The Argentinian relegation system, with its three year average to determine the drop, was designed to maintain the status quo and keep the big clubs safe if they suffered a blip. However, both River and Independiente have proven that it’s possible for even the Grandes to fall foul of the very thing in place to protect them. The danger of relying on previous strong seasons can come back to bite even the biggest.
One established team now looking over their shoulder is Velez Sarsfield. Under the stewardship of current Peru boss Ricardo Gareca Velez experienced a successful four year spell which brought four league titles and some impressive continental campaigns. Since then the Fortineros have been caught in a transitional flux, cutting costs by selling their best players and putting faith in their excellent youth academy.
But throwing too many youngsters in at the deep end all at once has failed to strike a balance between experience and promise. As a result, Velez have slipped from being regular title contenders and after several poor campaigns the club now find themselves perilously close to the bottom of the promedio three-year average table.
Fortunately for Velez a particularly good batch of youngsters is emerging at the right time. Hot shot striker Maxi Romero is the most well-known and has been linked to Arsenal and Liverpool, while defensive midfielder Santiago Caseres has been a revelation this season. But at the centre of it all pulling the strings is 20-year-old playmaker Matias Vargas.
Born in Salta, Vargas’ father, Omar Francisco, was a professional footballer and Matias seems to have inherited his ability on the pitch. Vargas junior moved to Velez as a 13-year-old, working his way through the age categories before making his debut against Colon in August 2015. That year he was awarded the prize of best youth player at the club.
Nicknamed El Monito (the little monkey) – another nod to his father, el Mono Vargas – Matias had to wait until November 2016 to make his first start. Nevertheless, he took his opportunity with a fantastic debut goal against Defensa y Justicia and went on to play 16 times and scoring another three goals in what was to be a breakthrough season.
An ever present for Velez this campaign, could Vargas be the man to orchestrate an upturn in fortune for the Liniers based outfit? We take a look at some of the defining characteristics of his playing style.
Vargas tends to play on the left-hand side of midfield but his long term future surely lies more centrally as a traditional number 10. Argentina has a rich history in these playmakers and Vargas has a wonderful eye for a pass to unlock a defence just like some of the famous enganches before him.
Whether cutting in from the flank or popping up in the hole behind the strikers, Vargas can play an eye-of-the-needle through ball to open up the tightest of defences. In particular he seems to have forged a great understanding with Maxi Romero, laying on two assists for the 18-year-old forward this season.
This season Vargas’ key passes have increased to 1.9 per game, putting him in the top 20 for the Superliga. Not bad considering that he is playing in a struggling team and it suggests that Velez’s league position owes more to profligacy than to a lack of ammunition.
Vargas also has a good all-round range of passing and likes to spray long raking balls off his favoured right boot. Given that he is often played on the left wing, Vargas can also cut inside and deliver a decent cross, as displayed by his excellent first assist against Tigre on the opening day of the season.
With his combination of versatile passing, excellent vision and creative instinct, Vargas is able to orchestrate the midfield and is equally adept at launch attacks from deep as he is putting the final flourishes at the end of the move.
DRIBBLING & SKILL
As well as his array of passing, the diminutive Vargas has all the dribbling and fancy feet you come to expect from a typical Argentinian attacking midfielder. His low centre of gravity, burst of acceleration and surprising robustness make him difficult to dispossess when in possession, while he also boasts the invention and impish nature befitting of his nickname.
Despite his small stature, Vargas protects the ball well, getting his body between ball and man and can just easily produce a flick or trick to wriggle out of danger before scampering away down the flank. It makes him very difficult to defend against because you either risk committing a foul if you get to tight or leaving too much space for him to dribble past you.
Rather than simply being a creator, Vargas is not afraid to break the lines and get himself into scoring positions. His well-taken golazos against Defensa y Justicia and Atletico Tucuman showed that he has end product to his excellent dribbling and he displayed his composure and technique against Newell’s with a calmly curled effort after a neat one-two.
Vargas also is capable of a good strike from range and, although his overreliance on his right foot might make him somewhat predictable, his drive and willingness to try his luck will serve Velez well as they look to add more goals.
While the vultures may already be circling for Romero and Caseres, Velez will hope they are able to hang on to Vargas a little longer. In July he extended his contract until 2020 but a buyout clause of around $6million may not be quite enough to see off potential suitors.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see one of the bigger clubs in Argentina make a move for Vargas in the next 12 months and he could be a potential bargain for a smart European club. Even somewhere like MLS could be a good fit, as the likes of Hector Villalba, Miguel Almiron and Yamil Asad have shown at Atlanta United. Argentinian playmakers have traditionally done well there and it may be an increasingly used stepping stone route for South American talent before moving to Europe.
In the meantime, Vargas is able to get plenty of game time at Velez and has a pivotal role in the team as they look to climb up the table. The mounting pressure of a prolonged relegation battle may not be the best environment for a creative midfielder to develop and flourish but, with Vargas in the side, things will immediately look brighter for Velez fans. It will be fascinating to see what the next few years hold for one of the most watchable young talents currently in the Superliga.