This summer’s transfer window has been one of astronomical fees, epitomised by Neymar’s €222m move to PSG. The case of another Brazilian, Vinicius Junior, was another eye-watering example after the 16-year-old agreed to sign for Real Madrid for €46m with only one senior appearance to his name.
That said, Real Madrid’s transfer policy has actually been much shrewder than in years gone by, especially when recruiting youth. The purchase of Marco Asensio for around €4m from Mallorca now looks to be an amazing bit of business, while the signings of Dani Ceballos, Lucas Vazquez, Jesus Vallejo and Theo Hernandez seem to be similarly astute.
Another clever move with one eye on the future was the signing of Federico Valverde from Peñarol in 2015. The Uruguayan midfielder had dazzled for the U17 national team and was close to a move to Arsenal but Los Merengues offer of €5m was accepted, with the switch being completed once Valverde turned 18 the following July.
Back in Uruguay, Valverde made his debut for Peñarol shortly after his 17th birthday, with manager Pablo Bengoechea declaring that he had never seen a better player at such a young age. He would go on to make 13 first team appearances for los Carboneros, helping to win the 2015 Torneo Apertura and the 2015/2016 Uruguayan championship.
Nicknamed el Pajarito – the little bird – from his running style as a child, Valverde made the move to Spain in July 2016 and joined up with Real Madrid’s Castilla B team. The Uruguayan went on to become a regular for Santiago Solari’s side, playing 30 times and scoring three goals.
Valverde’s reputation continued to rise with a stellar showing at the U20 World Cup earlier in the year. Having previously played a more attacking role for the U17s and Peñarol, Valverde slotted into a deep-lying midfield role and quickly became a fundamental player as Uruguay reached the semi-finals. His excellent performances were recognised with the Silver Ball award at the end of the tournament.
Now it feels as if Valverde is on the cusp of what could be a breakthrough season at senior level. He has joined Deportivo la Coruna on loan as he looks to get his first taste of La Liga action and was even a surprise call up to the latest Uruguay squad. So what can fans expect from this young man?
One of the standout qualities in Valverde’s game is his ability to drive forward with the ball at his feet. Whether playing in an advanced role or at the base of midfield, Valverde is able to glide past players with ease and immediately put his team on the front foot. Often for the U20s he would drop deep to receive the ball from the centre backs but rather than recycle possession, he would look to carry the ball forward and initiate attacks.
His pace, technique, composure and intelligent reading of the game make him an ideal candidate for an adventurous, creative deep-lying midfielder and he has mentioned that Steven Gerrard has been someone who he models his game on. His time spent as an attacking midfield earlier in his career means that he can also beat men in one-on-one situations and this comfort in any area of the pitch makes him a very versatile and complete footballer already.
Inevitably this style can be quite high risk, as shown in the U20 World Cup quarter-final against Portugal. In only the first minute of the game, he was caught in possession and Portugal scored, leaving Uruguay chasing the game from the off. Nevertheless, for the odd occasion of presenting the opposition with a goal-scoring opportunity, the advantages of this style of play far outweigh the negatives.
Valverde possesses a great variety of passing which, combined with his vision and creativity, make him such a valuable player to have in a deep midfield role. He excels at spraying long, accurate balls forward, almost like a quarterback, but is just as capable of neat interplay or slipping a killer through ball. This sublime passing has earned some fanciful comparisons to Pirlo but his mobility marks him out as a different proposition to the Italian.
As his nickname El Pajarito suggests, Valverde doesn’t strike you as much of a physical presence in the centre of the park but his commitment to the defensive aspects of his role are a pleasant surprise. Since moving to Real Madrid and being converted to a midfield anchor role by Santiago Solari, the defensive side to his game has come on leaps and bounds. Although rather lithe, he is relatively tall, has fantastic stamina and never shirks his defensive responsibilities, as the video below shows.
These defensive attributes can also be used to good effect further up the field, with his constant hassling and harrying useful when pressing opponents in their own half. He may need to bulk up somewhat but is still strong enough in the tackle and his impressive positioning and reading of the game mean that he tends to rely more on interceptions, even if he isn’t afraid to mix it up when needs be.
Second top scorer at the 2015 U17 Sudamericano with seven goals in eight games, it’s fair to say that Valverde knows how to find the back of the net. Chances don’t come so regularly in his more withdrawn role but he remains a threat from set-pieces and from distance if given the chance.
Valverde will be looking to see if he can add a few more goals to his game but a half-way line strike in pre-season for Depor will have no doubt got the fans excited to see the Urguayan starlet in action at the Riazor.
A shy, professional character off the field, Valverde exudes confidence and composure when he steps on the pitch. His deep-lying midfield role requires plenty of maturity when playing and his reading of the game belies his tender years.
Never afraid to show for the ball, Valverde assumes responsibility, as demonstrated by his ball-playing, risk-taking style of play. The fact that he often stepped up to take penalties for the Uruguay U20s shows that Valverde can deal with high-pressure situations.
One incident that shows that Valverde still has some growing up to do was his controversial celebration at the U20 World Cup. Valverde was accused of racism after using his fingers to slant his eyes and it sparked a lot of complaints, threatening to overshadow his stellar performances. He explained that it was in dedication to a friend ‘Chino’ Saldavia and was not malicious but did highlight his naivety, especially given that the tournament was being played in South Korea. A steep learning curve for a young man yet to turn 20 and a moment he will no doubt learn from.
If his loan spell at Deportivo la Coruña goes as expected then Valverde could well be the name on everyone’s lips next summer. There aren’t many places harder to break into than Real Madrid, especially in its current all-conquering guise, but it looks as if he is being groomed as a potential long term replacement to Toni Kroos. There will be plenty of competition from some of the club’s other young prospects likes Ceballos and Llorente, plus the constant threat of a world-class player being bought, but the competition should drive him on.
At international level, Uruguay know they have a diamond on their hands and his latest call up is an indication of how they already want to integrate him into the setup. Under the guidance of Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay have been very good at nurturing players for the national team and Valverde has been part of the youth set up for a while, playing at every age level since the U15s. It wouldn’t even be the biggest surprise if he snuck into the team for the World Cup if he has a good season at Depor. Either way, Valverde looks like he’ll become a mainstay for the Charruas for some time.
He may not have come with a huge price-tag like Vinicius Junior but Valverde could well end up representing much better value for money than the Brazilian in the long term. The sky really is the limit for the little bird from Montevideo.