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As Aprils go, Juventus have enjoyed a pretty damn good one. In this month alone, they secured passage to the Coppa Italia final by overcoming Napoli over two legs, pulled further clear at the top of Serie A thanks to some convincing clean-sheet victories and held Barcelona scoreless for 180 minutes on the path to the Champions League semi-finals. That’s not bad, when you think about it.
Things got even better last weekend, as the club confirmed the permanent signing of Boca Juniors midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, 19, for a measly £8 million. He’ll join up in the summer for pre-season training after being monitored closely over the last two years.
The Turin giants secured first option on Bentancur back in 2015 when they sold Carlos Tevez to Boca Juniors on the cheap. They also negotiated first option on two others—Andres Cubas and Franco Cristaldo—according to FourFourTwo, but have seemingly opted against activating those.
Bentancur is the one they see as worthy, and although he’ll need attentive, close coaching to reach the level required to breach Juve’s first-team, his raw tools make him worth the time invested.
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4/21/2017, 5:24:20 PM
Back in 2015, when Bentancur started featuring in Boca’s first-team squad, he was utilised as the deepest midfielder in a three. One of his first full games, a 2-0 win over Huracan, saw him play as the controlling, holding presence in a possession-happy team. He racked up touches and passes completed, moving the ball cleanly, if a little unambitiously, and stamped out some early nerves to put together a strong game.
But as effective as he was, it was clear that role restricted his potential. Fast-forward a few months and he’s playing higher up—this time as the left-central-midfielder (No. 8) in a diamond shape—utilising his physicality and rare somatotype in a gritty 1-0 win over River Plate. They used him as a midfield target man to play longer balls to and relied on his strength and height to win 50-50s and aerial duels in a scrappy centre.
This was where Bentancur started to gain traction in the side, and before long, he was an automatic pick in midfield. Andres Cubas slotted into the deepest role and proved a more accomplished, neat recycler of the ball, allowing his Uruguayan colleague to stretch his legs and play more of a box-to-box role. From here, he displayed traits that Juventus, among others, fell in love with.
At 6’1″, Bentancur’s frame is not an oft-seen one in midfield. From a purely physical perspective, he’s that Nemanja Matic or Marko Grujic type player: tall and powerful, but also sleek and graceful when moving across the turf. He sweeps around the pitch in circles off the ball, changing direction and accelerating through the gears in a way that belies his size.
That, immediately, is a point of intrigue to scouts: players who move this gracefully at this size are rare. So long as they have the requisite technique, touch and awareness to go with it, these are the kind of players who managers become convinced they can coach to greatness. Bentancur is one of these.
On occasion, he shows the kind of burst that can wreck an opposition marking structure. That sleek power and long stride allows him to sear upfield with the ball at his feet, brushing aside markers as he bores holes into defences. He doesn’t do it that often, but it’s a marauding quality that can change games if harnessed correctly.
So long as he’s confident, his passing is one of the best features of his game. First-time passes help inject rhythm into a team’s game, and Bentancur gets it out of his feet fast. His range is good, and he’s able to accurately measure balls into space for channel-runners to chase. Boca’s diamond shape unlocked his best here, as he always has two to aim at—and for a while one was the brilliant Carlos Tevez.
Off the ball, he’s not particularly aggressive; he tracks runners well but opts for a more standoffish way of closing down, pinning opponents in but rarely lunging for the ball. It means his tackling statistics aren’t as gaudy as you’d expect from a box-to-box midfielder, but it doesn’t work against him, as the film shows a committed defender who does what is required.
Boca have used him in a variety of positions over the last two years. He’s clearly a No. 8, but he has filled in as the No. 6, pushed on at times to play in the No. 10 space and has even played as the widest midfielder when required. That sort of versatility can be both a blessing and a curse; it makes you valuable in a number of ways but can harm your development in an optimal position.
Bentancur’s biggest issue is his production (or lack of it) at either end of the pitch. Literally from box to box he’s an impactful player, but he has never contributed greatly beyond them. He has one Boca Juniors goal to his name—a thumping finish against Newell’s Old Boys in 2016, to his credit—from just shy of 50 senior appearances for the club.
In January, he netted a beauty from outside the box for Uruguay’s under-20s, but you simply can’t count on him to do that. Nor can you really count on him to provide assists—he only has three so far this season despite playing in all but three of Boca’s league games. They’re top of the league and have scored the most in the division (45); it’s not as if the opportunities are sparing.
That brings us back to what is essentially the core factor in this transfer: coaching is key to him flourishing. He has the size, the ability and the versatility to be a true success in Europe—a midfield powerhouse in the mould of Matic—and provide a welcome refresh to Uruguay’s ageing midfield. But Massimiliano Allegri must see him as a development project that could take two years to deliver a return.
All statistics via WhoScored.com