Who
  • Name: Osvaldo Nicolás Fabián Gaitán
  • Date of Birth: February 23, 1988
  • Nationality: Argentina
  • Position: Wide forward/Attacking midfield
  • Club: Benfica

 

Making His Name

 

Discovered playing futsal for local side José Paz by Boca Juniors talent scout Ramón Maddoni, an eight-year-old Nicolás Gaitán would move to Buenos Aires to join the Buenos Aires club’s prestigious academy. Maddoni, who would later become Youth Director at the club, recognised the potential in this slight young talent and would play a big part in his development, just as he had with the likes of Carlos Tévez, Juan Román Riquelme and Fernando Gago.

“I met Gaitan when he was seven,” said Maddoni in an interview with Mais Futebol. “He was very thin, but very fast and had great technique. He had a fabulous left foot.

“In the first game, he scored three goals. But in the end we lost and he would not stop crying. He is a winner and never dealt well with defeat.

“He told me that he no longer wanted to play football and that the next morning he would not return. So I told him that if he came back and he continued to play, that one day would feature for Boca Juniors and that he would even be one of the best in Argentina.”

At Boca, there were doubts about his physical strength that would stay with Gaitán until his first-team debut. Maddoni credits an individually designed training programme with developing the player’s physical attributes to the level they are today, where Gaitán frequently uses his 5 foot 8 frame to good effect and shows high levels of determination.

“I had to shout down the field to motivate him to run more,” Madonni revealed in a separate interview with Portuguese newspaper O Jogo. “I remember it so well. It’s the only thing he lacked: more aggressiveness.

“I used to tell him to be like Carlitos Tevez, who was also my player. But I sincerely believe that he will still improve a lot in this regard. In fact, I have already seen a big difference in his time at Benfica.”

Other clubs came sniffing, with the most concrete interest from Almeria, who tabled a €750,000 offer and a four-year contract when the player was just eighteen. But both Boca and Gaitan turned the proposal down. Why did the player refuse? The advice of Ramón Maddoni once more.

“Maddoni always told me to stay with Boca, because he trusted that I would play. He gave the example of Gago, who played in the youth ranks here for some time and later left as a star,” says Gaitán himself of the decision.

From the 2008 Apertura onwards, having made his debut against Arsenal de Sarandi in the previous campaign, Gaitán was a fixture in the Boca Juniors line-up, weaving his magic from a central attacking-midfield role as Boca clinched the league title in his debut campaign. Yet, the midfielder who had been long-discussed as one of Boca’s brightest young hopefuls was not yet at the level that had been hoped for him, but the following season this breakthrough would come – as an ‘extremo’, or wide-forward.

Played on the left hand-side of a front three in the 2009 Apertura and 2010 Clausura campaigns, Gaitán shone as his majestic close control and wondrous left-foot were afforded greater freedom from the flank, scoring seven goals in thirty-three appearances – only nine of which were complete. This ultimate breakthrough at Boca alerted the European footballing world once more to his potential and so, it is little surprise that in the summer of 2010, Benfica came calling with €8.4 million as they looked to replace his countryman Ángel di María on the left-flank.

“Within two to three years, Nico will be worth €40 million,” Maddoni said on his departure. “He has all the ability to bring as much joy to  fans as Di Maria did. He has a great change of pace and is very intelligent.”

As if to prove Maddoni right, in October 2011, after a fantastic first season at Benfica, the club rewarded Gaitán with a new improved contract that will run until 2016, with his release clause now valued at €45 million.

 

STYLE OF PLAY

 

Gaitán’s ‘El Zurdo’, or ‘the left-footer’, nickname tells you much about the Argentine player – he is predominantly left-footed, even if his right-foot is by all means capable of harming the opposition – and thus the new signing was ear-marked to fill the vacant left-wing berth at Benfica, doing so for much of his first season. However, with a tactical change in the Benfica set-up for this current season, the small, slight and sprightly Gaitán has evolved at Benfica to play much more of a free-role in a five man midfield, normally from a starting position on the right-flank.

This ‘inverted-winger’ role affords Gaitán the freedom to roam inside at will, often squaring up the player before gliding effortlessly inside onto his left foot, á la his esteemed compatriot Lionel Messi. With the ball on his favoured foot, there is little the diminutive attacker cannot acheive. With excellent vision and the technical ability to produce defence-splitting passes, Gaitán can unlock a defence at will if given time and space on the ball, but can occasionally still require too much time to make a decision, allowing the defending side to shut off the potential danger.

