Julián Álvarez


Will Savage

January 1, 2022

River Plate's Julian Alvarez

February 17, 2022 update: After much conjecture over where he would end up, after links to a host of Europe’s biggest clubs in recent months, including Barcelona and Inter, it was Manchester City who swooped in this January to sign the Julián Álvarez on a five-year deal. 

He is expected to head to the Etihad Stadium at the end of the season, after City agreed a €17 million fee (plus various add-ons and bonuses) with River Plate. Álvarez also earned his first national team caps last year. 

First, in a World Cup qualifier against Chile in June, before then featuring in Argentina’s trophy-winning Copa America last summer alongside a certain Lionel Messi.

Who is Julián Álvarez?

This detailed profile of Julián Álvarez was first published on our Patreon in Febuary of 2021. Sign up now to get a load of exclusive analysis, from long-form pieces to weekly podcasts.

No self respecting profile of River Plate’s young centre-forward, Julián Álvarez, would be complete without mentioning his brief time at Real Madrid. Hailing from Calchín, he grew up playing for Atlético Calchín, predictably. 

As far back as his preteen days, he was going on trial at big clubs, not least Real Madrid, where he impressed in youth team tournaments in Spain with his goalscoring exploits. However, international transfers at such a young age are complicated at the best of times, with the need for a player’s family to make the move too.

Álvarez stayed in Calchín until he was in his mid teens, trialling at Argentina’s biggest clubs throughout. He joined River Plate, despite a brief spell with fierce rivals, Boca Juniors. He spent a couple of years at the club before first appearing in the first team in 2018. At this point, the hype around Julián Álvarez began to grow.
Initially, Álvarez found regular minutes in the team hard to come by. He’s an intelligent attacker, but River Plate are one of the few clubs in Argentina at which being a talented footballer isn’t enough to automatically get in the team. 
At first, Álvarez found himself coming on late in games, or when Marcello Gallardo found himself rotating to keep his higher profile attackers fit for continental competitions. Álvarez found his match time increasing in 2019, although concerns began to develop in some quarters that he wasn’t the starlet some had such high hopes for.
In 2020, however, the story changed. The youngster exploded back onto the scene after football resumed from its pandemic paused, hitting the headlines while scoring four goals in the final three games of River Plate’s Copa Libertadores group stage. While he’s still not a guaranteed starter in every game, has certainly begun to attract the footballing world’s attention, with the young attacker only having just turned twenty-one (quite literally, on the day this was written).
River Plate's Julian Alvarez

Julián Álvarez's style of play

So, the question is: is he the real deal? Let’s address the goals first. Is he going to score goals at the rate he’s currently scoring? No. In the Libertadores group stage win over Binacional, he scored one goal from his one shot on target; in the win over São Paulo, he scored two goals from two shots on target in the win over LDU. Quito.

I think you get the idea. Don’t get me wrong, he’s good, but as a general rule, a prolific spell of goalscoring for a young player (or any player) should be taken with a pinch of salt, at least until it takes place over a larger sample size. Most players don’t score with every shot they get on target.

Looking past the goalscoring hype, what does he actually do? Well, a lot. He’s an intelligent forward who likes to get into the gap between the midfield and the defence. So far in his River career, he has played mostly from the right, because that’s where the opportunities have come, but I imagine his future, at River Plate and beyond, would be in a central role.

He tends to move around the pitch looking for space to receive from deeper, whether that involves drifting deep from the defence, or coming inside from a wider position. A lot of his time is spent in the right half space, alternating between dropping deeper to receive the ball, and moving up to spin into the channel inside of the left back.

In his current role, he tends to try and cut inside when he receives the ball in a wide position, rather than beating his man and putting in a cross. He has a proclivity for moving towards the corner of the penalty area and drilling a cross into the area for a teammate, or for moving further in field.

As with all promising footballers, what sets Álvarez apart is his intelligence. His understanding of where to move seems innate, rather than learnt. He typically looks to receive on the half turn from deep, either to attract opponents and pop the ball back to a teammate, or to take the ball and move towards the defence, looking for a teammate to link up with.

His decision making when picking a pass is usually good. While he looks to force the issue and play a teammate in on goal when he can, he’s responsible with the ball when closer to his own goal, picking and choosing his moments to play riskier passes.

When he is in wider positions, he often favours a lofted ball. This can be a ball into the penalty area, often towards the far post, or it can be deeper, to switch play to a teammate in the opposite halfspace.

All that being said, Álvarez is not an out-and-out playmaker, when the ball is on the far side of the pitch, he doesn’t need much encouragement to make a run towards goal. He does find himself in central positions, he often roams vertically, to try and drag markers out of position, even moving to the left side of the pitch to free space for someone else.

His runs into the hole from the last line of defence usually open up space for a runner to attack, and he often looks to receive the ball and lift a ball into that space himself. He’s happy to run with the ball too, when space opens up ahead of him.

"He’s an intelligent forward who likes to get into the gap between the midfield and the defence. He tends to move around the pitch looking for space to receive from deeper, whether that involves drifting deep from the defence, or coming inside from a wider position."

His movement is most dangerous on transitions too. He understands the importance of stretching a backpedalling defence and isolating defenders, usually making diagonal runs whenever he can to open up the pitch for the ball carrier and give him an angle to attack the goal from a wider position.

As mentioned above, his ability to drive into space with the ball and leave opponents for dead is ideally suited to a transition game. That being said, his touch can be loose at times, and his control needs work if he’s going to transition to a league where receiving the ball in tight spaces is more common, and time to control it is not.

When he finds himself in a one on one duel, he’s more likely to use his body to try and take the opponent out of the equation, whether that’s knocking it into space and using his pace to get past his man, or trying to create separation through a drop of the shoulder of a swivel of his hips.

Álvarez is comfortable taking a shot from outside the area, if there isn’t a team-mate to supply and he works his way into a pocket of space, although he doesn’t often take shots from much further away. He’s adept at opening up his body and aiming to curl the ball in at the far post, or the near. 

When he’s in less space, and has to wriggle away from challenges before shooting, he has a tendency to strike the ball with his laces that drag his shots wide, but that’s a minor technical thing to work on.

Álvarez is a hard worker defensively, happy to track back when the ball is turned over. That being said, as one might expect from a young wide forward cum midfielder, his defensive awareness during prolonged periods of opponent possession may be found lacking. He certainly has the athleticism and the work rate to be a willing presser.

While I wouldn’t go as far as describing Álvarez as two-footed, he’s certainly comfortable using either foot, an obvious advantage for a player that looks to roam across the width of the pitch and received from different angles. He’s comfortable enough to try and play difficult passes on either foot, and shoots on whichever foot better suits the situation too.

Forecasting Julián Álvarez's future

Rumours continue to swirl around the future of the River Plate coach, with Marcelo Gallardo regularly linked with a move to Europe, given his impressive period of sustained (cup) success at the club, but with Álvarez beginning to become a more regular presence in the side, what he really needs is more consistency and regularity at the Argentine club. 

While he’s just turned twenty one, he’s still only just cementing his position as a regular starter. Given how hard he has worked to get this far, the best thing Álvarez could do right now is carry on carving out a role for himself at River Plate.

Julián Álvarez is a high volume goalscorer with great footballing intelligence.

Álvarez needs to work on his ability to shoot off the dribble: he often lashes wide when shooting with his laces.

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