This year has seen the change in regulations for work permits in Britain, the latest consequence of a poorly thought out Brexit policy by the central government, changing the face of player recruitment in Europe. Previously, British clubs with their financial strength would be able to shop across Europe as they looked to sign the best talent for their first-team but also to find the most promising young players for their academy systems. Now, with work permits harder to come by, the pool of players that are available to British clubs has shrunk and this has had a knock-on effect on other European clubs who need to find new revenue streams and markets in which to sell their players.
There has also, however, been a secondary effect on the transfer markets around the world as South American players are now better placed to secure a work permit to be able to play in Britain than they had been. While previously we may have seen clubs in the Premier League wait for South American talent to move to another European league before having to pay a premium for them one or two years later, those same clubs are now extensively scouting the South American talent in order to bypass the first stage of the previous process.
South America has, of course, for so long been a hotbed for footballing talent and in this article, I have used data analysis techniques to pick out five young players currently playing there who are developing extremely well. I will look at a central defender from Paraguay, a right-back from Brazil, a Uruguayan central midfielder and winger and an Argentinian forward. All of these players are in the age range to make them extremely interesting to European clubs in the next two transfer windows.
In order to come up with a shortlist of five players, I have used data from Wyscout and a set of custom-built dashboards that I have in Tableau. While I firmly believe in the importance of data as a part of the recruitment process within football, I do not believe that it is the most important aspect. Instead, I think that you need to find a balance between the use of data, live scouting and video scouting to build a full recruitment package on any player that you are looking to bring into your club. Data is not the most important part of the process but it does give you a starting point and a chance to cut through a lot of the available players that you have to find those that represent the best fit.
#1 Héctor David Martínez, 23 years old, Central Defender, River Plate (on loan from Defensa y Justicia) and Paraguay
The first player on our shortlist is the 23-year-old Paraguayan international central defender Héctor David Martínez. He was actually born in Argentina but qualified to play for Paraguay on the international stage through his parents. The fact that he has now won four senior caps and is locked in to playing for Paraguay may become a source of regret for the Argentinian national setup further down the road.
Martínez was actually a product of the youth academy at River Plate but his current contractual situation is somewhat convoluted. He moved to Defensa y Justicia in 2020 before moving back to River Plate just 6 months later on a loan deal with an option to buy. All signs at the moment are that River are likely to execute that option.
Martínez is a flexible defensive player. He is naturally left-footed and comfortable playing as the left-sided central defender in a back three system or a back four. He is mobile and displays good acceleration over short or long distances and he is aggressive in his defensive duties. As you can see from the data profile above, however, he perhaps gives his best value in possession of the ball where his passing and progression numbers are extremely impressive.
At the time of writing this article, Martínez is averaging 69.18 passes per 90 as he has become one of the key figures at River when building the attack out from the back. That is combined with 15.18 progressive passes per 90 and 14.46 passes to the final third per 90. Martínez has the ability to break lines with vertical passes that can find attacking players in pockets of space or play diagonals that quickly change the angle and the emphasis of the attack. Crucially, he is comfortable playing high and he can often be seen driving in possession into the opposition half of the field to provoke a reaction from the opposition and to create space for teammates in advanced positions.
Héctor David Martínez would comfortably qualify for a work permit to play in the UK and I would be surprised if some of the more progressive sides in the Premier League are not already aware of him and his potential. His style of play, however, is also well-suited to a move to the Bundesliga or Serie A.
#2 Matheuzinho, 21 years old, Right Back, Flamengo and Brazil
Brazil has long had a reputation for developing excellent fullbacks who were far more effective in the attacking phase than they were in the defensive phase. As the game has evolved, however, so has the way in which Brazilian clubs expect their fullbacks to develop, with a greater emphasis being placed on ability out of possession in the defensive phase.
The 21-year-old Flamengo right-back Matheuzinho offers an example of this shift in development, he is not a product of the youth academy at Flamengo and instead moved to the club from Londrina in 2020 but it has not taken long for him to show his worth as a first-team player. He is a right-back in the modern mould and at Flamengo, he plays as an orthodox fullback in their 4-4-2 system. As you can see from his data profile above, he is extremely balanced in contributing to all phases of the game.
He is not a typical Brazilian fullback in that his first instinct in possession is not to drive forward through a dribble. He is only averaging 2.19 dribbles per 90. Instead, he has a tendency to look for opportunities to play progressive passes that break lines and can find the feet of the forward players or to look for opportunities for big diagonal passes that switch the angle of the attack effectively. He is averaging 12.64 progressive passes per 90 and 3.28 passes into the opposition penalty area per 90.
