a decisive role in their 2021 Copa América victory. But Martínez was a blunt edge in Qatar, failing to register a shot on goal in his first two starts in the World Cup and missed multiple chances to bury the game against France in the final.
“Lautaro has saved us many times,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said after a narrow round of 16 win against Australia earlier this month. Again, his forward had failed on several clear occasions, but Scaloni would insist on protecting him. Martínez is a quality player, you don’t come to Inter Milan by chance, but Argentina’s problem is that he is a striker at all costs. If he’s not scoring, he’s not offering much more, and in this World Cup, the team had no passenger space.
Much was made of the amount of time Messi spent playing gallop in this tournament. At 35, he found a new direction at Paris Saint Germain and then Argentina by avoiding defensive work and conserving almost every ounce of energy for when he finally got the ball. Someone else has to run, stretch the defense and, for God’s sake, finish the chances. That’s where Julián Álvarez came in. If Martínez’s stock has fallen precipitously in recent weeks, then Álvarez’s is through the roof. Álvarez is 22 years old, is a native of the town of Calchín, in the central province of Córdoba, and made his international debut against Chile last summer. He left Qatar with four goals, only Messi and Kylian Mbappé scored more, having seized his first chance at the World Cup with invincible diligence.
Perhaps what we will remember the most from Álvarez’s 2022 World Cup is the race. The curl in the top corner against Poland in the group stage was striker shot, an orderly readjustment of his extremities to achieve two skilful touches in the area, one to establish, another to score. But more often, Álvarez was a blur of flailing legs and arms, like a sheet of paper in the wind as defenders chased Argentina in possession. He became an absolute nuisance when Argentina was also without him. Aurélien Tchouaméni is a stylish midfielder for France and Real Madrid: he looked world-class against England in the quarter-final last week, torpedoing his best-laid plans, which had been two years in the making. But in the early hours of the final on Sunday, his coolness was in turn shattered by Álvarez and Enzo Fernández (another young Argentine for whom life it will probably change after this tournament) nipping at their heels like terriers after an unwanted guest. It’s a domino effect. If a striker like Álvarez is willing to drop back and make up the numbers in midfield, he can win the ball back further up the pitch and counter-attacks are launched quickly. Games against even the most astute opposition can suddenly turn academic.
Argentina was not an insurance to reach the final. In the semi-finals, they faced a well-trained Croatian team that had reached the final four years earlier. But twice in the first 15 minutes, Croatia’s central defenders parted ways in much the same way, and La Albiceleste not only looked more vibrant but also, for the first time in the tournament, instituted a measure of control in the game. Fernández pounced on the usually reliable Luka Modric to stop the buildup, and Álvarez ran into the space between Dejan Lovren and Josko Gvardiol, who had moved into complementary positions to receive a pass from Modric. The first half Álvarez won a penalty, and the second ended with a lack of definition.kable piss take. Álvarez, running from the halfway line, dribbled the ball through a tangle of players. His momentum led to the ball bouncing off Lovren, a knee, a head and himself, and then finally going in, through Alvarez’s sheer force of will. Buy the ticket, take the ride, as they say.
Álvarez plays with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, currently five points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal, and his biggest draw is his mobility. Unlike Martinez, Alvarez can veer wide or drop deeper, depending on what the team needs at the given moment. He joined from Argentine club River Plate last January for $19 million, or rather less than a third of what City paid Borussia Dortmund for Erling Haaland, who has 18 goals in 12 league starts, and his own song.
Haaland is the inescapable fact that both Álvarez and the Premier League have to work on next year. When he’s scoring, he seems like he’ll never stop, but, like Martinez, when he’s not scoring (which rarely happens), he doesn’t really affect the game. While Haaland has transformed City’s attack, the question remains where that transformation leaves the team in the long run. What to do when his sliding tackle doesn’t pan out, when he succumbs to his sketchy injury record or when he simply plays like the green 22-year-old he’s supposed to be? In the league defeats against Liverpool and, above all, against Brentford before the World Cup break, the solution was to continue playing. In past years, when the striker did not comply or simply did not existCity were able to find goals anywhere on the pitch, out of necessity. Haaland’s prowess introduces a hierarchy, meaning Kevin De Bruyne won’t be looking to score himself, but will channel the ball to the main man. When the main man can’t step up, will City be lost without him?
Álvarez could offer something different and now he has showcased it on the biggest stage in the world. He has only three league starts for City and was featured in a Champions League tie against Sevilla because Haaland was unavailable through injury. He has scored four goals in those four appearances, an excellent if limited proportion, but it seems unlikely that he will return to a regular starting role. Perhaps Álvarez’s future lies on the wings, where Ferran Torres was deployed from time to time during his time at City. Perhaps Álvarez’s progress will be halted by the continued lack of first-team football and secure a move to another big club who can offer him a crucial role, also as towers. What should worry us all is the first possibility: the doomsday event in which Guardiola figures out how to get both Haaland and Álvarez together on the pitch. how did you stopc Fàbregas stated with playful concern during the World Cup final, which “isn’t very fair.”