Uruguay is a country that has produced world-class football players over the years. It’s fair to say the country live and breathe football, with the fantastic spectacle of the World Cup allowing them to watch a talented team that amalgamates their own homegrown talent into one unified footballing nation.
From Jose Leandro Andrade, a key member of Uruguay’s unprecedented success during the 1920’s all the way to Uruguay’s top-scorer and prolific Barcelona forward Luis Suarez.
Without further ado, one of these talents is Nicolás De La Cruz. Having made his professional debut with Liverpool Montevideo in 2015, the 23-year-old attacking midfielder joined River Plate in 2017. His impressive performances have caught the eye of many European suitors including Manchester City, Inter Milan, Roma & Everton – who are all weighing up a move for the talented Uruguay international this summer.
This tactical analysis will look at De La Cruz’s qualities for River Plate this season, and why he is the subject of serious interest from top clubs.
Positioning for club and country
The Uruguayan played a fundamental part for Los Millonarios in almost pipping Boca Juniors to the Argentine Superliga for the first time in six years. De La Cruz is known for his versatility, operating mainly as an attacking midfielder but also on the left or right-wing position for Marcelo Gallardo’s side. In River Plate’s 4-1-3-2 attacking set-up, the full-backs have a flexible role and occasionally come centrally, allowing the likes of De La Cruz and Ignacio Fernández to go wide. As you can see from the heat-map below, the Uruguay international mainly operates as a left attacking midfielder but is also determined to drift centrally or to the other side when required – playing a key role in River Plates’ tactics.
De La Cruz also recorded an average of 3.18 successful dribbles per 90 this season. Looking at the graph below, we can see that the attacking midfielder is one of River Plates’ main attacking outlets in this department. This stat leads us nicely into the next section of the scout report. We will analyse his biggest strengths and what makes him such a threat going forward, dribbling and ball-carrying ability.
The 23-year-old midfielder has quite an affinity for taking players on and carrying the ball forward. De La Cruz averaged 5.72 dribbles per 90 this season, completing 54.44% of them. His direct dribbling ability and close control make him difficult to handle for opposition teams, with his low centre of gravity also making it even more of a challenge to stop him.
The attacking midfielder kept the ball 49 times out of 75 from his attempted dribbles this season, showing his supreme ability on the ball. The 23-year-old playmaker ranked ninth this season for progressive runs, averaging 3.05 per 90.
River Plate’s tactical emphasis on providing fluidity in attack highly complemented De La Cruz’s attacking qualities. Gallardo’s side averaged 45.5 expected goals compared to their arch-rivals Boca Juniors of 33.59.
The Uruguayan’s ability to come out on top in one versus one situations is an attractive quality to have, allowing him to stay wide whilst the full-back operates in the half-spaces or even rotate and operate in-between the midfield and defensive lines to provide further attacking impetus.
This free-roam license on the left-hand side allows De La Cruz to express his close control and attacking flair. The constant rotation with the full-backs of Gonzalo Montiel and Casco coming inside adds further unpredictability to River Plate’s play going forward. This subsequently frees up more room for the luxury players like De La Cruz to drive forward. Let’s take a look at the sequence below which highlights the Uruguayan’s ball-carrying threat going forward.
As we can see here in this scout report, De La Cruz works in a triangular press with Casco and Javier Pinola before winning the ball. De La Cruz stays wide, before receiving the ball and driving into space. What is key here is the midfielder’s ability to sit deep and very close to Casco, almost acting as a second left-back out of possession so that he can retrieve the ball and help relieve possession in tight areas.
The 23-year-old’s final third distribution this season has been the second-best in his career, with 11 direct goal contributions. This is largely due to his composure going forward, sometimes slowing down the play to pick the right pass or accelerate quickly past the defender. This is complemented by his vision and ability to pick a pass. Which moves us nicely onto the next section of this tactical analysis.
The River Plate midfielder intertwines his dribbling ability with an instinctive eye for a pass – making him one of the top creators in the Superliga. De La Cruz averaged 43.79 passes per 90 this season, with his supreme ability making him an important team-player.
The midfielder also averaged a 79% pass accuracy and 3.34 forward progressive passes per 90. When analysing the Uruguayan’s passing in key areas, he mainly plays short passes backwards during the build-up if he is under pressure. Though, on the left or right-hand side, you can see that on the left or right-hand side he mainly plays passes inside to the midfielders or the inverted full-backs.
De La Cruz’s passing accuracy of 79% is far from eye-catching. However, it does show that he is willing to attempt long and instinctive passes that may create space for his team-mates. We can see this on display in River Plate’s game against Racing Club earlier this season, where he provided two assists in an influential performance.
De La Cruz plays a perfectly weighted ball for Matías Suárez in-behind the defence, with the latter going on to score. As aforementioned in the scout report, De La Cruz picks up a central position and operates the free spaces in-between the midfield and defensive lines.
De La Cruz also uses his vision for his second assist. This time operating on the right-hand side, he puts in a perfectly weighted cross for substitute Ignacio Scocco, who directs his header past the goalkeeper.
Rounding out De La Cruz’s strengths in the final third is his end product. He managed one less goal this season than his previous campaign for River Plate, but still provided just as much of a threat. It’s interesting to note that five of his seven goals this season have been scored inside the penalty area, despite the Uruguay international attempting 32 of his shots from outside the penalty area. Looking at the graph of his shot selection, we can see that he favours a shot from distance.
This is also an indication that De La Cruz likes to take control of the game and make things happen. As previously stated in this analysis, his shot selection outlines his composure and technical ability. Sometimes it doesn’t come off, but when it does – it looks special. This attribute outlines his undoubted quality and ability to become a match-winner, hence why some of Europe’s top clubs are hassling over his signature. Take a look at this goal against Club Atlético Colón as an example.
The ball comes to the midfielder on the right. He positions himself before directing his half-volley past the goalkeeper. This isn’t an easy finish, but the Uruguay international makes it look second nature.
If that’s not enough – the River Plate playmaker is also a set-piece specialist, with a devastating free-kick in his armoury. With Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti eyeing summer signings to improve his squad and push for European football, De La Cruz could be the perfect addition to replace 30-year-old Gylfi Sigurðsson. Despite being vastly different in terms of playing styles, they are both very capable from a dead-ball situation.
As you can see from the image below, River Plate are trailing 4-2 and are in need of a bit of magic. De La Cruz steps up and curls the free-kick past the reach of Luis Mejía to bring the contest back to life.
The 23-year-old is becoming an incredibly well-rounded playmaker and has a combination of attributes that has him destined to play for a top club in Europe. Being able to develop under Gallardo’s tactics has helped De La Cruz’s game massively and there are no signs of that stopping.
There’s no surprise that Premier League clubs are keeping close tabs on the playmaker, with his dazzling abilities making him a player that would be very well-suited to the luxuries of England’s top-flight. Questions will be raised over his physicality and if he can adapt to a physical and more intense league, but only time will tell.
De La Cruz is exceptionally gifted and is likely to take centre stage in Europe very soon. It will be interesting to see if he makes his move this summer and showcase his abilities in another league. Whatever the outcome, remember the name.