On a sunny afternoon in late February 2016, I was sat on the concrete terrace of the Estadio Jardines del Hipodromo in northern Montevideo ready to take in Danubio versus El Tanque Sisley. With the hosts down 3-1 and time ticking away, coach Luis Gonzalez threw on a 17-year-old striker by the name of Joaquin Ardaiz, making only his second sub appearance after his debut against Cerro the week before.
His impact was instant. First a subtle reverse pass to set up an opportunity, then he was involved as Danubio reduced the deficit to 3-2, before appearing in the fourth minute of injury time to power a downward header into the goal and rescue a point in dramatic fashion for la Franja. Not a bad way to open your account.
Hailing from the north-western border town of Salto, birthplace of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, Ardaiz moved to the capital aged 13 and joined the Danubio set-up. He progressed through the youth ranks, scoring 25 goals for the U16s and winning the U17 national title, before breaking into the first team last year.
Danubio have become synonymous with bringing through numerous prospects such as Alvaro Recoba, the aforementioned Cavani and Jose Gimenez, giving their young charges opportunities from an early age. Still only 18, Ardaiz has already made 25 appearances, mostly as a sub, and has scored four goals at the time of writing.
Ardaiz was also called up to the Uruguay U20 squad that recently won the Sudamericano, their first title at that level since 1981. Although Nicolas Schiappacasse was Fabian Coito’s first choice centre forward, Ardaiz still managed to take his opportunities, most notably in the title decider against Ecuador in which he netted a well-taken brace to ensure the young Charruas claimed top spot and a place at the U20 World Cup in South Korea.
What immediately stands out when you watch Ardaiz is his physical presence. Six foot tall and with a muscular frame that belies his tender age, Ardaiz is certainly not your typical diminutive South American forward. Throw in his various tattoos, including the distinctive bird on his throat that has earned him the nickname ‘el Pajaro’, and the powerful striker cuts an imposing figure up front.
Ardaiz combines strength, aerial ability and hammer of a left foot with a good technical ability, mobility and skillset to make him a potent all-round attacking threat. Here we take a look at his key qualities in more detail…
Unsurprisingly one of Ardaiz’s main weapons in his artillery is his fine aerial ability, thanks in no part to his aforementioned stature. His height gives him an advantage over many of his opponents in the Uruguayan Primera and is complimented by his strength to hold off his marker and jostle for position without being bullied, as well as being an obvious target for crosses and set pieces.
As the video below shows, this allows him to be a focal point of the attack, able to win flick-ons, act as a target man to retain possession further up the pitch for his team and even fashion chances for himself.
However, he must keep developing this side of his game as the effectiveness of his current physical advantage will be diminished somewhat when he comes up against opposition of a higher calibre.
Despite Ardaiz’s aerial prowess, he is far from being merely a big man to lump long balls up to. Equally adept with the ball at his feet and the owner of a powerful left foot, Ardaiz is capable of scoring all kinds of goals and has the pace and movement which allows him to run in behind defences too.
The clips below demonstrate some of his different qualities. For example, his first against Ecuador show his penalty box instinct and reading of the game to seize upon a defensive error and poke the ball home. The second is a clever run coming from an offside position and, with the defender unsighted, bending his run to present himself with a one-on-one which he duly finishes past the keeper.
Furthermore, Ardaiz also shows a willingness to unleash his potent left foot, such as his deflected winner against Penarol and his shot from distance versus Bolivia.
However, the last two clips highlight some areas which Ardaiz could improve upon. On occasion, his decision-making in the final third can be lacking, as shown by the penultimate clip when he escapes down the lefts and shoots rather than square to an onrushing teammate. Another tendency his overreliance on his left foot, as shown by the final clip in which he sees his attempt blocked after initially doing well to drive forward into a dangerous position.
Ardaiz’s goal to games ratio may not jump off the page but it is worth bearing in mind that most of his club appearances have come in the form of brief substitute cameos. The raw edges still exist but Ardaiz has shown plenty of promise with the ball at his feet as well as his ability in the air.
LINK UP PLAY
Ardaiz may be your typical centre forward but he actually started out as a number 10 and as such has retained the ability to drop deep and use his good technique to bring others into the game, as well as finish off moves himself. His strength allows him to hold up play with his back to goal and lay the ball off to teammates or just as easily spin past a defender should they get too tight.
This is typified by his goal against Rampla Juniors, where he drops deep to the half-way line and outmuscles his opponent to hook a loose ball wide, before motoring into the space behind his erstwhile marker to collect the return pass and finish smartly beyond the onrushing keeper.
For all his power and force, there is a touch of class about him, whether it be through some neat footwork, a deft touch or an incisive through-ball. More than purely an out-and-out goalscorer, Ardaiz possesses the qualities to be well-rounded forward who can provide as well as finish.
AREAS TO IMPROVE
As well as the previously mentioned one-footedness, Ardaiz also has a tendency to see his physical playing style cross the line into overzealous aggression. Although having a bit of the devil in him – a la Diego Costa – is something that can be moulded into a positive, he still can be a bit rash in needless situations. Hopefully this is something that he will learn with age.
Ardaiz has the traits to become a top level centre forward, already possessing the makings of a well-rounded game for a player who has recently turned 18. This hasn’t gone unnoticed and Ardaiz has already been snapped up by an English investment company who have parked him at El Tanque Sisley and loaned him back to Danubio. The fee is rumoured to be the second highest received in the club’s history.
A move to Europe now seems inevitable and the likes of Tottenham, Sampdoria and Chelsea have been suggested as potential destinations, while Liverpool and Porto have retained long term interest. First though, we should get to see Ardaiz in action at the U20 World Cup in May as part of a talented Uruguay squad that has realistic title ambitions.