Alan Varela – The Xemillero gem ready for stardom by Shay Hicks

Alan Varela – The Xemillero gem ready for stardom by Shay Hicks

Player Bio:

Name – Alan Gonzalo Varela
Nationality – Argentinian
D.O.B – 4/7/2001 (21 years old)
Height – 177cm (5’9.5″)
Strong Foot – Right
Current Club – Boca Juniors
Position – Defensive Midfielder, Centre Midfielder
Value – £9m (via Transfermarkt)

Career Summary:

Alan Varela is a promising defensive midfielder who is the latest young Argentinian to join the long list of stars produced by Boca Juniors. Known for his defensive reliability and impressive range of passing, many have tipped Alan to become one of the best midfielders in the world in just few short years. He has already been rumoured to be linked to Newcastle United and even Barcelona, and after taking a closer look it is clear to see why.

Born just a 40 minute drive from La Bombanera, Alan Varela was raised in greater Buenos Aires, Argentina. He started his footballing journey with Barcelona Luján, a youth system set up by Barcelona in greater Buenos Aires. He would learn his craft here until the age of 11, when he would be offered a chance to join the prestigious Boca Juniors academy. He would impress early on, and by 2019 he would begin training with the senior side. Alan would make his international debut for the Argentina under-20 side during this time, playing just under an hour before being subbed off for an extra attacking player (Gimnasia’s Lautaro Chávez) in a 1-0 win over Spain in early September. He would also play 3 days later, completing the full 90 minutes in a 3-0 loss to Russia (Interestingly, these are the only recorded international appearances I could find for Varela, which is confusing given his obvious talent).

Alan and several other players take part in an initiation for their first preseason with the senior squad

Alan would secure his first professional deal with his boyhood club in 2019, and would go on to slowly break into the match day squads towards the start of the 2020/21 season. Varela had clearly made his presence known in first team training, as he would make a string of cup competition appearances for Boca, although he would fail to make a single team sheet in the Primera División. Alan appeared in his first senior match day squad in a Copa Libertadores match against Paraguayan side Libertad, and would make the bench a further 4 times in the tournament. Boca would make an impressive run in the tournament, making it all the way to the semi-finals before being eliminated 3- 0 over 2 legs by Brazilian side Santos. Varela would eventually make his senior debut for Boca in a Copa de la Liga Profesional playoff stage game against Independiente in late December of 2020. He would complete 74 minutes in the centre of the pitch as he helped his side to a 2-1 victory. Varela would go on to play the majority of the group stage games for Boca in the tournament, providing the team with defensive cover and ball-playing ability from midfield, even pitching in with an assist. His playing time would slowly diminish as Boca progressed all the way to the final, where he would only manage 6 minutes as a late substitute. However, I’m sure he didn’t mind, as Boca would go on to defeat Banfield 6-4 on penalties and win the first ever Copa de la Liga Profesional (or the Copa Diego Armando Maradona as it should be named), giving Alan his first taste of silverware. It wouldn’t take long for Boca and Varela to regain cup glory, as they would go on to win the Copa Argentina that same season. Alan would play 3 times in the early stages of the tournament and be named as a substitute in the final 3 games as Boca won yet another final on penalties, this time beating Talleres 5-4.

Overall, Alan’s first professional season was a huge success. Due to time constraints and other factors, the Primera División would tweak their season to start in January and end in August of the same year for the upcoming season. This meant that by the time Boca had won the delayed 2019/20 Copa Argentina final (becoming the most successful team in Copa Argentina history in the process), Varela had already become a regular competitor to make new head coach Sebastián Battaglia’s starting 11. He would make his first Copa Libertadores appearance early in 2021, playing the full match in a 1-0 win over Bolivian side The Strongest, and would go on to appear in 6 more games before being eliminated by another Brazilian team, this time Atlético Mineiro. He would make his Primera División debut a few months later, starting against Unión and playing just over an hour in a 1-1 draw. Alan would feature regularly in the early stages of the season before becoming more of a backup option to the more established members of the squad, such as fellow Argentinian Diego González and Colombian Jorman Campuzano (currently on loan to Turkish side Giresunspor). He would, however, feature heavily in Boca’s efforts to retain the Copa de la Liga, making 9 appearances in the initial stages and appearing in both of the knockout stage games as they were knocked out by Racing Club, losing 4-2 on penalties in the semi-finals.

