The U20 World Cup in South Korea is fast approaching and one of the favourites for the title will be Uruguay. The young Charruas booked their place by winning the Sudamericano in convincing fashion earlier in the year and have a star-studded squad containing the likes of Rodrigo Bentancur, Nicolas Schiappacasse, Joaquin Ardaiz and Rodrigo Amaral. What’s more, the addition of Real Madrid’s talented playmaker Federico Valverde has reinforced their title credentials further still.
However, arguably their stand out player during the Sudamericano was attacking midfielder Nicolas De La Cruz. The younger brother of Uruguay international Carlos Sanchez, De La Cruz scored three times and laid on three assists and was the most consistent threat going forward for his side as they claimed the country’s first Sudamericano title for 36 years.
Having impressed at each age category for club and country, De La Cruz made his debut for Liverpool de Montevideo in September 2015 and almost immediately become a regular starter for the Negriazules. The versatile midfielder also played a starring role in the club’s U20 Libertadores campaign, scoring four goals in five games as Liverpool finished as runners up, narrowly losing to Sao Paulo in the final.
Bolita, as he is nicknamed, took this goalscoring form into the next season, hitting another four goals in eleven games, and underlined his reputation as one of the most exciting young players in Uruguay. He has started this year in similar fashion and compatriot Luis Suarez is rumoured to be a big fan of the 19-year-old, apparently having urged Barcelona to snap him up.
So what is all the fuss about? Here we take a look at some of the key components of his game.
Shooting from distance
One of De La Cruz’s most notable strengths is his long range shooting. Opposition goalkeepers and defenders alike have to be on their toes when De La Cruz is 20-30 yards from goal as he is always looking to let fly from his powerful right boot whenever he has a yard of space. His goal against Argentina in the video below is a perfect example of this.
This shooting prowess from distance also makes him a threat from set pieces. While not quite on a level of someone like Juninho Pernambucano, De La Cruz can generate a lot of power and accuracy from far out and, even if he doesn’t score himself, often works the goalkeeper which gives teammates a chance to capitalise from the rebounds.
De La Cruz does tend to display an over-eagerness to shoot from range, sometimes choosing to shoot when there are better options available. His shooting from his left foot is not as strong so by showing him onto his weaker foot good defenders can neutralise the danger. It is a very potent weapon but one that he can still hone to be even more effective than it currently is.
De La Cruz is a versatile midfielder and his physical and technical attributes mean he can play a number of positions in midfield or further forward. For Uruguay U20 he tended to feature on the right of a front three in a 4-3-3 or on the right of three behind a central striker in a 4-2-3-1. However, he was at his most effective when operating as a number 10 in the central playmaker role, often once Rodrigo Amaral had been subbed off.
Skilful, inventive and dynamic, he is a very modern attacking midfielder who can pick a pass to unlock a defence or make a run beyond the striker. A strong character who doesn’t shirk responsibility, he likes to be as involved as much as possible and as such favours playing in the hole behind the strikers where he can dictate play.
For all his eye-catching goals, he is just effective as a creative influence, as shown by the fact he got three goals and three assists at the Sudamericano.
Crossing & Set Piece Deliveries
Football often throws up cases of nominative determinism and it is quite fitting that De La Cruz – which translates as ‘of the Cross’ – possesses excellent crossing skills.
Although at his most effective when dictating play from a central position, De La Cruz also has the pace and stamina to be an extremely effective winger or wide a forward, topped off by his ability to deliver a great cross. Usually found on the right wing to suit his stronger right foot, De La Cruz has also shown that he can float in a decent ball to the back stick with his less preferred left foot too.
We have previously seen that De La Cruz is a goal threat from set pieces but this element of his game means he is equally capable of whipping in a perfect ball from corners and free-kicks, making him an all-round dead ball expert.
De La Cruz has great pace in abundance and the skills to make him a very dangerous when he has the ball at his feet and is given space to run into. His lithe figure, neat footwork and exceptional balance mean that he can wriggle past players with ease and once past his man he has the gas to ensure he isn’t caught.
These attributes also make De La Cruz ideal for sides that like to counter-attack, providing them with an outlet who can carry the ball over long distances and break unorganised defensive lines. The first clip, his winner against Nacional, is a perfect example of this, as he collects the ball, beats one man, shows good strength to swivel past the next man and motor into the space, before playing a one-two and finishing with side-footed finish.
His searing pace and quick feet also mean he often wins fouls in dangerous areas, which of course then give him the extra opportunity to strike from range or provide a killer set piece delivery.
Pressing is vital aspect of modern football and teams that do this well know that the first line of defence begins with their attacking units. De La Cruz’s aforementioned acceleration and stamina make him perfect for this role and, being a leader within the team, he is often the man to initiate the press. His reading of the game is good which allows him to identify moments when the opposition is under pressure or doesn’t have the ball under control to steam in and disrupt them high up the pitch, as the video below shows.
Going into more detail, we can see in the example below against Venezuela the effectiveness of De La Cruz’s pressing in forcing mistakes from the opposition. Having won the initial header, the bouncing ball comes out to the Venezuelan right back. De La Cruz continues his run and puts pressure on the defender.
Although the Venezuelan holds off the De La Cruz, he is forced wide and panics, playing a hurried ball forward down the line and losing possession. The ball then immediately comes back into the penalty box and causes confusion between the defenders and the onrushing goalkeeper.
The chance ultimately comes to nothing but illustrates how De La Cruz’s initial pressing causes the Venezuelans to lose possession and present Uruguay with a goalscoring opportunity.
The example below against Bolivia shows De La Cruz’s good decision-making when it comes to pressing. The goalkeeper receives the ball and tries to kick long but drills it low straight towards the central midfielder. Sensing that the Bolivian player will struggle to control this poor pass, De La Cruz anticipates and moves to quickly close the opponent down, taking advantage of the loose ball and stealing possession.
In the final example, we see De La Cruz as the secondary line of the press, again displaying his anticipation and acceleration to steal possession. The Colombian goalkeeper roles the ball out to Carlos Cuesta – a talented, ball-playing centre back – who evades the onrushing Schiappacasse as he steps out of defence. Nevertheless, De La Cruz is aware to this and takes advantage to beat Cuesta to the ball, reacting quicker to the change of pace to nip the ball off his toes and then draw a foul.
Areas to improve
As well as the previously mentioned propensity to shoot at any given moment, De La Cruz’s small frame and lack of height means that inevitably his aerial ability needs to be worked on and he can often go down too easily in attacking duels.
Generally speaking De La Cruz’s mentality is good, he handles pressure well and learns from his errors. For example, in the Sudamericano he chipped a penalty panenka-style only to see it saved by Venezuela’s Wuilker Farinez. Nevertheless, he showed great determination and strength of character to take another penalty in the next game against Argentina, making no mistake the second time around.
Finally, there are the odd occasions when he can lose his temper, as shown by the headbutt on Claudio Rivero that went unpunished in the recent game against Defensor Sporting.
The U20 World Cup begins shortly and a good showing in South Korea could see his stock rise even further. Despite being among the favourites, Uruguay have been handed a tough draw alongside Italy and Japan but De La Cruz is confident of progressing; “We want to get through the group phase now and make our presence felt in the knockout phase.”
If De La Cruz can replicate the form he’s shown for club and country over the last 12 months, then Uruguay have a great chance of adding another chapter to their country’s storied footballing history, and we might be seeing him ply his trade in Europe sooner rather than later.