Next Generation – Thiago Almada, from Tevez's neighbourhood to another Manchester tug-of-war?

By Sports Desk June 07, 2020

'Next Generation' is a series focusing on the young players tipped to establish themselves as the elite in the 2020s.

 

Fuerte Apache, Buenos Aires is an imposing sight. Like a skyrise jungle domineering over the run-down surroundings of small shops and bars, it holds a certain aura that is probably not helped by its reputation.

Ejercito de los Andes, to give its original name, received its more familiar moniker after a shootout in the estate was broadcast live on the news. The 1981 film 'Fort Apache, The Bronx' is where the nickname came from, and it stuck.

Carlos Tevez is the barrio's most famous son. The former Manchester United, Manchester City, Juventus and Argentina star's face is prominent in numerous places around the estate, with several murals dedicated to him.

While the biggest – and most iconic – piece in tribute to the forward can be seen on the north edge, facing away from the estate, there is another deep inside Fuerte Apache.

Here, fittingly, Tevez looks out over the football pitch of Roger 'Didi' Ruiz, the coach who discovered him, and where Argentina's next great hope crafted his skills.

First there was Tevez, now Fuerte Apache expects of Thiago Almada.

From Tevez's patch to Velez

As early as four years old, Almada – like Tevez before him – was playing with Club Santa Clara in Fuerte Apache. By five he was signed up by Velez Sarsfield, but he continued to represent his local side as well.

For Almada, a silky attacking midfielder, football has offered a legitimate route to a better life. Even though he accepts the area isn't quite as dangerous as it was in Tevez's time, trouble was still frequent in his youth.

"In the neighbourhood, there are a lot of people who chose the wrong path. It is one way or the other, and I also chose," he told Diario Clarin in 2017, when he was still a part of Velez's youth setup.

But he wouldn't be for much longer. A little over a year later, in August 2018, Almada made his first-team debut as a 17-year-old, appearing for 26 minutes in the 2018-19 Superliga opener against Newell's Old Boys.

He went on to play a total of 16 league matches that season under the tutelage of Gabriel Heinze, generally operating through the middle or off the left, but such prominence at a young age in Argentina does not go unnoticed by bigger European clubs, and it caused fractions.

Velez were understandably concerned about Almada being poached and, with his contract set to expire in June 2020, for a period it seemed realistic he could leave for pittance.

The situation led to speculation claiming Heinze had grown frustrated with Almada, though the coach furiously denied this in a news conference last year, saying: "Tell that journalist that he is a liar and he is absolutely wrong. There are two people here, it's me and it's Thiago. I tell him that they have a lying journalist and the information is a lie. My relationship with Thiago remains the same."

"All the goals were scored by him"

In September, Velez finally tied Almada down to a new four-year contract. As much as anything, it provided the Liniers club with greater financial security, increasing his release clause from a reported €14million to a figure that will reportedly reach €25m after August 31. Directors could breathe a sigh of relief.

Man City had been lurking. With reports of Almada's agent travelling to Europe for talks with other clubs, a feeling of deja vu would have been justifiable for Velez, who lost Benjamin Garre – a former youth-team colleague of Almada – to the Premier League giants for a nominal fee in 2016.

While Almada's rise has been impressive – he has played 22 times in the Superliga this term – it cannot be said that no one saw it coming.

Turu Flores, a former Velez player, spent five years on the coaching staff of the club's senior side, including a 12-month stint as head coach. In that time, watching the youth teams was a regular occurrence for him, and one kid always seemed to stand out.

"I've known Thiago since he was a child," Flores told Stats Perform News. "He is a friend of my son and already had an incredible impact when he was 14 years old. I remember him when he was 12, 13 or 14 years old. At that time I was working for Velez and I used to go and see him playing. He used to start as a central midfielder, but the matches would finish 3-0 or 4-0 and all the goals were scored by him. So, you could already envisage that he has the potential to make important things in football."

'Welcome to Manchester', part two?

A wonderful technician, it's easy to see why City might see Almada as a long-term replacement for David Silva, even if they already possess Phil Foden. But having missed out on him last year, there's reportedly growing interest from elsewhere – United, Inter and Atletico Madrid have all been mentioned as admirers.

It remains to be seen if Almada emulates Tevez and causes another tug-of-war between the Manchester giants, but whoever manages to prise him away from Velez will potentially get themselves a generational talent.

"He is very young and has a long journey ahead of him, a lot to learn, but he has incredible conditions," Flores adds. "He's got a great shot and amazing vision. His vision is not common anymore, you don't see it, or we haven't seen it for a long time. This kind of player comes from the playground, how he controls the ball, how he hits the ball. He is one of the last players that grew up in the street playgrounds."

That style of play is also reflected by his idolising of Juan Roman Riquelme, who invited him to a barbecue after seeing him play earlier this season. "He got my number, texted me and invited me. He is my idol – I could not believe it," Almada told Infobae in October.

Like Riquelme at Boca Juniors in the 1990s, Almada is already a significant influence at Velez despite being a teenager, even if only 10 of his league appearances this term have come as a starter.

With nine goals since making his debut, he is – remarkably – Velez's top-scorer, and only five players have featured more regularly than him.

In terms of chance creation, he's laid on 54 key passes since August 2018, the second most of Velez players, and his dribbling excellence is also quantifiable.

He has attempted 121 take-ons in senior football, completing 60 per cent – of Velez players, only Gaston Gimenez (67 per cent) has a better completion rate than Almada.

Explosive, technically outstanding and creative, there is much to like about his game. More dynamic than Riquelme and arguably a greater natural talent than Tevez, Almada's future looks exciting.

Tevez may have blazed a trail out of Fuerte Apache for Almada to follow, potentially even to Manchester, but there's every chance the teenager could one day be held in even higher regard than Carlitos.

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