A graphic posted by the official Boca Juniors Twitter account, celebrating Alan scoring the 8000th goal in the club’s history

The 2022 season would see a return to normality for the Primera División, as without the strains of a pandemic a full-length season was finally able to take place. Alan started the season as a rotational piece in the squad, before being given a run of games by newly-appointed head coach Hugo Ibarra early in the season. Varela would kickstart his campaign with an impressive run of form in the Cop de la Liga and the Copa Libertadores group stages. He would miss just 3 minutes of Boca’s Copa de la Liga knockout games as they won the competition for the second time, and would start in 3 of his 5 appearances in the Copa Libertadores. Notably, Alan would score Boca’s 8000th ever goal and the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over Colombian side Deportivo Cali in the last game of the group stage. Whilst Boca would be eliminated in the next round by Brazilian side Corinthians, Varela’s reliable displays would lead to him being given an extended run as the side’s first choice defensive midfielder in their Primera División campaign. He would repay their trust in him with a solid breakout season, starting 21 of his 22 appearances as he helped Boca win the Primera División and complete another double, the second of Alan’s young career. Unfortunately the season would end on a low point for Varela as he was sent off in extra time of the Trofeo de Campeones, a game which saw an unprecedented 11 red cards (including Boca manager Ibarra) and 12 total yellow cards. However, this would’ve just been an exclamation point on what had been a wildly successful season for the Azul y Oro. For his efforts in the previous seasons, Alan was allowed to change number from 33 to 5, after the number 5 shirt had been left vacant by the departing Carlos Zambrano.

Notable dates in Alan Varela’s career:

2012 – Joins the Boca Juniors academy
Summer 2019 – Signs his first professional contract with Boca Juniors, joins the senior squad
2/8/2019 – Makes his Argentina under-20 debut
18/9/2020 – Named to his first Boca Juniors matchday squad
20/12/2020 – Makes his senior debut for Boca Juniors
18/1/2021 – Wins the Copa de la Liga with Boca Juniors
5/2/2021 – Extends his Boca Juniors contract until 2025
17/7/2021 – Makes his league debut for Boca Juniors
9/12/2021 – Wins the Copa Argentina with Boca Juniors
27/5/2022 – Scores his first and Boca Junior’s 8000th ever goal
4/8/2022 – Extends his Boca Juniors contract until 2026
23/10/2022 – Wins the Primera División with Boca Juniors

Signature playstyle:

This article will be slightly different from my usual pieces, as I am not completing a match report. Instead, I am taking Alan’s best moments from 3 separate games, which should provide me with a more well-rounded look at his game. In this instance, I’ll be looking at Boca Juniors games against Sarmiento (12/10/2022), Gimnasia (20/11/2022) and Independiente (23/11/2022).

‘Setting the tone’

This article will be slightly different from my usual pieces, as I am not completing a match report. Instead, I am taking Alan’s best moments from 3 separate games, which should provide me with a more well-rounded look at his game. In this instance, I’ll be looking at Boca Juniors games against Sarmiento (12/10/2022), Gimnasia (20/11/2022) and Independiente (23/11/2022).

Alan asserts himself onto a game early on, making his presence known with killer passes just like this. This play initially begins deep in Boca’s half, with Alan playing a short one-two with his centre back. He then carries the ball a few feet forward until he recognises the run of his winger, and plays a ball over the defence and towards the corner flag. The ball drops slightly late, but the winger is able to control the ball and maintain possession before the ball goes out of play.

After a prolonged battle between several Boca and Sarmiento players to win possession, Alan eventually makes a good challenge and carries the ball forward a few yards. He then plays the ball towards an attacker further up the pitch, progressing play and giving Boca possession further up field.

Improvisation is an important skill for a midfielder to possess, and here Alan is forced to use it. Before he receives the ball he is directing traffic further up the field, instructing an attacker to make a run so he can presumably be on the receiving end of a through ball. However, Alan is immediately pressed when he gains possession. This, combined with him facing the other way, forces Alan to change his plans. This isn’t an issue for him, as he instead plays a long pass towards an open player near the centre circle.

