The five faces of Argentina’s successful rebuild
Lionel Scaloni handed these players their debuts or gave them a chance
Key figures during the Copa America, the quintet now have their sights set on Qatar 2022
Argentina’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking surge is another sign of improvement
The 2021 Copa America not only provided Lionel Messi with his first senior international title; it also confirmed the emergence of several footballers nurtured and mentored by Lionel Scaloni. Entering the final stage of a rebuilding process that began as soon as he took up the reins of La Albiceleste, the astute coach called up a number of players who were not on the radar of the average Argentina fan, but who have now fully established themselves in the squad. In this context, it seems appropriate to mention another positive: Argentina’s recent rise up the FIFA Coca/Cola World Ranking, where they now sit in sixth place after their triumph in Brazil. Scaloni’s rejuvenated side are clearly in a good place prior to the upcoming resumption of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualifiers.
Goalkeeper, 28 8 matches (-2 goals) Club: Aston Villa With FIFA World Cup-winning medals under his belt at U-17 and U-20 level, Emiliano Martinez came through the ranks at English giants Arsenal, far from the media glare in his homeland. The shot-stopper received his first call-up to the senior national team for a friendly in 2011, where he was an unused substitute. He only returned to the international scene in 2019, when Scaloni brought him back into the fold for a Qatar 2022 qualifying match. He was already the most expensive goalkeeper in the history of Argentinian football by the time he made his international debut against Chile on the seventh matchday of World Cup qualifying, although he was unfortunate to pick up an injury in the following game. Scaloni retained him as his starting keeper for the Copa America, where he was instrumental in the team’s success. After he saved three penalty kicks in a shoot-out against Colombia in the semi-finals, Lionel Messi referred to him as ‘a phenomenon’.
Right-back, 23 6 matches (0 goals) Club: Udinese
Known for his blistering pace, Nahuel Molina played on the wing and as an attacking midfielder before settling at right-back. A product of the Boca Juniors youth academy, he had two loan stints with other Argentinian clubs prior to moving to Udinese. In Italy he enjoyed a fantastic 2020/21 season, racking up two goals and five assists in 29 matches, and it was that form that led to Scaloni calling him up. Like Martinez, Molina made his senior debut in the World Cup qualifier versus Chile, but it was at the Copa America that he came to the fore. Despite not being part of the starting XI, he played in five matches, establishing himself as a reliable alternative at full-back. Solid and determined, he showed character by offering himself as an outlet down the flank and supporting his team’s attacks.
Central defender, 23 5 matches (1 goal) Club: Tottenham Hotspur Together with Martinez, Christian Romero has arguably made the greatest impact of the Scaloni era. A Belgrano youth academy graduate, he represented Argentina at the South American U-17 Championship and made his league debut at the age of 18. At 20, he packed his bags for Italy, a move that went largely unnoticed by the vast majority of the Argentinian press. After excelling at Genoa, the talented defender signed for Atalanta, where he again stood out, collecting the Serie A Best Defender award for 2020/21. He made his senior international bow in the aforementioned World Cup qualifier against Chile, where his timing, anticipation, ball delivery, and ability in the air were on full display. He was the outstanding performer that night, and he continued in the same vein at the 2021 Copa America. Now, Romero is one of the first names on Scaloni’s team sheet.
Midfielder, 23 11 matches (2 goals) Club: Fiorentina An Argentinos Juniors youth system product, Nicolas Gonzalez broke into the first team at 18 and was one of his side’s most proficient players for two seasons. Those performances earned him a transfer to Stuttgart, where he fitted in quickly and maintained his consistency, particularly during the 2019/20 season, when he was routinely impressive. That level of play saw him called up to Argentina’s U-23 squad for the 2019 Pan American Games, where Scaloni was able to confirm the initial impression he had when capping him for the first time in 2019. Despite being a forward by trade, Gonzalez can in fact play in any position on the left, including at wing-back, a post he subsequently occupied against Paraguay during a Qatar 2022 qualifier.
Midfielder, 22 11 matches (0 goals) Bayer Leverkusen After emerging from River Plate’s youth academy, Exequiel Palacios lifted seven trophies with the Buenos Aires club, including the Copa Libertadores. The midfield man was a regular with Argentina’s youth sides, competing in the U-17 and U-20 South American Championships. Contrary to the other new faces, he plied his trade in his homeland for a significant period before leaving for Germany in 2019, so his eventual call-up was less of a surprise for La Albiceleste’s fanbase. A highly versatile midfielder, he earned his first full cap in 2018, although it is only more recently that he has risen to prominence, to the extent that he skipped the Olympic Games to take part in the Copa America. In Brazil, Scaloni used him in five matches, mainly deploying him as an impact substitute.