One To Watch | Nicolás Tagliafico: The best defensive full-back in the world?

Nicolás Tagliafico suffered a difficult couple of years at Ajax. As he approached the last year of his contract and the Amsterdam club looked to move on from that impeccable UCL semi-final team, there was a mutual feeling that it was time for the Argentine to get the move he had long been looking for. However, after a tumultuous couple of years of failed transfers, notably to Chelsea, and his place as a guaranteed starter no more, Tagliafico’s previous list of suitors had weakened. In search of a dependable option at left-back after loans and failed acquisitions, this presented a sizeable opportunity for Ligue 1 club Lyon.

A signing which has gone somewhat under the radar, Lyon were able to acquire the services of the Argentine international for just under £4m. As the World Cup approached, life in Lyon couldn’t have been better for Tagliafico. He’s nailed down the starting spot at OL and has had a dramatic impact on the defensive security down the left flank. Alongside providing some much-needed defensive relief, he’s also making an impact in forward areas. The former Ajax man has already notched three goal contributions in just 13 appearances.

Questioned by many when he arrived in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region as to whether he still possessed the same quality which saw many label him as one of the best full-backs in Europe, Tagliafico has proved his doubters wrong as he looks to be one of the signings of the season in France while going into Qatar as a key cog in the Argentina defence.

Tagliafico has arguably been the best defensive full-back in the world this season. No full-back in world football beats him for tackles won per 90 minutes this season with an impressive 2.52 by the start of November. He’s also challenging to beat one-on-one with almost two dribblers tackled per 90 while also only being dribbled past less than once every two games. He also ranks in the top three percent of all full-backs in Europe for tackles and interceptions per 90.

Beyond boasting incredibly impressive defensive numbers, his overall impact on the OL defence speaks volumes. Featuring predominantly on the left side with young Castello Lukeba, who, despite displaying scary talent for his age, can be naïve at times, Tagliafico has brought calmness to the Frenchman’s game. As a result, Lyon’s number four looks more comfortable than ever in the heart of the defence and the left side of defence has become an area of strength rather than a weakness for OL.

At the World Cup, this defensive quality makes him a key starter for Argentina. During Lionel Scaloni’s tenure, Argentina have often been criticised for being rather top-heavy and fragile in the defence. Considering their immense quality in midfield and attack, the defence has often been blamed for their downfall. Up against the World’s best, particularly in the knock out stages of the competition, fans of the Albiceleste can be confident that, should they come up against the likes of Cody Gakpo, Bernardo Silva and Raphinha, they have a left-back who will come out on top and bring a sense of resolve.

The roles of a team’s full-backs have changed in the modern game and, if top teams at the World Cup are to have any success, attacking prowess from their full-backs is likely to play a part. In his successful, but brief, time at Lyon, Tagliafico has had a decisive impact in the attacking phases of play.

Tagliafico’s counterpart on the right at OL, Malo Gusto, has gained plaudits for the sheer amount of chances he creates with his crossing ability. This is something that Lyon have been able to benefit from on both flanks thus far since the Argentinian’s arrival. The 30-year-old ranks in the top nine percent of full-backs for assists so far this season with 0.21 per 90 minutes. Alongside his assists, he is also creating lots of chances with 2.58 shot-creating actions per 90 and 4.2 passes into the penalty area. This overall support play in attacking phases of play has ultimately seen Tagliafico be lauded as OL’s standout performer in what has been an underwhelming season for Les Gones.

From Argentina’s perspective, any increased creativity from their full-backs will be well received, considering their riches in the attacking third, with the likes of Lionel Messi, Lautaro Martinez and Julián Álvarez ready to pounce. This combined with his aforementioned defensive quality makes him a man for the big moments. Lionel Messi will be flying the flag for Ligue 1 at the World Cup for Argentina, but, if his early season form is anything to go by, Tagliafico could yet be a difference-maker for the Albiceleste too.

Liam Wraith

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