Alan is very adept at controlling the pace of the match when his side is in possession. He likes having the ball at his feet, but will rarely take more than a few touches before progressing the ball either sideways to the defensive players or forwards towards the attackers with an ambitious long ball. He combines his vision with his distribution to control the tempo of the match and to make sure possession is rarely wasted when he has the ball at his feet.

Clean-up play

Whilst Alan isn’t afraid to get physical and make a tough challenge from time to time, his reaction speed and general awareness of everything happening around him often allows him to shut down potential danger without having to. Alan plays a short pass to a nearby player, who makes a mistake and allows the ball to roll away from him and towards the 2 players behind him. This leads to the ball being knocked forward in a challenge. Alan recognises the loose ball, as well as the Independiente player looking to regain possession. He reacts quickly, running towards the path of the ball and playing a first time pass to a nearby player, keeping control of the ball in a good area on the field.

This is an example of Alan making a good challenge in a tight situation. The Boca defender plays a poor ball towards Alan’s side of the field, the Independiente defender recognises this and runs forward to challenge for possession. Alan drops back, and whilst the defender initially gets the first touches on the ball, it is still loose and Alan makes a great challenge to disrupt play and stop a potential counter-attack before it has started.

He may not find himself in these scenarios often, but Alan is more than capable of matching a wingers’ run and stifling a counter-attack. Alan senses the danger early on, and despite the Sarmiento wingers’ head-start he quickly catches up to contest him. He stays cool whilst isolated, positioning his body well and eventually blocking an attempted cross.

Alan’s ability to stay 2 steps ahead of his opponents also applies to defensive scenarios. A Sarmiento defender spots a player he thinks is open and plays the ball towards him, but Alan jumps in front of the player and clears the ball. The clearance only goes as far as another Sarmiento defender who heads the ball back up field, but Alan coolly chests the ball down towards one of his own players.

Alan always seems to be able to latch onto loose balls, or at the very least challenge an opposing player who hasn’t completely gathered the ball. I would put this down to 2 things: his awareness and his work-rate. He is relatively fast compared to others in his position and is willing to get stuck in and contest a 50/50 ball. This, partnered with his very good short passing, gives his side a better chance of having more possession throughout a match. On top of this, Alan will frequently look to use the ball as soon as he has gained possession, instead of slowing the match down and waiting. This allows his side to catch opposing defences off guard and produce many counter-attacking opportunities.

Short pass distribution

Initially using his awareness to hold off a pressing Gimnasia attacker, Alan turns and makes a pass across the edge of the box to a Boca defender. He then asks for the ball to be played ahead of him, allowing him to run into space and collect the ball in a much better position than he was in previously. Not one to waste time, Alan then moves the ball across to his winger, who then carries the ball into their opponent’s half.

This is a good example of Alan using his abilities to avoid danger, and whilst it isn’t as impressive as his other passing highlights, it is still worth noting. Here, he resists initial pressure from the Gimnasia attackers by playing a short pass to a defender, before dropping back very slightly to give himself more room to operate. He receives the ball again quickly, turns and passes to a defender on his other side, who is in much more space than he is.

Whilst his longer passes are the ones that immediately catch your eye, it could be argued that Alan’s short passing is more key to his overall game. He rarely holds the ball for too long, deciding to move the ball on and play short one-twos with nearby players. His amazing awareness allows him to sense danger, whether it is from an oncoming midfielder looking to press, or a forward trying to sneakily pickpocket him from behind. Alan will drop as far back as he can when his team is in possession and looking to attack, frequently joining the defensive line. This allows him to survey the options in front of him. Pairing this with quality decision-making and patience for his age leads to his side rarely wasting possession.

Long passing

The moment above shows just how effective Alan’s range can be from the first seconds of a match. With a wide player in possession, Alan drops back and drifts closer to him, demanding the ball. He receives the ball and immediately plays a through ball over the attack towards a winger in space. With just 2 touches of the ball, Alan turned possession deep in his own territory into an attacking opportunity.

Alan’s intermediate-range passing can come in very handy when distributing the ball to the flanks in the attacking third of the pitch. Here, he collects the ball in the centre of the pitch, takes one touch and pings the ball over into the path of an oncoming winger.

A combination of Alan’s vision and passing ability allows him to produce potentially game-changing passes In the blink of an eye. He collects a loose ball and already knows where he wants to play it. He swings a beautiful ball across the field diagonally towards the left wing with outstanding accuracy.