Matheuzinho is another example of a player who is benefitting from the change in work permit regulations in Britain and he would qualify to play in England. His skill set, however, would also match any of the top 5 European leagues. At the moment, it seems to be a question of when and not if he will make his move to Europe.
#3 César Araújo, 20 years old, Central Midfielder, Montevideo Wanderers and Uruguay
The third player on the shortlist for this article is the 20-year-old Uruguayan central midfielder César Araújo of Montevideo Wanderers. For a long time, Uruguay have had a strong reputation for developing players for the international stage despite their relatively low population. While the core of the national team that has been so successful over the last 10-15 years is now ageing and edging towards the end of their career, there are still talented young players who are looking for their opportunities. It would not surprise me to see Araújo at the heart of the Uruguayan midfield in the years to come.
The cultured central midfielder is a product of the youth academy at Montevideo Wanderers and he has spent his entire career to date at the club. He is a central midfielder who is capable of contributing in all phases of the game, although he is perhaps best suited as a deep-lying midfielder with the capacity to get on the ball and dictate the game from deep. At the time of writing, he is averaging 58.97 passes per 90 along with 11.99 progressive passes and 11.50 passes to the final third per 90.
César Araújo is the first player that I have listed that would not automatically qualify for a work permit to play in Britain. He is one point short of the required amount but his case would be eligible to go to the exceptions panel who look at special cases. I think he is perhaps a step short of that level at the moment and a move to a more traditional landing spot for South American talent would make a lot of sense with the likes of the Dutch and Portuguese leagues offering interesting opportunities for his development.
#4 Brian Ocampo, 22 years old, Winger, Nacional and Uruguay
The fourth player on my list is the 22-year-old Uruguayan winger Brian Ocampo. He is something of a rarity in modern football as he is a right-footed winger who prefers to play on the right of the attack, instead of on the left where he would look to drive in towards goal whenever he had possession of the ball. This does not mean, however, that Ocampo will always look to attack and engage the opposition defender on the outside and instead, he has the balance and agility to go inside or outside depending on the position of the fullback.
Ocampo is a product of the youth system at Nacional and he has spent his entire career at the club. This year, we have seen the youngster make his full debut at international level as he played 32 minutes for Uruguay against Argentina in Copa America in the summer. He will likely gain much more exposure at international level in the coming years.
As you can see from his profile, Ocampo is a creative passer and dribbler who likes to take opposition players on in 1v1 situations before finding opportunities to create chances for his teammates. At the time of writing, Ocampo is averaging 9.32 dribbles per 90 and 5.24 crosses per 90. This is combined with 1.51 shots per 90 and 2.91 touches in the opposition area per 90. His creative numbers are equally impressive with 0.33 assists from 0.41 expected assists.
Ocampo is eligible to play in Britain now, although his skill set may be better suited at this point to a move to Serie A or La Liga. He has been linked this year to a move to Mexico and the US but he has the talent and potential to play in Europe.
#5 Julián Álvarez, 21 years old, Forward, River Plate and Argentina
The final player on my list is perhaps the one with the greatest potential in the 21-year-old Argentinian forward, Julian Alvarez of River Plate. He is a mobile and creative forward who has the ability to score all types of goals. He has good movement and timing in the area to find opportunities to score from crosses and this is combined with great anticipation and timing in shifting the ball to create opportunities for him to shoot. He also, however, possesses incredible power in his shot and the willingness to shoot from outside the area when the opportunity opens up.
Álvarez is a product of the youth academy at River Plate and he has spent his entire career at the club. At the time of writing, Álvarez has just received his first two caps in substitute appearances for the national team against Paraguay and Uruguay in World Cup qualifying.
At the time of writing, Álvarez is providing a staggering level of output at club level. He is averaging 0.46 goals per 90 from 0.35 xG per 90 combined with 2.68 shots per 90, 5.16 dribbles per 90 and 3.94 touches in the opposition area per 90. He is also, however, a creative threat with an average of 5.01 passes to the penalty area per 90 along with 0.46 assists per 90 and 0.30 xA per 90.
Álvarez has already been heavily linked to moves to both Milan clubs along with others in Europe. He comfortably qualifies for a work permit in Britain and would be a strong addition for any top 6 club who are looking for extra firepower to fire them into the Champions League.
South America remains one of the most interesting regions in the world when it comes to the development and identification of young and talented football players. Each of the players that I have listed above would come with a slightly different skill set but all are ready now for a move to Europe and a new challenge.