It’s not a secret anymore that Colombia produces its fair share of world-class footballers. Carlos Valderrama, Willington Ortiz, Freddy Rincon and most recently Radamel Falcao to name a few. All of which have rubber-stamped their talent on not only club history, but also on Colombia’s footballing history too.
After their Round of 16 2018 FIFA World Cup devastation in which they got knocked out by England on penalties, Los Cafeteros will be itching to prove a point and re-affirm their status as one of the world’s best footballing countries. However, their emergence of exciting homegrown talents still stays the same. This time it’s 21-year-old defender Carlos Cuesta. Without further ado, this tactical analysis will inform you of Cuesta’s talent and why he could become the heart of Colombia’s defence for years to come.
Standing at 5’10, Cuesta isn’t your typical physically imposing centre-back. He originally made his mark with Atlético Nacional, coming through the youth team ranks before making 61 appearances for the first team.
He then joined Belgian First Division A side Genk, making 28 appearances in all competitions this season, deputising in the UEFA Champions League in an impressive overall first campaign. Cuesta, who joined Genk, has also featured for Colombia at under-17 and under-20 level, with a senior first team-debut for his country potentially on the horizon.
Notoriously, Genk has an impressive record for developing players before releasing them to play for top sides across Europe. Thibaut Courtois, Kalidou Koulibaly, Wilfred Ndidi and Kevin De Bruyne come to mind, as well as last season’s star-man Leandro Trossard, who scored 14 goals in 34 matches before being sold to Premier League side Brighton for £15 million.
In this part of the analysis, we’re going to take a look at Cuesta’s role in a 4-3-3 system. Without the ball, Hannes Wolf usually sets up his side in a 4-3-3 that presses the opponent high, but often merge into a 4-2-4 if the opposition are building momentum with the ball by playing it at the back.
As you can see from the image above against Liverpool, Cuesta and Jhon Lucumí form the central partnership of a narrow formation when out of possession. The midfielders also operate as a four in an attempt to block any potential passing options and track Liverpool’s two explosive wing-backs in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson.
Genk’s centre-backs both have different roles when out of possession. One centre-back engages with the attempted shot, whereas Cuesta provides cover with Maehle also coming narrow to provide added protection. Notice Lucumí’s attempt to block the attempted shot compared to Cuesta’s role of staying tight to lone-striker Roberto Firmino.
Liverpool have scored 10 goals from counter-attacks this season, more than any other team in the Premier League. This image outlines a classic case of Genk being caught out on the counter-attack, something Wolf would have prepared his team to handle accordingly.
As you can see from the image detailed above, Joakim Maehle is caught out of position meaning Cuesta comes wide to cover the right-back and limit Sadio Mané’s attacking options.
Cuesta has averaged 11.46 recoveries per 90 minutes this season in the Belgian Pro League. As you can see from this image, Jere Uronen is out of position which Lucumí has to cover, whilst Cuesta stays central in anticipation of Mohammed Salah’s run.
The rotation of Liverpool’s attacking front three is difficult to defend against, but Cuesta’s inability to come tight to Salah in this situation leads to the visitors’ third goal. This is something the young defender must improve if he is to become one of the world’s best centre-backs.
Another attribute that makes Cuesta such a highly-regarded young defender is his ability to win defensive duels. The 21-year-old has averaged nine defensive duels with a 72.68% success rate this season for Racing this season, the fifth-highest in the Belgian Pro League.
As you can see here, Cuesta cleverly anticipates the loose ball and gets them ahead of his opponent. His defensive duels are mainly won due to his pace and strength, which adds further variability to why he is a unique Colombian defender.
The ever-present Genk defender has adapted well to the physicality’s of the Belgian Pro League, showing his pace and strength as aforementioned. He particularly impressed in Racing’s victory over K.V. Kortrijk, winning 17 defensive duels in one match and helping his side to a narrow 1-0 victory.
The Colombian’s positioning in the picture above shows why he mainly comes on top in a defensive duel, narrowing down the angle for a passing option before beating the attacker for pace and then clearing the ball.
As outlined, Cuesta’s positional sense stands him in a good position to win this duel. Genk started this game in a 5-4-1 formation, providing extra cover for the centre-backs. Cuesta narrows down the angle and puts in a tackle, not allowing room for Standard Liege inside the box. Cuesta’s athleticism in these passages of play ultimately wins him these defensive duels, despite being a yard behind the attacker on the first image.
