Many a gifted footballer has come out of Rosario, Argentina. That is where the peerless Lionel Messi was born and called home until his departure for Spain; where Internazionale striker Mauro Icardi can trace his roots; and the city that the young and voracious Giovani Lo Celso represents.
Beginning his career at Rosario Central in 2010, an academy that also produced Ángel Di Maria, Lo Celso’s tenure there went in a blink of an eye. After making his Primera División debut in July 2015, he would make 23 appearances for Rosario during that season, impressing fans and scouts alike as his team made it to the quarter-finals of the 2016 Copa Libertadores.
Then came a torrid performance for the Argentina Olympic team at the 2016 games in Brazil. Used in his preferred attacking or central midfield role, Lo Celso was the lifeline for Argentina’s attack and defence, picking up the ball and distributing it to the forwards, including éAtltico Madrid’s Ángel Correa.
Lo Celso was one of the few bright spots in what was a shocking and befuddling performance from Argentina, who finished the group stage in third and were deservingly eliminated. He made the most of his time in Brazil, though, and scored a transfer to Paris Saint-Germain for around £8.5m, after what must have been some diligent scouting from the French giants.
Returning to Rosario on loan for the rest of the year, Lo Celso would make nine more appearances and finished with three goals and eight assists in 32 matches for his Central.
When considering the pressure and scrutiny from the fans and media, a move to a colossal club with the expectations of PSG is always a risk at any point in a player’s career. However, the track record PSG and then-manager Unai Emery have for giving opportunities to players who have shown potential is better than most.
PSG’s jam-packed schedule at home and abroad offers a multitude of chances for younger players to see competitive action against top-flight opponents. Quashing any concerns over his playing time or stunting development, Lo Celso made his debut for PSG in a Coupe de France match against Avranches in April 2017. Coming on for Adrien Rabiot in the 63rd minute in what would end up a 4-0 win for PSG, he didn’t seem fazed operating in the middle of the park.
After the 2016/17 season wrapped up, Lo Celso had played in five matches for PSG, in which he assisted two goals. It was enough for him to get an understanding of PSG’s style and what it takes to play in a top European league, but he still required more chances to demonstrate his true potential.
After developing physically in the offseason, the 2017/18 campaign saw him take a step to becoming a valued squad player. He played in 33 Ligue 1 matches, starting 18 of those and registered four goals and three assists. He also made seven Champions League appearances, securing a solitary assist. Beyond the stats, Lo Celso introduced himself to Europe as a versatile box-to-box midfielder. He played multiple games as both a defensive and more straightforward central midfielder, and sparingly as a forward-thinking number 8 or 10.
A surprise selection in PSG’s squad for the round of 16 tie with Real Madrid, he earned the confidence of Emery but didn’t exactly display what he was capable of. Playing in a more unnatural holding midfield role, he conceded a penalty shortly before half-time, which added more fuel to the debate about whether the veteran Lassana Diarra would’ve been a better selection.
At 21, it is hard to put that type of pressure on a player in his first full season in Europe, even more so when considering it was his first Champions League start at the Parc des Princes against the two-time defending champions.
That Champions League blunder aside, Lo Celso’s progression and finely tuned technical skills are like so many of his compatriots. His left foot is magical, and he rarely gets pushed off the ball with a center of gravity comparable to that of Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovačić or Tottenham’s Dele Alli. He also has that trademark Argentine flair; not shy about making fancy passes or pulling something incredible out of his diverse bag of tricks.
His chipped goal against Lille in February will draw comparisons to his international teammate Lionel Messi, which isn’t too far-fetched. He has the same kind of drive and passing ability, but not quite the consistent finishing or playmaking edge of the Barcelona talisman.
But Lo Celso still has some of that magic dust, and though he isn’t quite at the top of the depth chart for Argentina, the fact that he was called up for the 2018 World Cup is significant. After Mario Götze scored an extra-time winner in the Maracanã in July 2014, it has been a tumultuous few years for La Albiceleste.
