The Uruguay midfield is going through a drastic renovation. Thanks to a new generation of technically-gifted young players, a more aesthetically pleasing style is displacing the traditional blood and thunder approach. U20 graduates Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde have been fast-tracked into the senior team, while Giorgian de Arrascaeta has been handed a bigger creative role, and the calls for Sampdoria revelation Lucas Torreira are getting harder and harder to ignore.
But perhaps the most unsung of the new guard is Boca Juniors versatile midfielder Nahitan Nandez.
Despite being only 22, it feels like he’s been around for ages already. Nandez made his debut for Penarol in 2014, replacing club legend and captain Antonio Pacheco in a game against Danubio. He went on to start the next four games and was praised for his mature performances by manager Jorge Fossati.
While Nandez found himself gently eased in at club level, he would announce himself to a wider audience as captain of the Uruguay U20s at the 2015 Sudamericano. Forming a wonderfully balanced partnership with Mauro Arambarri in the centre of the park, his energy, dynamism and leadership provided the platform for the attacking talents of Gaston Pereiro, Franco Acosta and Rodrigo Amaral to flourish.
Following more lion-hearted displays at the U20 World Cup – in which Uruguay were unlucky to go out on penalties in the Round of 16 to eventual runners-up Brazil – Nandez began to see more game time for Penarol. In his first season as a regular starter, Nandez made 28 appearances as los Carboneros won their first league title in three years.
At the start of 2017 Nandez became the club’s youngest captain at 21 years and 39 days and, in what would be his final season for the Manyas, led by example by scoring a career best seven goals. Boca Juniors swooped in the summer and Nandez has quickly become a fan’s favourite thanks to his all-action displays and, especially, his winner in the Superclasico against River.
A regular fixture of the Uruguay squad over the six months and likely to make Oscar Tabarez’s final World Cup squad, we analyse why Nandez could be a breakout name this summer in Russia.
As the make-up of the Uruguayan midfield shifts, Nandez provides something of a link back to the tenacious Charrua warriors of old. Nandez is fierce in the tackle, averaging 3 successful challenges a game for Boca this season, and covers plenty of ground as he relentlessly charges around. For a midfielder of his ilk he inevitably picks up a few cards but, as his discipline has improved, his number of cautions has dropped too.
This ball-winning ability means he is a perfect fit for a withdrawn midfield role, usually in a double pivot. His excellent positioning means he can patrol the space in front of the back four, snapping into tackles when necessary or intercepting attempted through balls.
The example above shows him in that role for the Uruguay U20s where he and Arambarri would drop deep without the ball and squeeze the space between defence and midfield, making Uruguay very compact and hard to play through. With the ball they would usually take it in turns to burst forward, both having the energy and discipline to know when to sit and when to go.
Nandez’s pace, energy and determination also mean that, when the ball gets played in behind him, his recovery runs and challenges can get him out of trouble and add another element to his impressive ball-winning repertoire.
Rather than simply a deep-lying midfielder, Nandez’s mobility and aggression means he can operate higher up the field in a midfield three and he excels at pressing opponents. His decision-making of when to press is very sound and he then has the acceleration and tackling ability to win the ball and quickly transition from defence into attack closer to the opposition’s goal.
Given the traditional style of play at Boca, Nandez is at a club where his never-say-die attitude will perfectly compliment the club’s hard-working identity, while for Uruguay he embodies the garra and sacrifice that we’ve come to expect from the overachieving nation.
While the defensive side to Nandez game is very impressive, it would be wrong to define him as simply a destroyer. Having begun his career as an enganche, Nandez has great technique, a good range of passing and can affect the game in the final third. This makes him a very versatile and dynamic option who can just as easily play as a shuttling, box-to-box midfielder or, as has often been the case for Uruguay, as a tucked-in narrow right winger as an alternative to Carlos Sanchez.
With his deceptive pace and tidy footwork, Nandez can carry the ball forward or break the lines with surging runs to arrive late in the box a la Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard. Below we see a couple of examples of this in action.
One of the areas of his game that Nandez has improved is his goalscoring. He always had a good shot from distance but in his final season at Penarol and since joining Boca he has increasingly found himself on the scoresheet. Good technique means he strikes the ball well off either foot and is surprisingly calm in front of goal too.
As you’d expect from an international midfielder, Nandez possesses decent passing, over both short and long range. Though he tends to keep it simple and recycle possession, he is capable of the occasional more adventurous ball thanks to his time as an attacking midfielder in his youth. Furthermore, having spent time out on the wing, Nandez also delivers a mean cross from the right
Admittedly, his pass percentage could be higher (currently 78% this season for Boca) and is variety of passing could still improve but it nevertheless remains a solid aspect of his game.
ATTITUDE & LEADERSHIP
As alluded to throughout this analysis, one of Nandez’s best attributes is his influential personality. A born leader who gives his all for the shirt, it’s no surprise that he has already captained the Uruguay U20s and Penarol and it wouldn’t be surprised to see him wear the armband for Boca and the senior national team in the future. His passionate, hard-working displays also mean that he usually wins over fans pretty quickly as well as his fellow teammates.
Having said that, Nandez must make sure his full-blooded approach doesn’t spill over in the heat of the battle. This was also seen off the field recently when he got into a fight in his hometown of Punta del Este during an altercation in a bar. Nevertheless, these seem to be minor blots on his copybook and generally speaking his combativeness, when channelled correctly, is a plus.
Nandez is currently part of a very good Boca side that will challenge for domestic and continental honours and should provide the Uruguayan with both playing time and give him more visibility. He has made a bright start to his career across the Rio de la Plata and it’ll only be a matter of time before offers from Europe come.
Fiorentina and Valencia are two of the clubs who have been linked but his style of play means he could just as easily slot into any European top-flight league. The fact he has an Italian passport means there would be no work permit complications but a new $25m release clause in his contract means Boca would likely make a hefty profit on the $4m they spent on him.
At international level, it also promises to be a big year for Nandez, with a place in Tabarez’s squad looking ever more likely. Given the kind draw handed to Uruguay, the onus may well be on them to take the game to the opposition for once and their new-look midfield may be better equipped to execute this than in years gone by. In light of this, Nandez’s versatility, good form and strong personality will make him a useful addition to the Uruguay squad, even if he isn’t a guaranteed starter, and he could well go on to be a regular for the Charruas for years to come.