Every time I appear on Sam Kelly’s Hand of Pod, it seems we have a question from a listener about San Lorenzo’s Ángel Correa. Is he as good as everyone says? Is he coming to Europe? Could he handle the pace and power of the Premier League? I write this article in a bid to answer each of these questions once and for all.
First things first: yes, it is true, Ángel Correa is pretty damned exciting. He is, along with River Plate’s Éder Balanta and Racing’s Bruno Zuculini, one of the most exciting prospects in the Argentine Primera División at the moment. While that statement does not carry the same weight it once did, the eighteen year-old’s performances in el Ciclón’s Torneo Inicial title win were so impressive that he has been linked with the likes of Barcelona, Manchester City and Arsenal.
While it is unlikely that he will move to a club of that stature, he is all but certain to transfer to a European team in June or July. Although that is as sure a bet as any one can place, it is much harder to guarantee that his switch will be a success.
As with all teenage sensations, Correa still has a lot to learn on the pitch, while his reserved personality and traumatic experiences off it mean that he is less-than-ideally prepared to adapt to the demands of new countries and lifestyles. In short, he will face as much of a struggle to acclimatise personally as he will to make the professional step up.
There is no denying that he is potentially a great player: a tricky, intelligent and versatile attacker whose greatest attribute is the ability to find space and make the most of it. His brilliant ball control allows him to free himself from the most impossible of situations and he also has a good eye for the final pass – an attribute which, somewhat unbelievably, sets him apart in contemporary Argentine football.
While his end product was at times lacking last season, his contribution has become markedly more consistent after the summer break. With five games of the Torneo Final played, he leads the Primera’s assists chart with three – and could easily have had more. He does not score many goals, but it is obvious that if he carries on like this he will develop the knack of finishing as well as creating. As such, giving Correa the ball has become San Lorenzo’s primary and sometimes only method of attack.
He can certainly be trusted with it. The most encouraging trait that scouts will have noticed is that he usually makes good decisions when the ball is at his feet: the understanding of when and how to release it that takes most players years to acquire is naturally present. While he still has to work on other aspects of his game, this basic intelligence would make him well-suited to the possession-heavy style of play favoured by most sides in Europe’s major leagues.
He is useful without the ball, too. Like the majority of young players in Argentina, Correa has been shaped by the post-Bilardismo belief that every player must show huevos, garra y corazón – balls, fight and heart – which means that no-one (at least no-one not named Juan Román Riquelme) is allowed to leave the pitch without having given everything for the cause, fighting for every ball as if it were the last.
There are reservations, of course, but most of them are products of Correa’s environment than of his performances. He does make youthful mistakes but usually it is the team that fails him rather than the other way around. Harsh as it may sound, it is hard not to feel that he is being hindered by the low technical standard of the football he is playing and the unhelpful tactical conventions of Argentine football.
For example, most number nines here, and especially those in San Lorenzo’s side, seem to pass exclusively with their backs to goal, rarely trying to spin their markers and create chances for their suppliers – players like Correa – to slip them in for one-on-ones with the goalkeeper. Typically, they look to receive the ball facing their half, lay it off to a wide player and amble into the box to get on the end of a cross, or simply make something out of nothing by themselves.
Additionally, central midfielders rarely venture into areas around the box or look to make the sort of quick, triangular combinations for which Correa searches, preferring instead to send the ball out wide and then hold their territory in the central third of the pitch, wary of opposition counter-attacks.
This means that Correa often receives the ball and finds himself in a one-versus-one situation with a full-back with no teammate within twenty yards – not a situation he necessarily dislikes, but not one that maximises his ability either. He would develop at a much quicker rate if played in more fluid, dynamic and collective systems with similarly creative players.
Physicality is also a problem – not just in terms of pace and core strength, which he is probably currently lacking, but in terms of stamina as well. While incredible training facilities and dietary regimes have turned footballers at the peak of the profession into Herculean athletes, standards here remain a little bit below that and the effects are obvious.
The players’ relative lack of preparation, coupled with the aforementioned expectation that they will fight for every ball as if their life depends on it, means that they tend to become noticeably tired after seventy or eighty minutes of each game. With games coming thick and fast for San Lorenzo at the moment – as well as a congested domestic calendar rejigged to accommodate the World Cup, they are having to contend with the monumentally illogical Copa Libertadores schedule – standards are slipping even further.
Obviously, this is a fault that would presumably be rectified post-transfer, but it is worth repeating that if Correa were signed by a club expecting instant returns and subsequently thrown in at the deep end, it is highly unlikely that his impact would be either immediate or sustained. He is certainly not yet ready for the rigorous physical demands of Premier League football.
Then there is Correa’s age, which seems an obvious factor to consider but the one that could be most decisive of all. Still to complete his first year as a professional footballer, he turns nineteen next week. While his performances have been those of a player much older, the fact remains that he is still just a kid – and one whose life until this point has been extremely difficult.
His first twelve years were spent in a villa (slum) outside Rosario, and even though he was arguably lucky to escape so young and move to San Lorenzo’s accommodation in Buenos Aires, he has still been a victim of numerous tragedies: his father died when he was ten, his brother shortly after he relocated and his step-father in January of this year.
Understandably, these losses hit him extremely hard – he says the care shown by his club and his teammates was what helped him through these periods. Indeed, the love he gets at San Lorenzo, the feeling of being part of a family, is something that no other club can offer. Going against the stereotype of the modern footballer, he is painfully shy, apparently being next to mute in the dressing room.
Whoever takes this starlet away from what is now his home has to understand that they are not buying another Neymar, a kid so full of confidence that it is less a question of whether he can adapt to his new surroundings than whether his surroundings can adapt to him. Correa needs to be helped to feel at home and have his friends and teammates – some of whom he says are more like brothers – there to help him.
To that end, Correa’s imminent transfer appears to me to be a move in direct opposition to the logical development of his undoubted potential. The smart thing for an interested European club to do would be to buy the first option on him and bring him over after a couple more years here, rather than whisk him away from an environment in which he feels at home. While he needs to move to improve as a player, he needs to stay to mature as a person.
Of course, football is rarely that philanthropic: the sums of money on offer to both club (well, drug cartel, but that is another story for another time) and player will count for more than the human needs of the individuals involved. Ángel Correa will leave el Nuevo Gasómetro in just a few months’ time and he will either sink or swim. Given his talent and the struggles he has been through it is natural to wish him every possible success, but so much depends on his destination. It could easily turn out to be too much, too soon.