This is the perfect example of Alan dropping into his defensive line to play a long pass forward. Boca have a free kick deep in their own half, and after a few short passes between Alan and the other defenders, Alan plays a very accurate ball forwards into the body of a Boca attacker.

Alan’s range of passing is truly something to behold. He seemingly has every pass possible in his locker, and also has the confidence to attempt them whenever he feels there is a good opening in front of him. Alan is very capable of floating a ball over the heads of defenders and dropping it just in front of his forwards, giving them a great chance to carry the ball forward and set up a big chance. He also frequently plays cross-field passes, receiving the ball and switching play to the opposite flank in a matter of seconds.

360° vision

Alan uses his vision and awareness to constantly keep himself 2 steps ahead of the opposition. Here, he receives the ball and recognises the 2 Independiente defenders initiating a press. He takes one touch backwards before turning sharply, leaving both defenders stranded and giving him an easy task of simply playing a short pass to a nearby open man.

Alan’s amazing vision and awareness allows him to turn near-disasters into brilliant attacking play. He initially darts forward to challenge for the ball, smartly staying on his feet and squeezing between the two Gimnasia players. Alan takes a quick look up for passing opportunities, but when he realises there is nothing on for him to play, he elects to carry the ball forwards himself. He dribbles the ball forward into the final third, before passing the ball across to a winger and following up his run all the way into the box to give the winger an opportunity to deliver a cross.

Alan plays a great long pass here, but it wouldn’t be possible without his vision and awareness. Alan is already planning what to do next with possession before he even has the ball, looking around and recognising an opening on the opposite flank that can be exploited. He also sees a nearby Sarmiento player who is in position to pressure him if he receives the ball. This allows him to execute his plan extremely quickly, as he is able to turn and play the pass he wants to instantly, avoiding pressure and finding the open man at the same time.

Alan is supremely gifted with his awareness in midfield, and this is largely down to his vision. He is constantly scanning, occasionally spinning on ball to check the situation behind him before turning back. When he is not on the ball, he is simultaneously making himself available to receive a short pass and scanning across the field to work out where he can play his next pass. This allows him to be ahead of the opposition at all times, especially when it comes to finding open players and playing a 40-yard pass with pinpoint accuracy. He seemingly knows where everyone on the pitch is at all times. In the time it would take most midfielders to recognise an attacking opportunity, Alan can set himself and play the ball accurately towards his target.

What’s next?:

If you handed an artist a pencil and a blank sheet of paper and asked them to draw the perfect defensive midfield prospect, Alan Varela would be the result. It is simply insane to me that a defensive midfielder can be this complete technically with such little experience. He is so comfortable slotting into the defensive line, dictating play and controlling the game as much as he can. There are rumours circling around Alan that Barcelona are keen to sign him as an eventual replacement for the aging Sergio Busquets, and it is obvious to see why as Alan possesses almost all of the key components of Sergio’s game. What he lacks in size and physicality (compared to Busquets), he makes up for with his pace. Furthermore, what manager (part from Pep Guardiola of course) is more well-equipped to find a replacement for Sergio Busquets than Xavi? His interest alone is a bigger co-sign for how special of a talent Alan is than I could ever give. If the rumours of Barcelona’s interest are false, then whoever picks him up will be extremely lucky. Honestly, I could see Alan fitting in very well with many teams right now. Chelsea are in need of a midfield dictator, someone to fill in and play the role of a more positive-minded, defensively sound Jorginho. Atlético Madrid will be looking to maintain their identity and start preparing for life after Diego Simeone. PSG have been able to rely on the immensely talented Marco Verratti to control their midfield for over a decade now, and whilst he is still just 30 years old they will surely be looking for somebody to step in and become their new Verratti for the next decade. Whilst this may be a lot of pressure to place on a young player who has yet to play a single minute of football outside of South America, I believe Alan’s skillset would make him a desirable target for each of these teams, and he would be able to contribute from day 1 in each scenario. It has been reported that Varela’s price tag is just £16m, but he could easily be worth 5 times as much in a year or two. Whichever team is lucky enough to get him at that price is in for an absolute bargain. I cannot wait to see Alan make a move to Europe, and I hope he can adapt quickly and become one of the best players on the planet very soon.

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