The Uruguayan Apertura reached its conclusion a few weeks ago with Nacional crowned champions after a dramatic final day victory over Danubio. In their first campaign under Alexander ‘Cacique’ Medina, the Montevideo giants’ success was built on solid defensive foundations as they edged past eternal rivals Penarol.
All is going well at youth level for El Bolso too after the club won the U20 Libertadores earlier in the year. Although the likes of Juan Manuel Sanabria, Thiago Vecino, Facundo Israel and Brian Ocampo are all highly rated, arguably the breakthrough young player of the year for Nacional has been surprise package Christian Oliva.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the mixed midfielder was selected for the Libertadores qualifying stages ahead of some more experienced players but has rapidly formed a good relationship with Santiago Romero in the centre of the park and has established himself as a vital player for Medina’s team.
All in all, it’s been a meteoric rise for Oliva. As a youngster, he had to travel two and a half hours and take three different buses just to get to training and was even let go by the club at one stage. He continued his development at Bella Vista for four and a half years before returning to Nacional in 2016 and has quickly made up for lost time.
Coached by Medina in the Reserves, Oliva was promoted to the senior squad when the young manager was given the first team job and has rewarded the faith shown in him. The midfielder, who turns 22 in June, has now played 21 times in all competitions, scoring three goals, and was widely considered one of the driving forces behind Nacional’s title win. Furthermore, fantastic displays in the Clasico against Penarol and in crunch Libertadores matches have also helped cement his place as a budding fan favourite.
Here at Total Football Analysis, we decided to take a closer look at just what makes Oliva such an interesting prospect…
One of the aspects of Oliva’s game that makes him such an effective central midfielder is his ability to win the ball back and provide a defensive shield for his centre backs. He is aggressive, presses well and is strong in the tackle, allowing him to break up opposition attacks and protect the back four.
Nacional conceded just 8 goals in 15 games during the Apertura and this excellent defensive record is in part testament to the superb protection offered by the deep-lying midfielders like Oliva. Seven clean sheets in the nine Libertadores games that Oliva has played in acts as further proof of the solidity he offers.
Already one of the top ball winners in the Libertadores this year, Oliva displayed his defensive capabilities perfectly in the game versus Santos where he won more duels than anyone else on the pitch. As a result, the Brazilians never got a foothold in the game and their threat on the counter was nullified.
Oliva has stated that his preferred position is part of a double pivot at the base of the midfield and his pace, stamina and positioning means he excels at covering spaces, intercepting passes and making recovery runs. It may not be the most glamorous job but Oliva executes it with gusto.
Far from being merely a workhorse or defensive clogger in midfield, Oliva has also proven that he can use the ball extremely well. For the most part, he keeps things tidy, recycling possession well and moving the ball accurately and quickly to ensure a good tempo is maintained.
While often electing the simple pass, Oliva can also be more expansive too and has a good variation to his distribution, as demonstrated below.
Oliva’s combination of ball-winning and good passing means he can immediately put his team on the front foot in the transitions from defence to attack. These traits help him to dominate the centre of the park both with and without the ball, as demonstrated by his 93% pass completion in the 1-0 win versus Santos.
It’s true that Oliva could make his passing more incisive in the final third and only has one assist to his name so far but he does have the vision and technique to add this to his game and is more than capable of the odd eye-catching pass.
Though primarily a defence-minded player, Oliva does possess a formidable strike from range. His good technique and powerful right foot mean that when he does find himself further forward he can offer a goal threat.
He might only have three goals to his name so far but all have been impressive efforts, particularly his strike against Boston River.
Gaining more and more confidence with every game, this could well be an aspect of his game that we see more of in the future and certainly suggests that Oliva is already a very well-rounded midfield player.
A bundle of energy, Oliva has the capability of driving his team up the pitch when let off the leash. Having played some of his youth football as more of an attacking midfielder, he possesses the technical qualities and dribbling skills to carry the ball forward or to avoid the press with a neat turn.
Oliva recently signed a new contract with Nacional until 2020, along with fellow academy product Guzman Corujo, and should become a central part of Medina’s Nacional going forward. While you can never rule out a transfer to Europe, Oliva will hopefully use the example of Felipe Carballo as a cautionary tale and get some more game time under his belt before weighing up any moves.
At international level, Uruguay all of a sudden seem to have a wealth of talent coming through in the central midfield positions. Oliva will have a tough battle on his hands if he is to displace the likes of Valverde, Bentancur and Torreira but his mix of technique and garra should mean that he is able to provide plenty of competition and keep them on their toes.