Rodrigo Bentancur: A fighter who relishes making tackles and loves the ugly side of the game

Perhaps it’s the fact he played in his first superclasico for Boca Juniors against River Plate aged just 17 that explains why Rodrigo Bentancur always appears so fearless.

The superclasico is regarded as one of the most fiercely contested derbies in world football and on the occasion when Bentancur made his debut, his Boca team were already down to 10 men. River were down to nine. A week later, Bentancur scored against the same opposition, who this time had three men sent off, in a 5-0 win. Both matches were technically friendlies, but in name only. Later in 2015, a few months after his 18th birthday, Bentancur made his competitive superclasico debut.

This was after moving to the bustling Buenos Aires from the small city of Nueva Helvecia in Uruguay to live in a Boca dormitory as a youngster.

Bentancur’s Tottenham debut as a second-half substitute against Brighton on Saturday was similarly assured. He was composed on the ball, and produced one of the moments of the match when just outside his own area he nonchalantly dragged the ball back and flicked it away from Evan Ferguson. It was the kind of skill that instantly wins over a new set of supporters.

Upon arriving at Juventus a week after his 20th birthday, Bentancur was just as unfazed by the challenge he faced. He would be competing with elite players like Miralem Pjanic, Sami Khedira, Blaise Matuidi and Claudio Marchisio for minutes in midfield but ended up making 27 appearances in his first season, before becoming a regular starter the following campaign. In between, he started all five of Uruguay’s World Cup matches in the summer of 2018 as he helped the team reach the quarter-finals. A few months later, “Lolo” (a nickname that developed because his brother couldn’t pronounce Rodrigo as a baby and kept calling him Lolilo, which became Lolo) ran the game as Juventus beat Manchester United 1-0 at Old Trafford in the Champions League.

To have made that step up from Boca to Juve and then sustain the kind of influence he has had at such a young age speaks volumes about his character and effectiveness.

Now onto his next challenge: helping Spurs qualify for the Champions League and re-establish themselves after a turbulent few years.

Bentancur himself has not had it easy in the last season and a half, improving under Maurizio Sarri but suffering a bit in Andrea Pirlo’s dysfunctional team during the 2020-21 campaign and finding himself in and out of the side under Massimiliano Allegri.

But he is a fighter, someone who relishes making tackles, interceptions and the ugly side of the game. Antonio Conte needs these players in his teams, the worker bees who get stuck in and allow the stars to shine. After all, the imperative to sign Bentancur developed from the fact that Conte didn’t believe Giovani Lo Celso or Tanguy Ndombele could give themselves up for the team in the way that he demands.

So while Dejan Kulusevski looked like being the signing more likely to get Spurs fans excited in the short term, Bentancur, who was a more regular starter, is seen as the bigger loss to Juventus (no Juve player played more Serie A matches during his time in Turin) and someone who can go a long way to making this Tottenham team more functional.

Aston Villa were also interested in the midfielder but they couldn’t agree terms with Juventus, and so it was left to Spurs to pounce and complete a transfer of £15.9 million plus £5 million in add-ons. Bentancur left Juve with three Serie A titles and two Coppa Italias, to add to the two Argentinian leagues and one domestic cup he won while at Boca.

Now after his deadline day move and encouraging debut, Bentancur is said to be very excited at linking up with Conte and thinks he will be great for his career. He also feels that the Premier League will be a good fit for his skill-set.

After swapping the quiet coastal life of Nueva Helvecia — “New Switzerland” — for the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires as a boy, Bentancur quickly started getting noticed.

He came through the academy as a number six, the deepest midfielder in the diamond midfield favoured by Boca for much of the last decade or two.

He broke into the team playing as the left-sided carrilero (number eight) of the diamond. He can equally play as a six but the box-to-box role is seen as his position in Argentina, where the six is more of a passer (by way of comparison, Fernando Gago was the six while he was at Boca).

He made his debut aged 17 in April 2015 and became a semi-regular player that year, which ended with Boca winning the title. Only a couple of months after making his debut, Juve made their move. It wasn’t a conventional signing but a clever piece of opportunism from Juve’s then sporting director Fabio Paratici.

