Rumours are gathering weight that Manchester United have been successful in their pursuit of Benfica’s Osvaldo Nicolás Fabián (Nico) Gaitán. As if further proof were needed, that the Premier League is living in a post-David Silva, Luka Modric et al world.
The graduation of spindly-legged, technically gifted midfielders from luxury players to cornerstones of any team with title ambitions has undoubtedly been one of the more pleasing developments in recent Premier League history, with the performances of Silva and Modric in particular forcing a rethink amongst both clubs and supporters.
If United are to acquire their very own will-o-the-wisp to combine with Rooney and Chicharito, then Gaitán, 23, will not come cheap. The Argentine, who joined Benfica for €8.4m from Boca Juniors in May 2010, recently signed an extension to his contract which – in theory – will keep him tied to the Lisbon club until June 2016. Gaitán’s release clause sits at €45m, and Porto-based newspaper O Jogo reported that this latest deal will place him amongst the club’s highest earners, on ‘just under’ €1m per season.
Any pay rise has been handsomely earned since his arrival. Signed as a direct replacement for another Argentine, Ángel Di María, Gaitán made his debut in the Supertaça defeat to FC Porto, and slotted straight into Jorge Jesus’ starting XI. His first season in Portugal yielded nine goals in 41 starts, as Benfica rallied from a humiliating 5-0 loss at the Dragão in November to embark on an 18-game winning streak that, whilst immensely impressive, was ultimately fruitless.
Gaitán has a total of seven assists this season, including a tournament-leading four in the Champions League.
Despite coming up short at home and in Europe, there were a number of bright spots for Benfica during 2010/11 – and Gaitán’s development was undoubtedly foremost among them. The presence of his compatriot Pablo Aimar means that he has been fielded out wide (a natural left-footer, switching flanks is an integral part of his game), in both a 4-4-2 diamond and lately a 4-2-3-1 formation, with much of the creative burden falling squarely on his slender frame.
However, unlike his predecessor Di María, Gaitán is no touchline-hugging speed merchant, though he does possess an above-average turn of pace. His supreme dribbling skills and technical ability make him a danger in central areas too, and his tendency to drift inside before delivering a pinpoint cross or shot is essential to Benfica’s easy on the eye, high-tempo style of play.
Gaitán has a total of seven assists this season, including a tournament-leading four in the Champions League. The latest of these came against Basel on Matchday Four, although his well-directed header had as much to do with the Swiss side’ lax marking as it did with the diminutive Gaitán’s heading abilities. Primarily a creator, Gaitán has nevertheless also scored perhaps the most important goal of Benfica’s season so far: an 82nd-minute equaliser against hated rivals Porto. In many ways, the strike encapsulated exactly what the number 20 is about: finely-honed perception, technical prowess and the ability to keep his head in pressure-cooker situations.
His slight build may see him remain out wide, at least initially, but as David Silva has shown, there is a path into the middle.
Long term, there is little doubt that were Benfica to hang on to Gaitán, he would eventually move inside and replace Aimar, who has yet to agree a deal beyond his current one, which expires in June 2012. However, the economic circumstances of the Portuguese Liga are such that even the most successful clubs are compelled to sanction the departure of at least one asset per summer transfer window. As well as United (who have been observing his performances at the Luz since this time last year), Gaitán has been linked with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Inter and Valencia, and while Benfica look well placed for a profitable season both on and off the pitch, there is no doubt that after the sales of David Luiz and Fábio Coentrão, he is the next in line.
Providing that the issue of his currently split ownership is solved (Benfica sold 15% of Gaitán to the Benfica Stars Fund investment vehicle for €2.025m in September), and United can secure an agreeable fee (Benfica’s negotiating stance generally begins in hard-nosed fashion but incremental offer increases usually seal the deal below the original asking price); Gaitán has the potential to succeed in the Premier League. His slight build may see him remain out wide, at least initially, but as David Silva has shown, there is a path into the middle for those who are sufficiently nimble. His metronomic passing ability and creative instincts would be of benefit to the likes of Tom Cleverley, Rooney and Hernández, and would undoubtedly increase United’s ball retention, which has been below par of late.
Speaking with the club’s in-house TV channel recently, Gaitán declared himself to be ‘very happy’ at Benfica, and indeed he has become one of the key cogs in Jorge Jesus’ side. However, history tells us that the Liga’s finest inevitably move on to test their abilities on grander stages, and with his performance level continuing to rise, expect Gaitán to become the latest to do so sooner rather than later.
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