FEATURE | One to Watch: Piero Hincapié (Ecuador)

Placed in Group A amongst hosts Qatar, African representatives Senegal and group favourites the Netherlands, Ecuador will be in the thick of it in a highly competitive group at this year’s World Cup and are understandably the overwhelming underdogs to progress amongst the South American teams. High expectations will loom over Brighton stars Moisés Caicedo and Pervis Estupiñán as well as veteran forward Enner Valencia, whose performances at the 2014 World Cup earned him a move to West Ham. But Bayer Leverkusen fans will attest that the biggest talent in the squad is centre-back Piero Hincapié.

The 20-year-old is a highly desired player in modern football. A ball playing left-footed centre-back who is comfortable playing in a back four and a back three, he’s also featured as a left-back on multiple occasions. Hincapié’s introduction to senior football was with Independiente del Valle, a side who are making a name for being one of the best run clubs in South America outside of Brazil and Argentina. Six years ago, the Ecuadorian club raised eyebrows by beating Argentinian giants Boca Juniors and River Plate on route to reaching the final of the 2016 Copa Libertadores, South America’s elite continental tournament.

The key to Independiente’s recent flurry of overachievement has been their youth academy. The aforementioned Caicedo and the focus of this profile, Hincapié are the two most high-profile players to have been produced by the club. A high volume of Independiente’s academy stars are also being poached by Belgium sides, whose recruitment have clocked on to the fact that Ecuador is currently producing a high volume of quality young players. Hincapié hardly featured for the first team before his talents were recognised, but was a standout performer as Independiente del Valle’s U20 side that won the U20 Copa Libertadores and concurrently, Hincapié had already racked up numerous caps for Ecuador U17s and been promoted to captain prior to the U17 World Cup.

Hincapié joined Atlético Talleres for £1.3m, becoming their record signing. He made 22 appearances in his sole season in Argentina as Talleres finished third in the league, eight points off champions River Plate, thus securing qualification for the Copa Libertadores. After just one season in Argentina Hincapié was on the move again as Leverkusen were confident enough in the Ecuadorian’s abilities, enough to spend €8m on him despite him not even breaking 30 senior appearances yet.

To date this gamble has paid off with Hincapié slotting in to the first team and at the time of writing, racking up 16 so far in the 2022/23 season, including his first foray into the Champions League, playing five times. Hincapié has proved his versatility by now primarily playing as a left-back. 28 of his 49 Leverkusen appearances to date have come at left-back. Under Xabi Alonso, Hincapié has played as the left defender in a 3-4-3, but it was not uncommon for him to feature as a left-back in a back four in many of his appearances under Gerardo Seoane last season.

Hincapié is a tall, aggressive and proactive defender who thrives aerially and is an exceptional natural athlete. The Ecuadorian is excellent in recovery, timing his challenges well and not afraid to be in strong in his challenges. He’s a threat in both boxes dominating aerially in the channels and is also dangerous from set pieces in the opposition box. In possession, Hincapié remains composed and regularly makes the right pass and has some flair to his game, not being afraid to try neat flicks and more expressive passes when afforded the time and space. Although he may not have many career assists to date, very much being a full-back who thrives in the transition and as a 1v1 defender, Hincapié can threaten when getting forward in wide areas and can shape his crosses well.

Data supports how impressive Hincapié is on the eye, he is in the top 1% of full-backs for aerial duels won and averages a healthy 1.49 interceptions per 90 on top of 1.46 blocks per 90. When playing as a centre-back it’s clear how comfortable Hincapié is at bringing the ball out from the back, completing over 0.6 dribbles per 90 and receiving nearly 0.9 progressive passes per 90. He doesn’t hide in possession and allows Leverkusen to have a ball playing defender they can trust on the left.

Hincapié will have the task of handling the likes of Cody Gakpo and Memphis Depay in the group stages. He is no stranger to elite competition having debuted and playing five times in the Champions league this season, however it will be a daunting task attempting to keep Senegal and the Dutch at bay, while playing in his first World Cup. Despite being 20, Hincapié already boasts 21 caps and has been involved with the national team since the U15s. He also captained the U17 side so he knows how much it means to represent his nation and will not be shy to do his country proud and give the best account of himself at the international level. Hincapié was virtually ever present in the strenuous South American qualifying campaign playing as the left centre-back in a back four with Brighton’s lively Estupiñán playing wide of him at left-back and either Santos Laguna’s Felix Torres or the more experienced Robert Arboleda of Sao Paulo accompanying him on the right.

The Bayer Leverkusen man will provide quality on the ball and assurance at the back, with Estupiñán offering an outlet wide of him and Moises Caicedo providing bundles of energy and work rate ahead of him in midfield. All three of these players will form a key trifecta of players who will need to be at their best to get Ecuador to churn out the performances needed to make it out of a group which is tough on paper, but favourable in the grand scheme of things considering that Holland are returning from a short absence from major tournaments and Qatar are an unknown quantity who you would expect to be of a lower quality.

At 20, Hincapié already boasts a remarkable CV. An U20 Libertadores Champion, 21 senior caps, a Bundesliga starter with Champions league experience, Hincapié is fast making his name for himself as one of the best young defenders South America has to offer. A good showing at the World Cup will only further put him in the shop window and further accelerate his ever rising valuation.

GWFN | Joe Langlands

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