By Matthew J. McKay.
Nicolas Gaitan arrived in Lisbon, Portugal in the early summer of 2010 from heralded Argentinian club Boca Juniors. Many casual fans and observers think that he was bought as a direct replacement for the outgoing Angel DiMaria, who had been sold by Benfica to Real Madrid in June of 2010. However, Gaitan was actually purchased before the DiMaria transfer was finalised. Gaitan arrived at Benfica as a wide-eyed but confident 21 year-old winger, soft spoken and humble, and with DiMaria’s huge shoes to fill. Hand-picked by coach Jorge Jesus, Gaitan was one of several players that Benfica had targeted to overhaul the squad in an attempt to keep the Portuguese league title in Lisbon. On May 9, 2010, less than a week after Gaitan’s arrival, Benfica had secured their first domestic championship in over a decade, and Coach Jesus intended to keep the trophy in Lisbon for years to come. Nico was to be an integral part of his plan.
Like many South American players, Gaitan was a little slow to adapt to the regimented, formation-based style of European football, and struggled at times in his first appearances for the club. He was criticised for his slight physical stature, his occasional lapses in concentration, his defensive efforts in midfield, and (most bizarre of all) for being Argentinian! Benfica traditionalists love and idolise their Portuguese players, and as the Benfica line-up began to feature more and more South Americans on a regular basis, the team, and especially the coach, received heavy criticism in the press. However, as Nico began to adapt, and then to quickly excel, this dissent eventually quieted to a whisper. By the time his first season at Benfica had ended, and it became clear that his play and his statistics would surpass those of fan favourite and star player Angel DiMaria, he had become adored. Now, in less than two full seasons, Nico has attained almost legendary status at Benfica. He has grown into one of the best wing players in all of Europe, and his transfer value has skyrocketed.
As far as Gaitan’s weaknesses are concerned, it has already been stated that he has been criticised for his consistency, or lack thereof. He is sometimes prone to lapses in concentration, and has also been known to get a little lazy on defence, especially late in a game as fatigue begins to set in. Also, he has somewhat of a slight build, but he has remained surprisingly healthy during his time at Benfica, picking up only a few minor knocks and no serious injuries. Further, any lingering questions about his size and physicality should be taken in context with what players like Luka Modric, Aaron Lennon and David Silva have been able to achieve in the Premier League as of late.
Any discussion of Nico Gaitan’s strengths would most certainly start with his ball control abilities, his passing skills, and his vision and anticipation on the pitch. All are top-notch, and his passing ability is peerless. He has excellent pace and speed, and the ability to finish from anywhere in the box. Most impressive to me is his versatility. I have literally seen him play every attacking and central midfield position, and seen him deployed in multiple formations. Based on his passing ability and vision, most find him especially suited for a central attacking midfield role. Ironically, due to the stellar play of veteran #10 (and fellow countryman) Pablo Aimar, that is the one position where he has had limited opportunities in his time with Benfica. In my opinion, Gaitan is most effective when deployed out on the wing in an attacking position, and given the freedom to drift into the central midfield as needed. This type of a role allows him the opportunity to maximize his skill set by playing in space. The final strength I would identify, and a virtue most important to any player of his calibre, is his “big-game mentality”. Nico Gaitan has consistently produced for Benfica in the biggest of games, and on the biggest of stages. Whether in the Champion’s League, in a crucial domestic league match, or in one of the hotly contested “derby” games, in which Benfica participates, Gaitan has demonstrated an uncanny ability to have his best performances in some of his club’s most important games. For this fan, nothing makes him more valuable than this immeasurable attribute.
Us Benfica fans are, of course, heartbroken to see players like David Luiz, Fabio Coentrao, Ramires, and Angel DiMaria sold on a regular basis to ensure our club’s future and its financial survival. Now, our beloved Nico looks set to join that esteemed list of former Benfica players. However, at the same time, the reality of the Portuguese economy dictates that these sales are necessary in order to keep the business model working. Like a proud father, I wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavours, and will look on with immense pride and great anticipation as Gaitan gets his opportunity to shine on one of the world’s biggest stages, wherever that may be. An opportunity, mind you, that he has most certainly earned, and is absolutely worthy of.
“Nico: com um embraca forte, eu diz “obrigado”
(Nico: with a strong embrace, I say “thanks”)
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