Useful in transition
Not only good whilst defending when Genk are on the back foot, but Cuesta also has an eye for a pass in his armoury. The particular trait would be handy in transition from defence to attack, either to force a counter-attack or relieve pressure from the defenders.
When attacking against Liverpool in this instance, Racing’s game plan from the offset was to transition quickly from defence into attack by aiming to release Aly Samatta and Paul Onuachu in-behind the visitors’ high-line. Cuesta plays a vital part in this by timing his pass perfectly. When looking at the stats, the 21-year-old has averaged 9.64 progressive passes per 90 minutes this season.
In the offensive transitions, the Colombian’s technique and game-reading ability is vital for his team when they are under pressure. Not only does it help to relieve pressure and give Genk possession of the ball, but it can also complement the pace of Onuachu who is released in-behind the opposition defence.
Per statistics, the Colombian averaged a pass length of 19.84 metres per game this season. As previously mentioned in the scout report, he is very talented in terms of understanding the game and relieving pressure from himself in tight situations. Cuesta is under pressure from an opposition attacker in this instance but uses his long passing technique to spot Genk’s midfielder behind the second opposition presser.
A big part of Cuesta’s game is his versatility. Versatility is a fundamental part of the modern game and can set some defenders out from those who are often deemed one dimensional. The 21-year-old has predominantly played right centre-back in a Colombian partnership with Lucumí, but he has also featured at right-back and left-back where required, as well as occasionally playing left centre-back. When assessing potential Premier League suitors for Cuesta, the fact that he can play anywhere across the back four is an attractive attribute.
The heat map above shows Cuesta’s tendencies to get forward. If we look at the stats from this season, the Colombian averaged 1.72 progressive runs per 90 minutes this season – ranking 11th in the Belgian Pro League.
As we can see from this image, Cuesta vacates the right centre-back position with Sébastien Dewaest dropping deep to provide additional defensive cover. This allows the Colombian to progress with the ball and support the teams’ defensive tactics by bringing the midfield into the game.
This passage of play shows the Colombian’s calmness under pressure. Standard Liege are pressing high in an attempt to win the ball back and force a mistake, but Cuesta turns calmly before releasing the ball with composure to Maehle. Per the statistics, Cuesta has averaged 48.54 passes per 90 minutes this season. An impressive number for a defender who has made his debut campaign for Racing. This scout report suggests that he can provide variability for Genk defensively and offensively with his long passes, allowing players like Theo Bogonda to come inside and make an angled run in-behind the opposition defence.
Cuesta stands at 179 centimetres. This is a fairly small size compared to his Colombian defensive partner Lucumí who stands at 187 centimetres. The 21-year-old lacks height – therefore has to make this up with his athleticism and strength. Despite winning an average of 5.31 aerial duels per 90 minutes this season, this could be exploited by opponents. One way of doing this is by putting a 6’4 centre forward on Cuesta for an aerial advantage or getting fast forwards in-behind him.
Another potential issue to Cuesta’s game is that he doesn’t use his left foot often. Despite often playing left-centre back or anywhere across the back four – he appears one dimensional and can get caught out. This is a problem as world-class centre-backs are normally comfortable with both feet to get them out of potentially difficult situations, something the Colombian must address in his game if he is to reach the very top.
At 21-years-old, Cuesta is one of the hottest properties in Colombian football. His athleticism makes him a difficult defender to play against and the long passing ability in his armoury adds further variability to his ever-improving game. Not only that, but his role in the manager’s tactics make him a fundamental part of Racing’s squad going forward. Not only that, but Europa League exposure against teams in the calibre of Liverpool and Napoli adds to his experience and will only develop his game.
Cuesta had a comfortable and impressive first season at Racing, who have a reputation for developing world-class players – and the Colombian certainly has the potential to live up to that standard. Despite that, Cuesta still needs to improve certain attributes in his game. The Colombian’s positioning occasionally means he has to make more defensive recoveries than needed. This will also help with his height disadvantage as he isn’t your usual physically imposing towering centre-back in the form of Virgil Van Dijk or Manchester United‘s Harry Maguire. This scout report suggests that if he continues his form and develops his game under Wolf, there’s no doubt we could see this promising defender in the Premier League in the near future.