Despite having a collection of some of the best players in world football and a legendary talent in Messi, it hasn’t clicked. Similar to Barcelona’s issue in recent years in recruiting players that can complement Messi, Argentina have failed to find a manager who can implement a style that best utilises the undoubted quality of their attack.
The inclusion of someone like Lo Celso brings hope and excitement, though, if not for this World Cup but for the future. Although he and Messi both like to be on the ball, being able to train and learn first-hand from him will do the young star well as he ushers in the next generation.
Reading the squad list of Argentina, it can be somewhat compelling to think of them as a team that shouldn’t struggle. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case as manager Jorge Sampaoli has tried to piece together a puzzle but is missing a few edge pieces.
Sampaoli is known for organising a ruthless and suffocating defensive system based on a high press, which could be a reason he chose the young star. Lo Celso doesn’t mind pressing or tracking back and making a challenge, and his creativity complements other midfielders in Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano, who have better defensive instincts.
Making his debut for Argentina in a 1-0 friendly win against Russia in November 2017, none of Lo Celso’s caps have come in competitive fixtures. It isn’t surprising for national team managers to select a few youngsters to take with them – Messi was selected for his first World Cup in 2006 at the age of 19 – but seeing much playing time can be a struggle. A lack of midfield strength is certainly one of the reasons Lo Celso was included, but he hasn’t disappointed in the few times he has played for La Albiceleste.
Starting with his debut against Russia, Lo Celso rarely appeared intimidated. Flying around and connecting a few one-two passes with Messi and Sergio Agüero, he struggled at times when put under pressure but exhibited good physicality and endurance before being subbed off.
The Rosario man got a bigger opportunity to impress for his country against Italy in March at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, starting and playing 76 minutes as an attacking midfielder. Of Italian descent and holding an Italian passport, Lo Celso was fluid and concise with his play, assisting Éver Banega for the opening goal. Along with Di Maria, Lo Celso was the focal point in attack against the Italians, with time on the ball suiting his style.
For any nation to maintain success in football, it is important to have that one player who is the breadwinner and doesn’t mind the pressure from the media. Messi does this well because, as identified in Guillem Balague’s biography, Messi, he loves the game, so he goes out and plays, leaving the rest of his work to others. It also helps that he came up through the ranks with other levelheaded players, such as Pablo Zabaleta, who, from a young age, was prepared to work that little bit harder off the ball so his mercurial teammate could shine.
That said, the future of Argentine football is up in the air after this World Cup, especially if Messi retires. Lo Celso signifies this changing of the guard, and though he isn’t going to be the player who scores 20 goals a season, he will need to embrace a leadership role. The great thing about Argentina, a blue-collar country where football means more than most people can imagine, is the abundance of prospects routinely popping up.
Twenty-four-year-old Paulo Dybala is one of those who’s waiting for his chance, and someone Lo Celso could form a symbiotic partnership with. Dybala’s lack of chemistry with Messi has been well documented, and can be attributed to a number of reasons, but he should eventually get the chance to replace Messi in the number 10 role.
After Lo Celso, Christian Pavón, who has shone for Boca Juniors, will be the second-youngest player in Russia for Argentina. The pair were teammates at the Olympics two years ago, and Pavón has done well when given the chance to play on the right or left wing. Most believe he won’t play much in Russia, but more time to learn what it takes to play at the top level and bonding with Lo Celso will nevertheless be a great opportunity.
Already a respected player across Europe, this tournament will be a chance for Lo Celso to improve and begin to flourish as one of the next leaders for his country. Not often do players have the chance to compete on a stage this big without high expectations, but that’s where he stands right now.
There is no doubt that the future is bright for Giovani Lo Celso, but he’ll need to use the present to help shape a career at the top and drive Argentina to international glory once again.
By Gabe Campis @Gabe_Campis