Arguably the most impressive young player in the Argentinian Primera over the last 12 months, defensive midfielder Santiago Ascacibar has quickly become a pivotal figure at the base of the Estudiantes midfield. A tenacious, tough-tackling pitbull, he has drawn inevitable comparisons with Javier Mascherano and is inevitably already being touted as his long term heir.
Born in La Plata, Ascacibar joined his hometown club as a nine-year-old and quickly established himself as a hard-working and invaluable member of his age group. By 2015, he had cemented his place in the reserves and was named the best player of the Frenz International Cup that same year.
The departure of prospect Gaston Gil Romero – something of a surprise at the time – opened the door for Ascacibar and he was promoted to the first team at the start of 2016. Impressive performances at the pre-season Torneo de Verano saw him handed his professional debut against Lanus on the opening day of the season.
Ascacibar would go on to be the revelation of the Torneo Transicion with his all-action displays as Estudiantes finished as runners up in Group B. Still only 19, he was called up to the Argentina squad for the Olympics and was one of the few players to emerge with his reputation enhanced despite the Albiceleste’s shambolic performance.
Known as El Ruso (The Russian) for his blonde hair and pale complexion, Ascacibar continued his fine form into the second half of 2016 as Estudiantes began the season in fine form. Indeed, their 10-game unbeaten run came to an end in the first game that Ascacibar was missing from the starting line-up – surely no coincidence.
Although the number 10 shirt will always be the most iconic in Argentinian football, the number 5 is not far behind and Ascacibar has all the traits of former dogged warriors such as Pipo Rossi and Antonio Rattin. He lead by example as captain of the U20 Argentina side that showed plenty of guts and character to only just qualify for the upcoming U20 World Cup and a whole host of the European elite will be monitoring him in South Korea next month.
A hallmark of Ascacibar’s style of play is his tackling ability. During the Torneo Transicion he averaged the most tackles per game – a whopping 4.8 per game – and since February 2016 no player has won more tackles (138) than him in the Argentinian Primera.
The video below shows numerous examples of his fine tackling ability. His timing and execution are second to none and on various occasions you can see how his recovery pace allows him to track back and make crucial interventions.
Another notable aspect of Ascacibar’s tackling is how quickly he is back up on his feet once he has disposed the opposition. Not content at stopping his rival, he is quick and composed to be looking to transition from defence into attack.
However, Ascacibar does show a tendency to go to ground too easily and on occasion his aggressive lunges can occasionally overstep the line into recklessness. In the more lenient environs of Argentina he may be able to get away with some of these challenges but it’s an area of his game he will need to work on when the inevitable move to Europe comes.
Interceptions & defensive positioning
As much as Ascacibar excels in challenges and defensive duels, it’s not all about blood and thunder. His positioning and reading of the game also see him make a high number of interceptions as he marshals the space in front of his defence, while his pace and acceleration mean he can shut down space quickly and cover a larger area than lesser mobile midfielders of his ilk.
As the video below shows, his positional intelligence and recovery capabilities provide a fantastic defensive shield for his team. What’s more, we can see that Ascacibar is also adept and not only recovering possession but then has the composure to pick a pass or bring the ball forward to ensure a quick transition from defence to attack.
Having a look at some of the examples in more depth, we can see these skills in action. In the photo below, we see Ascacibar’s ability at reading the danger as he shuts down a potentially dangerous Brazilian counter-attack.
The ball has come back to the Brazilian midfielder, attracting the attention of up to three Argentinians and allowing him to chip the ball over them to take them out of the game. Ascacibar, in his role in front of the defence, is able to rush forward and intercept which, given the three Brazilian forwards behind him, turns out to be a crucial intervention and the danger is snuffed out calmly.
In the next example, we see his ability to cover and reading of the game. As the ball is cleared from the corner, Uruguay’s Facundo Waller draws the first Argentinian defender out before pushing the ball past him. Nevertheless, Ascacibar anticipates this and is able to incept the cross.
In the final example, we see Ascacibar as the deepest man in the defensive line. Dropping back to primarily cover the Peruvian on the far side who has stolen a march on the retreating Argentinian defender, he is also simultaneously able to cover the centre forward thanks to his positioning.
As the left winger slips the ball between the two Argentinian defenders to put the centre forward seeming clean through on goal, Ascacibar makes the decision to switch his attention to the more pressing danger and, thanks to his excellent recovery speed, is able to make up the head start the striker has on him to cut across and muscle him off the ball. It proved to be a crucial interception as 10-man Argentina went on to snatch a crucial last minute equaliser.
Though Ascacibar is primarily a defensively-minded player, it would be wrong to characterise him as purely a destroyer. He boasts a decent 84% average pass completion, transitions quickly from defence to attack and in general recycles possession well. True, he favours the simple short pass but he is capable of a greater variety of passing that he is often given credit for, as the video below demonstrates.
One area that Ascacibar could improve on is contributing more assists but given his deep-lying position and defensive remit it’s perhaps understandable that he rarely affects things in the final third. Nevertheless, the first two clips, both leading to goals against Colombia, show that the potential is there.
It will be hard for Estudiantes to keep hold of Ascacibar for too much longer given the attention he’s attracting and a good showing at the U20 World Cup next month could accelerate that process. Roma currently lead the list of suitors and see him as the perfect understudy to Daniele de Rossi but there is also interest from the likes of Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Fiorentina and Sassuolo.
In the meantime, Ascacibar will be able to gain invaluable experience from mentor and idol Juan Sebastian Veron and has even lined up alongside him after the 42-year-old player-president returned to the field for Estudiantes Copa Libertadores campaign.
Looking at the longer term picture, Ascacibar will hope to break into the national team but may have to battle it out for the number 5 shirt with the equally promising Matias Kranevitter. Russia 2018 might come a bit too earlier for El Ruso but Ascacibar has the energy, charisma and skillset to become the anchor of the Argentina midfield for years to come.