Carlos Tevez had abruptly decided he wanted to rejoin Boca shortly after Juve lost the Champions League final to Barcelona. Juventus agreed to the sale but knowing Boca couldn’t reach their valuation stipulated that they would have first refusal on signing Bentancur (as well as Guido Vadala, Franco Cristaldo and Adrian Cubas, who in relative terms have sunk without trace).

Bentancur celebrates winning the Argentine league title with Tevez in 2015 (Photo: Getty)

In 2016, following a stellar display in Boca’s 4-2 Superclasico away win, Juve exercised the option and brought Bentancur to Turin for a bargain price of €9.5 million (£7.9 million), to be paid in instalments. Boca inserted a 50 per cent sell-on clause into the arrangement, which Paratici subsequently negotiated down.

Bentancur was very well thought of at Boca but never fully became a star there in the way others before him had, and by way of comparison, he was sold for half of what Valencia paid for Ever Banega nine years earlier. Boca fans and their hierarchy weren’t totally convinced Bentancur, who made 66 first-team appearances for the club, would thrive in Europe, even though the coaches there loved him.

Bentancur is similarly popular with the coaches of his national team, and having already picked up 47 caps, he is expected to one day reach a century. Uruguay are currently in the final automatic qualification place for this year’s World Cup in Qatar — thanks to a 4-1 win over Venezuela last week. Bentancur opened the scoring with a superb strike from the edge of the box after just 50 seconds.

Scoring though is not what he is known for, managing three goals at Juve in his four and a half years at the club.

What stood out more in Turin, certainly at the start, was Bentancur’s maturity and composure. “You can already see Rodrigo played with men in Argentina,” Allegri observed soon after Bentancur, only just in his 20s, had arrived.

How successful Bentancur’s time was at Juventus depends on your perspective. For some supporters, there was frustration that his passing from deeper positions wasn’t up to the standard of Pjanic, who left the club in the summer of 2020. It was even further away from that of the legendary Pirlo, who as manager last season demanded a level of passing that Bentancur probably wasn’t quite up to.

But very few players are, and a deep-lying playmaker in the Pirlo mould is not really Bentancur’s game. He can do it to some extent and is a solid passer who will add something in this regard to the Spurs midfield, but his game is also about sniffing out danger, making tackles and feeding attacking players with effective if unspectacular distribution. We saw some of this neat and tidy passing against Brighton, as well as the steel to go with that silk as he picked up a booking for a cynical foul on Yves Bissouma.

Bentancur can be a very effective cog in a winning machine and is someone Conte will know he can rely on to give everything each week. His personality and character should also add something to a dressing room that has been accused of lacking leaders. He has played for two extremely high-pressure clubs and racked up almost 250 appearances for them by the age of 24.

And there were undoubtedly periods where he stood out at Juve. During that second season when his composure and speed of thought elevated him far above his opponents during the 1-0 win at Old Trafford, Bentancur also outshone World Cup-winning midfielders Matuidi and Khedira. Even in his first campaign, Bentancur was often trusted in the biggest games — his full debut was away at Barcelona in the Champions League. “If he didn’t have (what it takes),” Allegri said at the time, “I wouldn’t have made him play.”

Bentancur performed superbly as Juve won at Manchester United in 2018 (Photo: Getty)

But it was the 2018-19 campaign that he really kicked on, with Allegri loving his attitude and encouraging him to get forward more and try and get on the end of things. As Bentancur demonstrated on Tuesday night for Uruguay, he is still showing the benefits of this attacking education. Allegri also felt Bentancur was wasted just sitting and gave him the licence to take advantage of his dynamism by frequently leaving his station in central midfield.

“Rodrigo has surprised me a lot with how he has adapted to our mentality and the Italian league,” Allegri said during Bentancur’s first season at Juventus. In his second, Bentancur was arguably Serie A’s most improved player.

Bentancur enjoyed an impressive campaign the following year too under Maurizio Sarri, chipping in with eight Serie A assists in the 2019-20 campaign.

