While the standard of the Argentine Primera Division is not what it once was, the league continues to be the source of superb talents. Bayer Leverkusen’s Exequiel Palacios, Tottenham Hotspur’s Cristian Romero, and perhaps most prominently Lautaro Martinez of Inter Milan are recent instances where players from Argentinian clubs have thrived in Europe’s top five leagues. 21-year-old River Plate striker Julian Alvarez has become the next standout player from the country to attract major interest from top European teams.
Under the superb Marcelo Gallardo — arguably the best head coach outside of Europe — Alvarez has predominantly been used as part of a front pairing in a 4-4-2 diamond shape. A disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, Gallardo has coached River to be an high-pressing, possession-based team.
Their narrow formation facilitates quick combinations of passing through the centre, with the goal of feeding the front two with through-balls rather than crosses from wide. Out of possession, the two forwards press the opposition center-halves while supported from the midfield behind. It’s a highly intense, technical, and tactically nuanced style of play which requires extreme acumen and quality from River’s players.
With 20 goals and 12 assists in his 35 appearances his season, it’s clear that Alvarez meets the demands of Gallardo’s system and has thrived within it. The most striking element of his play is the range of goals he can score. Left foot, right foot, outside the area, volleys — Alvarez can pose as a goal threat from a variety of scenarios.
That’s a testament to his supreme technical ability. His first touch is incredibly composed and always intentional, with Alvarez capable of both killing a ball dead or nudging it away from a defender and into his own path.
He’s also capable of finishing in different ways depending on the situation, hitting across or through the ball to different degrees depending on where he’s shooting from. Finally, Alvarez’s strike is incredibly powerful. Between these aspects of his skillset, combined with his comfort shooting with either foot, he can score from just about anywhere in and around the 18-yard box.
Most of his goals come from running onto through balls or driven crosses, a product of River’s style. At times, this means he has to finish first-time and instinctively as a ball is played across, while at other times, he can be released into a one-on-one with a keeper and needs more composure to finish a chance. Alvarez has been prolific in both scenarios.
Beyond his goal-scoring, Alvarez doesn’t involve himself much in build-up play. Instead, he tends to peel wide into the right inside channel to create chances for other players in the final third. His crossing is quite good, both in his proclivity for choosing to release crosses along the ground and closer to the penalty area — in other words, where they’re easier for his teammates to dispatch.
While not a particularly skillful dribbler, Alvarez is a powerful runner. His slightly hunched running style allows him to barrel through challenges and protect the ball effectively, and there’s a tenacity and doggedness to his carrying that makes him difficult to stop.
While he is an exceptional finisher when running onto chances — be it a driven cross or a through-ball — Alavrez isn’t as much of a threat when he does not have space to run into. He is lively in the box, but his movement and presence in the box isn’t always what it needs to be to fashion scoring opportunities against a compact, settled backline. At just 5’7”, Alvarez isn’t a significant aerial threat, accentuating his difficulty in such scenarios.
This is partly a product of the team he plays for: River Plate are so effective at creating havoc in opposition defenses through their rapid passing and counter-pressing that Alvarez does not often find himself in situations where there is a lack of space to run-into. It’s also a consequence of the rest of the Argentinian League not being of a particularly high standard compared to River, meaning their defenses are easier for them to create gaps him.
He also does show good instincts and reactions when keepers spill shots or defenders make mistakes in their own box. However, Alavrez is still developing his ability to finish in tight areas where his movement is the critical component to converting a chance rather than his pace and finishing ability.
After his prolific campaign for River Plate, it’s reasonable that European clubs are weighing up a move for Alvarez. Fiorentina have reportedly looked at him as a potential replacement for Dusan Vlahovic, though that would require a significant shift in the Italian side’s attack given that Alvarez is a very different type of forward.
Manchester United have also been heavily linked, with Ralf Ragnick allegedly interested in the striker even when he was in a director role at Lokomotiv Moscow. Yet, for the Argentine to make such a high-profile move — that too to a chaotic United side where Cristiano Ronaldo will always be first-choice — probably wouldn’t be the best move to him.
Despite his obvious talent, it may be best for Alvarez to continue developing under Gallardo’s tutelage. His range of abilities as a forward, such as his link-play or movement in a congested penalty area, could use work before he makes the move to a European team.
He’s also used to playing in a two-striker system in a team with an extremely settled style of play. Such conditions will likely not be present to him in Europe, and so he’ll benefit as a player to remain in this environment that has been so conducive to his growth thus far.
Julian Alvarez is almost certainly destined for a great career in European football. However, at just 21-years-old and in an ideal place for his development, it may make more sense for the striker to remain at River Plate before unleashing his talent under the global spotlight.