The squad announcement for Argentina upcoming friendlies saw the introduction of a raft of new faces as the Albiceleste belatedly begin their rejuvenation process. As well as expected call-ups for Inter duo Mauro Icardi and Lautaro Martinez and Stuttgart’s tenacious Santiago Ascacibar, there were a number of surprise inclusions, particularly River Plate’s 19-year-old midfielder Exequiel Palacios.
Born in Famaillá, near Tucuman in the north of the country, Palacios’ family moved to Buenos Aires when he was just a kid and Exequiel started out in the youth ranks of neighbourhood clubs Junta Vecinal Jose Ingenieros and Parque Chas, before joining River when he was 10.
A member of the Argentina U17s that finished runners-up in the 2015 Sudamericano, Palacios went on to make his first-team debut for River later that year in a 2-0 defeat to Newell’s. Initially seen as more of an attacking winger or enganche, over the next couple of years Palacios slowly transformed into a more poli-functional midfielder in the mould of Lucho Gonzalez or Enzo Perez, but was limited to fleeting appearances for Los Millonarios.
Palacios was then called up for the 2017 U20 World Cup, despite not having played in the Sudamericano, and was one of the better performers despite Argentina’s early group stage exit. A long-term favourite of Gallardo, Palacios began to see some more regular game time for River last season, making nine leagues appearances and scoring twice.
After a good pre-season and impressive displays in both the Copa Argentina and Copa Libertadores, Palacios suddenly looks like he’ll be a regular first-teamer this season. So highly is Palacios thought of at River that they’ve allowed Ariel Rojas to leave for San Lorenzo and Argentina international Enzo Perez is being kept on the bench.
Given the lack of options in the centre of the park for Argentina at the World Cup, the emergence of Palacios is extremely timely and the versatile youngster looks set for a breakthrough Superliga campaign. Here we break down just what makes him such an exciting talent.
One word that pops up time and time again when people talk about Palacios is ‘despliegue’. Quite a difficult word to do justice in a single English word, despliegue tends to refer to a player’s physical display, that is to say their ability to cover every blade of grass and be a dominant presence on the pitch.
Palacios demonstrates this work rate, stamina and intensity in bucketloads and these qualities have been crucial in his transformation into a box-to-box midfielder. Whether it be pressing his opposition up the pitch, always making himself available for a pass or tracking back to help the defence, Palacios is a bundle of energy, as the examples below demonstrate.
This attribute, therefore, gives Palacios great versatility, allowing him to play in a number of midfield roles. And therein lies his potential importance for a national team severely lacking in mixed midfielders who can link defence and attack together.
Far from being a midfield workhorse, Palacios is a precise and intelligent passer of the ball, just as you’d expect from someone who grew up as a more offensively-minded midfielder. He possesses good vision and looks to keep the tempo up by quickly distributing the ball, always aiming to only take one or two touches before shifting it on.
Palacios also boasts a good range of passing and often looks to break the lines with sharp forward passes. He already has a decent number of assists to his name and this combination of passing ability and energy makes him a perfect fit for River’s expansive, attack-minded philosophy.
As some of the examples above show, he is also adept at slipping incisive through balls to the forwards and has a good set-piece delivery on him too.
Despite cutting quite a slight figure, Palacios doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game and excels at snapping into tackles, robbing possession and tracking runners. Palacios has worked tirelessly on this side of his game and in tandem with his boundless energy and clever use of the ball, it really marks him out as a very well-rounded, complete midfielder despite his young age.
A key example of this defensive contribution was in the recent Libertadores round of 16 first leg tie against Racing when River were reduced to ten men. Palacios stayed strong and disciplined and helped ensure his side left El Cilindro with a creditable draw.
Palacios is someone who can affect things in final third, whether that with the ball at his feet or through his off the ball movement. An elegant dribbler, Palacios has the pace, directness and ball control to motor away from opponents and drive the team forward.
Palacios has also shown he can find space between the lines to combine with teammates and he isn’t afraid to take a gamble and make late, lung-bursting runs into the box. Indeed, a few of the goals he has scored for River have come as a result of this and he has shown he is a cool finisher off either foot.
Perhaps the moment that encapsulates Palacios’ game came in the 2nd leg against Racing where he started and finished a counter-attack to score a decisive second goal for River.
Already well on the way to nailing down first-team place for River, Palacios needs to keep doing what he’s doing and ensure that he remains a regular in Marcelo Gallardo’s plans. The surprise call-up to the national team perhaps came earlier than expected but it nevertheless is another sign of how highly-rated he is in Argentina, even if it may be a couple of years before we see him turning out regularly for the Albiceleste. At the very least he shows there might finally be some forward planning and can be interpreted more as a sign of intent and early integration into the senior set-up.
With his star turns for River in the Superliga and Libertadores, along with his national team call-up, there will no doubt be a flood of offers for Palacios next summer. He has already turned down a move to Torino, which now seems to be a smart move, as they’ll be even bigger clubs sniffing around in 12 months’ time.
Said to be family-orientated and grounded, there has however been some unnecessary media attention surrounding his private life after botinera Sol Perez claimed to be in a relationship with him. If Palacios can keep his focus purely on the football then, with his particular skill set, he could well be one of the new faces to carry Argentina into the future.