Leonardo Balerdi: Boca Juniors’ defensive prodigy
Leonardo Balerdi has quickly established himself as one of the brightest defensive starlets in Argentina. His mental strength, anticipation and physical attributes have been turning heads since his Boca Juniors first team debut in August. It didn’t take long for the plaudits to come rolling in.
In only his second game, Balerdi received the man of the match award and a huge whoscored.com rating of 7.96. German giant club Borussia Dortmund has recently made a bid of ₤10 million for his services. It seems inevitable Balerdi will leave the club soon.
Balerdi is a centre-back by trade and likes to play on the left of the back two. Following on from my previous piece on Agustin Almendra this tactical analysis will break down his defensive strengths and how these work into the dynamics of the back four. I will then analyse areas he could work on when he makes the move to Europe.
Showing the attacker onto the weaker foot and defending diagonally
Balerdi has demonstrated almost perfect defensive positioning and body orientation since his debut. He has barely been dribbled past in the five games he has played for Boca. When Balerdi is being attacked his body orientation is superb. He turns his body to show the attacker onto the sideline or onto his weaker foot.
Balerdi also doesn’t lunge into challenges if he doesn’t need to. He perceives his teammates’ location and usually makes the correct decision to close down and isolate the attacker.
You can see in the above images that Balerdi identified the sideline and simply orientates his body by defending at a right angle to show the attacker onto his left. This is a simple but effective defensive skill as the sideline acts as an extra defender in this situation. The back-pass option is also negated.
Compression and decision making
A valuable skill in defending is maintaining compact shape as a unit but also being dynamic in positional rotations. Great defences are built upon defenders who have an understanding of where each other is situated relative to themselves. You need not only to be disciplined in keeping your defensive shape, but to exhibit the decision making to come out from the line and drop in when required.
Good attacking players will make different types of runs to drag defenders out of their zones. When successful, this dynamic produces space for the attackers to perform plays like killer passes and penetrating dribbles. At such a young age, Balerdi exhibits amazing perception and in-game reading to keep compact when in a low block.
In the image, an attacker has made a diagonal run between the left full-back and Balerdi, attempting to manipulate the latter’s perception. Balerdi interprets the run but can also see that if he follows the attacker he leaves a gaping hole in the middle. He keeps the line intact and compressed, negating penetration through the middle vertical zone.
In this image, the opposition is in attacking transition and has created an advantageous 3v3. It appears Boca are in trouble as the two off-the-ball runners can run wide and split the side defenders. The Boca defenders create enough space between themselves and the attackers that the ball carrier must play a pass.
Balerdi has two options here: break from the line and commit to the ball-carrier, thus leaving a 3v2, or keep his shape. As you can see, he keeps his shape and the ball carrier plays a through ball which is cut out by Balerdi. This is a terrific example of Balerdi’s exemplary decision making. He doesn’t panic. You’ll often see other defenders in situations like these demonstrate impatience and lack of decision making by engaging the ball carrier.
Pressing and isolating the winger
There are a number of pressing triggers that provide information for defenders. It’s up to the defenders to interpret the information and make the correct decision. Some pressing triggers are when the attacker has their back to goal, the attacker is about to receive the ball, or when a winger takes possession.
Balerdi seems to perceive these pressing triggers intuitively and makes the correct decision consistently. The other great aspect about his game is that he doesn’t lunge into tackles when pressing. Balerdi always just applies enough pressure so the attacker can’t bounce play or make a half turn to face forward.
When he does press the wing and leaves space behind him, you can see him communicating with his fellow defenders that he is leaving his space and needs to be covered. This is very dynamic and marks the maturity of such a young player.
In this situation, Balerdi has left his #5 space which might seem disadvantageous. He leaves his zone to press the number seven because the pressing trigger is wing play. Balerdi wants to pin the attacker against the sideline and potentially isolate him from his teammates.
He does leave some space in his zone, but he can see that like in previous examples, his two teammates who are pressing from behind have the closest opposition player in their cover shadow. You can see the understanding Balerdi has within this network. It is very dynamic and effective.
Inner pressing triggers
As well identifying wing play pressing triggers, Balerdi also applies his understanding on when and when not to press in the central zone and half-space. He has a terrific ability to press the attacker who is about to receive and give him limited time to bounce play and create dynamic patterns. He sees the ball speed and can time his press to optimal effect.
This is an incredible piece of defending. Balerdi demonstrates how vital he has become to this Boca team already. The opposition has created positional superiority with their wall pass play. The play is in attacking transition for the opposition and the ball has been played vertically to the receiver.
Another opposition player, the third man, has identified the effectiveness of the pass and makes his run beyond the first two pressers to create a passing lane. The receiver is expected to play the ball first time to the runner’s feet to break the line. The third man play has beaten Boca’s counterpress – or so it seems. Balerdi demonstrates incredible decision-making and presses the receiver, who has his back to goal. Balerdi performs a poke tackle to nullify the counter-attack.
Breaking the line
Balerdi possesses incredible coverage in the last line. Despite his strengths, like all youth products he has some weaknesses. One aspect of his game he can improve is his ability to break the first and second line from the back.
This also works into his natural tendency to maintain extreme depth from the back. It appears Balerdi is on his way to Europe, specifically Dortmund. If he wants to maintain his relative standard in the Bundesliga he will need some guidance from Lucien Havre.
Boca tend to get a lot of time on the ball in their own half in build-up. There are times when Balerdi has the option to position himself to take a flat pass and then play a split pass to either the number nine or 10. He loves playing simple passes back to his central defensive partner when there is a clean opportunity to break the lines.
In this example, Boca are playing horizontal passes across the backline with the intention of luring the front two into a high press. There is a clear passing lane to the number nine that Balerdi could look to take. This is a very difficult pass to make. The forward hasn’t shown for the ball, but Balerdi needs to take responsibility and make a signal for the vertical pass.
The number six isn’t really helping either by maintaining the same vertical line when he should attempt to stagger to disorganise the mid-block. This looks like a perception problem and video analysis will improve this part of his game: perception and looking for split passes.
Here you can see the Boca four, five and six play as a triangle. Balerdi plays to the six who bounces play and Balerdi plays the safe horizontal pass to his four. You can see there is a teammate in a great position on the same vertical line. In this example there is an opportunity to conduct a wall pass pattern.
After receiving the second pass, Balerdi could continue his run with the receiver playing a wall pass. It is a risk worth taking considering the space between the second and third line. Not only would Balerdi beat the first line, he could beat the second line with a third man play.
You can see Balerdi’s split pass is blocked. Whether it is lack of perception or his decision making, you would have to ask him. It looks like he simply makes the wrong decision playing out. You can see the defender who is blocking the passing lane has already anticipated the pass.
Was Balerdi too slow in his passing motion? Could he have invited a press by dribbling and manipulating the first line before making the pass? If you look at the last line, the number nine has actually promoted himself to take the split pass. Balerdi was quick to apologise for his lack of decision making. This was a great learning experience for him as he will improve on this aspect of his game.
Balerdi certainly has the world at his feet. His emergence couldn’t come at a better time for the Argentina national team. The Argentina defence has been questioned on numerous occasions and very well could be a reason for their under-performance. Balerdi possesses the qualities to become world class. At the time writing, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him called up for the first team very soon.
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