Julián Álvarez subtly arrived on the blue side of Manchester in the summer of 2022 after the English champions had agreed on a permanent transfer with River Plate in January earlier that year.
Not many were sure how he would fair in the Premier League after moving straight from the Argentine Primera División. Yet, to his credit, Álvarez settled quickly and enjoyed a thrilling season for his club and country.
In his debut campaign, Álvarez contributed to Manchester City’s first treble and played a pivotal role in Argentina’s crowning as World Cup champions after 36 tedious years.
This season, the Argentine seems set on an unwavering mission to elevate his game to the next level.
Manchester City endured a revolution this past summer transfer window by introducing a new batch of young talent while moving on key experienced figureheads like İlkay Gündoğan and Riyad Mahrez.
Accordingly, Pep Guardiola made a few tweaks to City’s tactical system to suit the latest personnel additions. This plan included Álvarez, who started the opening seven Premier League matches and recorded an impressive tally of three goals and three assists.
But what role does Álvarez play in the team, and how is he excelling?
Let us take a closer look through the tactical lens.
Although Julián Álvarez is a striker, it is unimaginable to be the No.9 in a Manchester City side with a Premier League Golden Boot winner, Erling Haaland, who broke the record for most goals scored by a single player in the senior English division.
The solution Guardiola has come up with to deploy both strikers in the team is by positioning Álvarez in the line behind Haaland like a second striker or attacking midfielder.
But Álvarez’s tactical role is quite intriguing as it is a unique hybrid.
The Argentine drifts around the pitch like an attacking midfielder, moving across the central spaces behind the striker while dropping deep to link play. Then, he combines this with movement in the final third like a second striker as he attempts penetrative runs into the opposition’s penalty box.
His touch map against Fulham perfectly represents the same – a match where the Argentine scored two goals.
(Julián Álvarez touch map against Fulham in the Premier League)
Guardiola unlocked the creativity of Álvarez by deploying him to this position, where he is flourishing. It has also led to an uptick in his shot-creating actions this season compared to last (3.92 versus 3.2). Shot-creating actions are those exertions by a player that leads to a shot, which includes passes, take-ons, and shots.
As a result, Álvarez ranks among the top contributors to chance creation for City in the Premier League, as illustrated by the chart below.
Guardiola shares the chance creation responsibility across the City forwards, with each player assigned to contribute in varying ways.
When breaking down the different means through which Álvarez creates for his team, we discover the following:
The City No.19’s majority contributions come through passes from open play (live passes) and dead-ball situations like freekicks and corners – a responsibility handed over to Álvarez from Kevin De Bruyne after his injury.
This bloom in his creative output has perfectly transpired during a phase when the team needs it most, as their Belgian magician is sidelined for a considerable chunk of the campaign.
Second striker runs
Julián Álvarez’s subsequent and most important role in the team is to perform as a second striker alongside the central man, Erling Haaland.
An observation you would have made when viewing Manchester City matches this season is this central position that Álvarez (yellow) constantly drifts into behind the striker.
From here, the City forward drops deep to drag his marker to create space for a direct pass to Haaland or the other attacking midfielders that might be free. If no opposition player follows him, Álvarez will have room to turn and pick a pass or drive forward.
Conversely, if a midfielder performs these tasks, Álvarez will seek to discover dangerous spaces to exploit.
Furthermore, Haaland’s movements are designed in a way to distract and drag opposition defenders to create space for Álvarez – due to the cosmic goal threat that the Norwegian brings, multiple defenders can be manipulated and lured to unfavorable territories to open space for the Argentine to convert into goals and assists.
Take this sequence in City’s first game of the Premier League season away against Burnley as an example, which illustrates the above.
Ederson executes a long pass to the feet of Phil Foden, who plays a first-time pass to Haaland.
Notice how Álvarez momentarily drops deep while Haaland, out of frame on the far right in the image below, pins two Burnley central defenders – creating space between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines as Burnley conducts a man-oriented pressing system.
As the City striker holds off a defender after receiving the pass, Álvarez bombs ahead to provide support – running into the space highlighted in the previous screenshot.
Haaland intelligently drags both defenders to the left by carrying the ball to that area, consequentially opening up space on the right for the Argentine to exploit.
After Álvarez reads the situation, he darts into that area and takes a shot after collecting a pass from Haaland.
Although the shot goes wide, this theme of a player luring the opposition’s defenders to create space for their strike-counterpart to exploit is common.
These principles were on display again in the match against Newcastle United. On this occasion, Haaland distracted the left center-back and fullback with his presence to create space in the penalty box for Álvarez to score after a late surging run.
Against Fulham, Álvarez’s delayed movement into the box, which is typical of a second striker, allows him to get on the end of a cross from Haaland.
⭐️🇦🇷 Pep Guardiola: “Julián Álvarez, he is fantastic. Always has good behaviour, playing or not playing — being a world champion or not. Always the same”.
“The perfect dose of disappointment when he doesn't play, but always ready for the opportunity. He’s excellent”. pic.twitter.com/xIxjstJ60q
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) September 23, 2023
Julián Álvarez had the entire season last year to settle into his new life in Manchester. But now the team and the manager need him more than ever to sustain their exemplary domination in all competitions.
The early signs indicate that Álvarez has risen to the occasion and will be capable of serving Manchester City and Pep Guardiola to fulfill their ambitions.
The boy from Calchin, Argentina, transformed his mental resilience over the World Cup period last year as he guided his country to a historic moment despite mountainous challenges.
No barrier will ever be too high to conquer, and no feat will ever be too difficult to achieve for Álvarez compared to the strains he faced to reach the pinnacle of world football.
This season, Álvarez looks primed to stamp his name on the football map as one of the best young talents in the world, and what better time to do it when many are not expecting it?