In a complicated year for the Xeneizes, the 19-year-old full-back shone as one of the most promising young talents in South American football.
It has been a year to forget for Boca Juniors. Trophyless, off the pace in Argentina, and with defeat to Fluminense in the CONMEBOL Libertadores final, a final opportunity to qualify for the 2024 edition slammed shut.
And yet despite the collective failure it was a breakout year for a flame-haired full-back by the name of Valentín Barco.
Firstly, ‘full-back’ is perhaps misleading. Now former Boca manager Jorge Almirón made the most of the 19-year-old’s attacking prowess by utilizing him in a far more advanced role in the latter half of the year. Yet for those sides eying up a move in January, the likes of Manchester City and Brighton, will no doubt see qualities that would still suit a modern, attacking left-back.
After all, this is a transition that took place many years prior in Boca’s famed academy. Arriving at the age of nine from his local club in the town of 25 de Mayo, Barco immediately impressed and was gradually withdrawn into his now more familiar deep-lying role.
Something that the player himself has stated he enjoys, telling Tyc Sports: "A lot of people see me as a midfielder as my main quality is attacking play, but I love to play at left-back because I have the whole pitch in front of me."
From this deeper starting position Barco has certainly found joy down Boca’s left. Regardless of whether the 19-year-old is playing at left-back, in midfield or on the left wing in a 4-3-3 he often drops to receive the ball to feet and helps initiate attacks. Barco’s passing (7.05 progressive passes per 90) and runs (2.96 per 90) move Boca up the pitch quickly and enable the possibility to play on the counter when the opportunity arises.
This positional versatility is obviously desirable but also demonstrates an astute tactical brain. Coming inside and inverting when joining the midfield is a trait that would suit those clubs most strongly linked to Barco. Creating overloads in this area of the pitch and then having the ability to make forward passes or dribble to break the lines.
And it is Barco’s dribbling that really catches the eye. Not so much the viral social media moments of standing on the ball to taunt defenders, although that too helps demonstrate the youngster’s unshakeable confidence in his own ability, but rather his pace, close control and quick changes of direction.
7.17 dribbles per 90 puts Barco among the highest performers in Argentina’s top flight and can provide Boca with those individual sparks to create danger.
With the space created from this close control, Barco can stay wide and cross but has equally shown an ability to come inside and use his deceptively good ‘weaker’ right-foot. When in wide areas, Barco produces a high volume of crosses (3.79 per 90) with a decent degree of accuracy and such is the quality of his delivery the teenager has often stood over the set-plays from the left.
Now while it is the attacking characteristics that really excite, if Barco is to play as a left-back then there will be defensive questions. His energy and tenacity are useful in the press and counterpress yielding 4.62 recoveries per 90.
And he wins his fair share of defensive duels (60.38%) but there are still elements to improve here. Physically, at a slight 172cm, Barco could do with adding some muscle mass and opposition sides would no doubt see his lack of height defending the back-post as a potential area of weakness.
However, these are areas that can be developed and accounted for within a side’s defensive unit. Barco will have very little self-doubt. Whatever he may lack in experience, the teenager makes up for in character and will have no problem berating even a teammate of the pedigree of Edison Cavani.
A measly $10 million release clause which Boca would love to see increased makes Barco all the more attractive to prospective buyers.
Even allowing for the drop in quality comparing competition in Argentina and South America compared to Europe, Barco compares favorably with those left-sided defenders at the clubs most closely linked to the player.
At still only 19 and with only 35 senior appearances, Barco remains a work-in-progress but the potential is enormous. A move to Europe looks inevitable in January and a call-up to the Argentina national team might not be far behind it.