Editor’s Note: This article was written by Justin Sousa, a staff writer for Scouted Football, a leading outlet covering U-23 players from around the world. Follow them @ScoutedFtbl and @JustinSousa99.
Argentina crashed out of the U-20 World Cup Tuesday after a heartbreaking loss to Mali in a penalty kick shootout. Fernando Batista’s men lead the match on two occasions, once in regulation time and once in extra time, but La Albicelestes failed to hold either lead. Though an exit in the round of sixteen was a disappointing end to their campaign, Batista’s men played some captivating soccer, and Ezequiel Barco was at the center of all of it.
Barco’s opened his tournament campaign with two goals against South Africa, with the latter of them coming in the form of a beautiful side-footed volley that curled into the upper far corner of goalkeeper Walter Kubheka’s net. His overall performance on the night, however, was not as beautiful as his game winning stunner.
Starting on the left wing, Barco immediately found difficulty playing through South Africa’s compact defensive structure. Njabulo Blom and Kobamelo Kodisang congested their right side and barricaded the lanes Barco looked to dribble into from the wing. Further, his passing lanes to Julián Álvarez and Cristian Ferreira were cut off by Blom and Kodisang’s attentive positioning, forcing negative balls to be played to his defensive midfielders or defenders.
After converting his second half penalty, though, there was a noticeable shift in the forward’s confidence when he received the ball. Keenan Phillips’ red card in the 66th minute blew the game wide open for Argentina as well, allowing Barco and Álvarez to find one another more often and dismantle what had been an ironclad defense for over an hour.
A shift from the 4-2-3-1 to a more offensive 4-3-3 against Portugal brought about a phenomenal performance from Barco in game two. Given the license to roam freely across midfield and on either wing, Gedson Fernandes and Florentino Luís struggled to keep tabs on his position. His highly renowned dribbling ability was on full display as well, consistently beating two or three men at a time before either winning a foul or playing his winger into space down the flank.
The fluidity Barco and the rest of Argentina’s front line showed when interchanging positions made for some flawless passing sequences throughout the first half. For the opening goal of the match, Barco smoothly took a knock down header from Gaich in his stride before chipping a pass over Ruben Vinagre and into the path of Alvarez down the right wing. After some nifty footwork, Álvarez eventually pulls a cross back for Gaich to finish off the move.
Argentina’s approach to the second half was much more reserved, relying on Barco to be more of a threat on the counter rather than pushing the envelope with his direct dribbling. This did unravel an ugly side to the Argentinian’s game as he was given a yellow card following a second foul called against him for simulation. The yellow card stained a dominant performance as it was rather unnecessary with both calls being avoidable and blatantly obvious instances of him over exaggerating the contact he felt.
As La Albicelestes’ go-to set piece taker, Barco whipped in a great free kick from the left flank that Nehuén Pérez put away with a glancing header. Although he was unable to contribute a goal of his own in his best performance of the tournament, the assist put the cherry on top of a well-deserved win for Argentina and a positive showing from Barco.
With qualification to the next round and top spot in Group F solidified, Argentina reverted back to their 4-2-3-1 as they entered a particularly tricky match against South Korea. Frustrations from the more creative players of Argentina, Barco included, were evident throughout a match in which their opponents were both defensively sound and rapid with their clinical counter attacks.
Back in a restricted wide position, Barco rarely found any success beating his man on the dribble or working an opportunity for himself by cutting inside. Jeong Ho-Jin was a thorn in the forward’s side the entire match, ensuring Barco was being put under pressure the second the ball reached his foot. Ho-Jin did well to corral the 20-year-old to the sideline for the entirety of the first half of Argentina’s eventual 2-1 loss.
There was early success for Barco to come inside after swapping wings at the start of the second half, but South Korea had already established a firm hold on the match’s tempo. Their structure and decisiveness in transition proved too much for Argentina to disrupt on the day.
Unfortunately, Barco was again forced to play on the left flank in Argentina’s knockout stage clash with Mali. His experience with dealing with bunkered defensive blocks in the tournament showed as he exposed tight pockets of space he had not attempted to penetrate in previous games, but Mali’s players were adept at defending a player of Barco’s skillset as well as minimizing his influence on the match through structured defensive formations.
When he found himself playing behind Gaich in a makeshift ten role, the Argentine was able to progress the ball forward much more efficiently. Argentina nearly opened the scoring of the match when Barco spotted a run Gaich had made between Mali’s center backs, but the pass was overhit and cleaned up by Youssouf Koita. He did, however, consistently deliver inviting balls from set pieces that his teammates just failed to put the finishing touches on.
In the 117th minute, Barco was controversially subbed off in favor Tomás Chancalay with a penalty kick shootout looming. Mali eventually won the shootout 5-4, with Koita saving Chancalay’s penalty kick before Hadji Drame tucked away the decisive penalty kick.
It was not the ending Barco’s string of sound performances deserved, but it is one that will leave the young forward with lessons to learn from as he heads back to Atlanta.
Frank de Boer is yet to assign a consistent starter to his side’s number ten role, with Gonzalo Martinez, Julian Gressel, and Darlington Nagbe all filling the position at some point, so this tournament will be a testament Barco’s case for claiming it as his own when he returns. His debut season in MLS last year may not have gone over as emphatically as people would have hoped, but his form prior to the U-20 World Cup and during it all point to great things as Atlanta United head into the second half of the MLS regular season.