Ezequiel Cirigliano: The New Mascherano Manchester United Is Hunting

After asserting himself as a key cog in River Plate's promotion winning side at just 18, Ezequiel Cirigliano is ready to make the leap to a European giant. Here’s why:
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Ezequiel Cirigliano: The New Mascherano Manchester United Is Hunting

River Plate’s prestigious youth academy continues to produce highly-polished, technically exquisite footballers, the latest of whom to catch the avaricious eyes of moneyed European club owners is central midfielder Ezequiel Cirigliano.

The Nuñez side never seems to be without a bevy of promising pups jostling among themselves for the opportunity to ascend through the echelons from first team starter to club idol. There are those who stand out even among such rich talents; the picks of the litter who even the most casual observer can see are destined for long and lucrative careers. The Crespos, Saviolas and Mascheranos. The recently departed (to Europe, not the afterlife) Erik Lamela was one, as is the explosively talented 18-year-old, Lucas Ocampos. And so is Cirigliano, who exudes the class and confidence only found in a player of the highest pedigree.

This is what River player Christian Ledesma had to say about his young teammate recently to sports daily Olé:  ‘The guy is 20 years old but he plays as though he’s a veteran. He behaves like a great on and off the field. For me, he is one of the best players in the country, a “crack.” He was one of the most important pieces in us gaining promotion and his place in the starting line-up is very much deserved. He’s a player for the national team.’

In terms of position and playing style, Cirigliano is most frequently compared with Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano

In terms of position and playing style, Cirigliano is most frequently compared with Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano (in his River, Liverpool and Argentina guises, as a defensive midfielder). Weighing in at 70kg and standing at a diminutive 172cm, there are physical similarities as well. He himself sites “El Jefecito” as the player he most tries to emulate, but an even more direct influence has been former Lazio, Parma and Inter hard man Matías Almeyda. When Cirigliano debuted for River at the age of 18 in April, 2010, it was alongside the 36-year-old midfield general. Learning the ropes and struggling to gain playing time ahead of more experienced campaigners, the teenager talked of being inspired by the iconic player he was lucky enough to share a dressing room with.

“Both as a person and as a player he is incredible. I will always be grateful for the help he has given me,” he said. “I really admire him a lot and have learned a great deal from him.”

Several different managers continued to favour more senior players in midfield as River spiralled towards relegation over the next two seasons. In the meantime he was an influential member of Argentina’s U20 sides which competed, somewhat unsuccessfully, in the Sudamericano and World Championships in Peru and Colombia respectively. However Cirigliano was given little playing time for River until, with the club in Nacional B, the recently retired Almeyda took over the reins as coach.

Cirigliano is a calmer head who relies on clever reading of the game to defend effectively.

“El Pelado” placed his faith in the youngster and reaped the rewards. Given continuity, the kid from Caseros, in Buenos Aires province, began to consistently produce the type of performances that those within the club knew he was capable of. He became a regular fixture at the base of midfield and helped his side gain promotion back to the Primera Division. It was Cirigliano who was wearing the captain’s armband, in fact, the moment River confirmed their return to the top flight in the final match of the season. Veterans Alejandro Dominguez and Fernando Cavenaghi had been subbed off and the 20-year-old was next in the pecking order – an indication of his status within the team.

Cirigliano, like all good Argentinian ‘number 5s,’ is both a defensive shield and, when his team are in possession, a hub for initiating attacking movements.

In his defensive capacity he aggressive and committed. He is willing to pester the man in possession incessantly or slide in for fifty-fifty tackles. Due to his size, however, he does lack the intimidation factor of a Gennaro Gattuso (only a tad taller but much stockier) or Patrick Viera (just big). Even Mascherano, who is of similar stature, invokes a certain degree of disquiet in opponents by occasionally doing something vaguely psychotic. Cirigliano is a calmer head, though, who relies on clever reading of the game to defend effectively. He would look right at home in a tiki-tika infused Spanish midfield, but may require a more robust companion alongside him if he is to make the grade at a Premier League club.

Cirigliano is gifted enough to become a first team player at a big European club within a season.

In possession, “Ciri” is simply a pleasure to watch. Most notably he is blessed with tremendous close control. When pressured on the ball he can more often than not produce delightful moments of skill to slip effortlessly out of his opponents’ clutches. It is not common for him to surge forward, but if given the space he is an excellent dribbler, and fleet of foot enough to cause serious problems for back-peddling defenders.

Though he is capable of lofting accurate long balls forward, nineteen times out of twenty he will play precise short passes before making himself available for a return ball. This is his pan y manteca and he is very proficient at it.

Cirigliano is gifted enough to become a first team player at a big European club within a season. With Manchester United, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain said to be chasing his signature, however, it is possible he could end up bypassing the big clubs and going straight to one of the giants. Having to compete for a first team place with established world class players may mean it takes him longer to find his groove, especially in the bustling Premier League, where the pace and physicality will be several steps up from anything he has experienced in Argentina. On the plus side, canny managers such as Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson will no doubt appreciate his ingrained gifts and are unlikely to be wasteful with them.

Under the right coaching, the River Plate star has the potential to become the next sacred cog, the next Xavi or Busquets. If used correctly and given time to adapt, he is the type of player a side could build its midfield around for a decade.

Daniel Colasimone blogs on Argentine football here. Follow him on twitter

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