With the World Cup now just weeks away, football’s greatest clubs will all be pondering how to strengthen their squads before resuming action in August.
This is true for South American teams as well as Europeans. In Argentina, Los Grandes are already working out how they can improve ahead of the knockout phase of the Copa Libertadores and the start of a new Super Liga championship.
One of Argentina’s traditional giants, River Plate, has carried the nickname “The Millionaire” for well over half a century. Their considerable economic clout- backed by a gigantic fanbase- means they are always one of the most closely followed teams in Latin America during any transfer window.
During the upcoming summer window (winter transfer window in the Southern Hemisphere) River find themselves in a completely different position to the last instance at Christmas time.
At the end of 2017, manager Marcelo Gallardo was presiding over a threadbare squad that- decimated by injuries, suspensions and departures- fell short of its main objectives, which were to reach the Copa Libertadores final and challenge Boca Juniors in the domestic league.
This left the club no other option but to kick off 2018 with the huge spending spree the fans were demanding. They paid a big transfer fee to bring in Lucas Pratto from São Paulo, as well as securing the shrewd additions of Franco Armani, Bruno Zuculini, and Juan Fernando Quintero.
These new arrivals, combined with the return from long-term injuries and suspensions of other key players, have given River a much stronger squad than they had six months ago. This has been reflected by results on the pitch recently, as the team won eight of the final nine games of the domestic league, and made a satisfactory start to the Copa Libertadores campaign.
The focus for Gallardo and his staff will therefore be more on retention than recruitment during June and July. This will present a challenge as some players are already playing well enough to attract interest from Europe and Mexico, where clubs can offer much greater salaries.
Most of the focus will be on Gonzalo Martinez, a left-footed playmaker who has long been courted by European clubs. He has had a fine 12 months for River, and the rumours around him and his representatives seem to indicate that this will finally be the transfer window that sees him swap El Monumental for a foreign team. His release clause is currently US$15m, which seems cheap in the current market.
He would be a huge loss for the team, as they will struggle to find a player with similar qualities. They do however have Juan Fernando Quintero who could play in a similar position, and his delicate through-balls would be a good replacement for Martinez’s step-overs.
The club are also keen to raise goalkeeper Franco Armani’s release clause, which currently stands at US$8m. Since his arrival from Colombia in January his performances have been superb, and at 31 years of age, he could easily have 5-10 years more to offer at the highest level. River took nearly two years to fill the huge void goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero left in 2016, so it’s vital for them that Armani stays put in Núñez for the foreseeable future.
Then there is the case of the upcoming star Ezequiel Palacios. The 19-year-old has been part of the River squad for over a year, but in recent months his performances have left fans calling for him to earn a place in the starting XI more frequently, even ahead of much more experienced players. He has a lot to offer the team in the future, and it would be premature for him to leave now, but there will no doubt be wealthy European clubs monitoring his every move.
Two other names that have been linked to Mexican clubs in the past six months are Jonathan Maidana and Rodrigo Mora. These players are adored by the fans at El Monumental, as they are two of the few remaining members of the team which managed a continental treble in 2014/15, winning the Copa Sudamericana, South American Super Cup, and Copa Libertadores.
Mora is currently negotiating a new contract with the club, whilst Maidana came very close to leaving for Toluca on deadline day in January. He showed great loyalty and eventually agreed to hold off on a move as River’s defensive department would have been left short in numbers.
El Millonario will want to get to September with these players all still at the club, but in some cases (particularly Martinez’s) it will be very tough as tempting offers are expected.
In terms of recruitment, it’s debateable how much the team need to add to their current squad in order to fight for the Libertadores. They have real quality between the goalposts, a good group of midfielders, and four capable strikers. The only area which could be reinforced considerably is full-back.
When club-legend Gabriel Mercado departed for Sevilla in May 2016, they replaced him with Paraguay right-back Jorge Moreira.
The Paraguayan proved up to the task, fitting in well in Gallardo’s side, but he has been injury-plagued for some time and has not appeared for the first team since October.
Promising young centre-back Gonzalo Montiel has covered for him with occasional success but has been repeatedly exposed positionally as he struggles to cope with his coach’s insistence on providing width in attacking moves.
On the other flank, young Uruguayan left-back Marcelo Saracchi has looked more comfortable, but lacks the experience River might need to go all the way and must improve on his deliveries in the final third, which have a tendency to be wasted.
In conclusion, River’s squad does not need a complete overhaul in June. If they can retain the current players and replace any departures like-for-like, they could be just one or two good signings away from competing for the holy grail of South American football- the Copa Libertadores.