But last season he lost his way a bit under Pirlo, looking much less comfortable in a midfield two compared to a three (it will be interesting to see which system Conte opts for). His lowest point was probably a woefully under-hit back pass that allowed Mehdi Taremi to nip in and put Porto ahead in the Champions League last-16 defeat against Porto. A frustrated Pirlo stuck the knife in afterwards: “We had prepared well for this game, it was not the attitude we wanted, but conceding a goal in the opening minute when we handed it to them on a silver platter made everything more difficult.”

Under Allegri this season, Bentancur has started 13 of Juventus’s 23 Serie A matches and has not been able to rediscover the form from his manager’s first spell.

There have been suggestions that he has not really kicked on and progressed, but this leads us back to the question of expectations and what or who people think Bentancur should be.

He is not a regista in the Pirlo mould but he certainly has plenty of strengths for Spurs to exploit.

Looking at the numbers from smarterscout, which rates an individual out of 99 in specific metrics relative to other players at their position, we can see how effective Bentancur is in disrupting opposition attacks.

Off the ball, he makes a very high volume of defensive actions like tackles, blocks and clearances (disrupting opposition moves 99 out of 99) and is very effective at preventing the opposition from progressing further upfield (defending impact 71 out of 99).

A couple of examples from last season illustrate Bentancur’s skill at sniffing out danger and dispossessing opponents.

Against Ferencvaros in November 2020, Bentancur spots the danger as soon as Myrto Uzuni gets clear down the opposition left…

He makes up the ground to get to Uzuni and wins the ball back cleanly…

Before starting a Juve attack with a pass out to the right.

Against Chelsea in September, Bentancur tracks the run of Kai Havertz

And stops the attack with a sliding tackle.

Bentancur does tend to enjoy going to ground and making challenges which, if stereotypes are to be believed, should endear him to an English audience and not be looked on too unkindly by the Premier League’s supposedly less strict referees. His tackling rating when looking at his duels in a one-v-one situation is strong (71 out of 99), showing that he will win a tackle more often than not when he engages with his man.

And his distribution, while not at the levels of some of his Juve forebears, is also impressive.

He is very technically skilled and we can see from his profile this season (in the “pizza” chart above) that he is key to the build-up play in possession, frequently playing simple passes to a nearby teammate in his style (link-up play volume 90 out of 99). He does have a good passing range but isn’t one to frequently play long balls upfield (progressive passing 24 out of 99) compared with his positional peers — probably owing to Juventus’s style of play.

That said he is capable of playing effective longer passes, as in the example below, and has an effective ping out to the right-hand side from deep positions. He occasionally took corners and free-kicks while at Juve.

Here, in January 2021 against Sampdoria. Bentancur whips a pass first time into the path of Cristiano Ronaldo

It’s perfectly weighted and Ronaldo is through on goal, only to be denied by a last-ditch tackle.

In general, Bentancur doesn’t offer a huge amount in the way of attacking output (shot volume 15 out of 99) but that’s not his game, and he is still able to get forward and support attacks — sometimes, as in the below example, when he has started them by winning the ball back.

During last August’s friendly against Barcelona, Bentancur spots the danger and wins the ball back for his team…

He moves forward into the Barca half…

And slips a well-weighted through ball to Alvaro Morata, who is just offside.

At Spurs, then, he looks most similar in style to Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg while also sharing some similarities with Oliver Skipp, and it’ll be interesting to see who emerges as Conte’s first-choice midfield. Harry Winks has also been in good form of late, and the head coach will have a dilemma as to whether to play with a midfield three that has tended to bring out the best in Bentancur but means playing with one less attacker.

Depending on how highly he rates him, Conte may look to Bentancur to play box-to-box despite him rarely showing the timing and willingness to get into the penalty area that characterised Arturo Vidal, Marchisio and Nicolo Barella’s play under the same coach. Bentancur could be given the role Marcelo Brozovic had for Conte at Inter — the regista who takes the ball off the centre-backs and starts attacks from deeper positions — but this was the position he sometimes came in for criticism for while playing at Juve. One suspects Conte will want a specialist regista brought in this summer, with Bentancur in the engine room.

Wherever he plays, there’s no doubt he will put the hard yards in — which is a good starting point for any Conte player.

(Additional reporting: Ed Malyon, James Horncastle, Mark Carey)