The same balance that allows Gaitán to calmly drift past players as he cuts inside also allows for a sharp change of direction and burst of pace down the line, leaving defenders in a state of confusion as to which way he will go. With a useful collection of tricks at hand, including a particular fondness for the step-over, the conundrum for opposition defences is exacerbated and even when denied space behind to run into, Gaitán’s immaculate close control is frequently enough to work an opening to cross off either foot – a good example being his assist for the opening goal in Benfica’s home encounter with Otelul Galati in the 2011/12 Champions League.

As well as ranking highly in the Liga Sagres assist tables, Gaitán also chips in with goals. The nine goals scored in his first season have been followed up by two thus far this season, as the Argentine continues to display this dimension of his game in his new, much more creative role. The variation of the goals scored show the threat the youngster poses, as his left-foot is capable of net-bursting 25-yard strikes, delicate chips and far-corner curled finishes, all with little time and space to get away the shot. His right-foot may not be terrible, but Gaitán’s left-foot is a wand that follows his every instruction – often to great effect.

In modern football there are very few players who are afforded the honour of being relinquished from defensive duties and the Argentine puts in his fair share of effort when it comes to this part of his game. Not the best tackler and not possessing great physical strength, Gaitán instead uses his better attributes to help the defensive cause, hassling his opponent and ensuring cover for his full-back behind. Although normally very good at covering back for his team, on occasions Gaitán can lose concentration and allow the player he is marking to break in behind. This may be something he will work on with age, or just the natural instincts of an offensive player coming into play, but it is at least encouraging to see the player willing to help out in all facets of the game.

 

WHAT OTHERS SAY

 

“Talented playmaker from wide positions but possibly not worth the sums being mentioned. Can play comfortably on either flank and is a very different wide player to the player he notionally replaced, in Angel Di Maria.” – Ed Malyon – @eaamalyon (Journalist)

“The 23-year-old Argentine is Benfica’s most-prized asset. He is a player who fits perfectly into the club’s tradition of flair and is fast becoming one of Europe’s most-gifted midfielders.” - Andy Brassell, BBC – November 2011

“Spindly-legged, technically superb playmaker, converted from a number 10 into a winger by Benfica. A star in waiting.” - Ben Shave, Cahiers du Sport

 

Videos

 

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The Future

 

In recent times, ‘Nico’ has been heavily linked with a move to English champions Manchester United, with many in the UK press advocating the player as a solution to the club’s lack of creativity from the centre of midfield in the absence of Paul Scholes. Yet, despite the player’s abundant quality, it is nigh on impossible to see the Argentine fitting into a central midfield berth in the side’s standard four-man midfield, whilst the Old Trafford club already boast a veritable feast of options when it comes to attacking-midfielders and wide-men.

That said, should the player make a move to Manchester, or any of Europe’s elite sides for that matter, there is little doubt that Gaitán could make a sizeable impact. In the Premier League for example, the impression made by the likes of fellow diminutive playmakers David Silva and Juan Mata in creative roles has been profound, even if the duo go about their tasks in differing manners. Gaitán has the potential and the talent to make a similar splash, but when moving on from a side like Benfica, as he almost certainly will, it is important that the options are assessed thoroughly and the move allows for regular appearances from the time of his arrival.

Another aim for Gaitán will be to improve upon his current tally of six appearances for Argentina, although it is without doubt that for most other international sides that figure would already be greatly increased. With the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguëro, Ezequiel Lavezzi, José Sosa and Ángel di María available to Argentine boss Alejandro Sabella in a similar area to that where Gaitán operates, it is going to be a tough ask for the forward to force his way into the first-choice international set-up, but a place in the 2014 World Cup squad is at the least an achievable aim. In the meantime, Gaitán can take great consolation from the fact that PSG’s €39.8 million midfielder Javier Pastore finds himself in a similar situation!

It is widely discussed that Benfica are looking to receive a fee approaching €30 million for the playmaker, before they would consider releasing their prized asset. With a release fee set at €45 million and three-years remaining on his current deal, it is unlikely that this price will drop any time soon, meaning that potential suitors are indeed limited to only a handful of clubs who could afford such an investment. Whether anyone will take the risk remains to be seen, yet what is certain is that if Gaitán can continue to progress with the same velocity as in his eighteen months to-date in Portugal, there is still time for the 23-year-old to become recognised as one of the best players in the European game.