Hailing from the streets of Villa 1-11-14 in Buenos Aires, Héctor Villalba has risen through the ranks at his local club to the point where he’s now impressing in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club competition. A toughness formed during his upbringing in the Bajo Flores area of the city has been taken with him to the nearby Estadio Pedro Bidegain, the home of San Lorenzo, where he now plays his football with an energy and urgency reminiscent of many great Argentines before him.
The type of neighbourhood where Villalba was brought up is often referred to as a villa miseria, which shouldn’t need much translation, and for a player who joined San Lorenzo at the age of 11, training with the club in his formative years was a way to escape. Now 19-years-old and on the first steps to success with his home-town club, his next aim is to help the rest of his family move out of the area.
Beyond playing in the Primera [División], my greatest desire is to get my family out of the neighbourhood
That next step doesn’t necessarily have to be a move abroad, but the money available elsewhere and the interest he’s now attracting from across the globe, would make playing football outside of Argentina the next logical move.
Despite this desire to leave Bajo Flores behind, he also talks of the region with pride, defends its dangerous reputation, and speaks of the discrimination suffered by the villeros – the name given to those who live in poor areas.
Most people think of it as a dangerous place but if you go there it’s different. They always show you the worst about it.
People that work go to Avenida Varela and go to work together. And you know they return at 6 or 7 PM and they work all day…and then TV shows you a guy that robbed a taxi driver with a gun, it annoys you.
Villalba himself worked in a laundry during his time as a youth player at the club, cleaning tablecloths for local restaurants.
Villalba is a busy attacker who can play on either wing, as a poacher who looks to get behind a defence, or as a deeper lying forward. Not dissimilar to PSG’s Argentine forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, he’ll track back when needed and close down opposing defenders when they have the ball. His work rate off the ball will attract plenty of suitors from Europe and as he improves, the size and reputation of the clubs showing interest will only increase.
Speed is probably his strongest asset, and this quickness across the ground coupled with excellent dribbling control could pose a danger to any defence. Here’s a goal he scored against Racing, which demonstrates his ability to accelerate away from opposing defenders.
He also has some stereotypical Argentine traits. A low centre of gravity coupled with a deceptive strength for someone of his size brings to mind fellow countrymen Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, and a couple of footballing legends with whom it would be unfair to compare him at such a young age.
However, despite being able to play centrally he is more wing-like than these players, and more accurate comparisons might be found in the shape of the aforementioned Lavezzi or Claudio Caniggia. He’s maybe not quite as fast as Caniggia, but who is?
Former coach Ricardo Caruso Lombardi, who gave the youngster his debut in the San Lorenzo side, spoke of the power and drive he had even as a young player standing at just over 5ft7 (172cm). Lombardi commented:
Tito stood out. What amazed me most was the strength he had. Villalba is physically small, but is one hell of a force when going forward
His recent performances in the Copa Libertadores helped his side to knock out the current Brazilian champions Cruzeiro, and he’ll hope to feature in the next round(s) should his team continue to progress.
During these games he’s played predominantly on the right hand side of an attacking three, but in the second leg against Cruzeiro he tracked back regularly to cover his full-back as the team were defending an aggregate lead.
His positional graphic from Transfermarkt shows he’s most natural position is striker, which he has played in the Argentine domestic league, with an ability to play on either wing.
However, in the Copa Libertadores he’s played effectively on the right wing where he can also use his energy and speed to help track back and defend, or close down opposition players further up the pitch. This is likely to be his position in the future, on either side or perhaps even in the middle as his game becomes more refined.
This graphic from Football Manager 2014 shows him as a natural attacking right winger.
Either way, this shows his potential to be versatile as an attacking player, who’s also willing to work for the team, and these qualities will be very attractive to visiting scouts.
Villalba’s ambition to improve the quality of life for himself and his family could mean he jumps at the first chance of a move abroad, but a string of impressive performances mean that his choice of future club is ever-increasing.
(Thanks to Hernan Busso for some of the Spanish translations)