Tuesday, August 30, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: August 31, 9:45 AM UK
The transfer season throws up some funny stories sometimes. In January, I was asked on Twitter for my thoughts on a teenage attacking sensation at River Plate called Juan Jose Vea Murguia, who was attracting interest from Tottenham Hotspur. It took a matter of minutes on Google to discover that the kid didn't exist. Not even River's directors had heard of him.
Sebastian Coates definitely does exist, Liverpool fans will be pleased to know. There seems to have been some misinformation reported about him in the UK, because I've been assured by journalists - including the correspondent for Nacional, the club Coates is leaving - at El Pais, Uruguay's biggest newspaper, that the player doesn't hold an EU passport. That seems to be the main reason his transfer to Liverpool has been relatively drawn-out after being reported by some outlets over a week ago as a 'done deal.'
Liverpool fans in the UK could be forgiven for not having seen Coates in action; the Copa America was hardly played at the most Europe-friendly of times for the most part. So let me assure you that you're getting a genuinely fine defender, regardless of his youth.
Of all the talents in an exciting generation of players coming through for Uruguay, Coates is perhaps the most complete. Awards for Best Player at international tournaments normally go to the more eye-catching attacking players (the 2002 and 2006 World Cups are notable exceptions), and indeed the Copa America followed suit this year, with Luis Suarez getting that individual gong. Coates, however, got the Best Young Player award, and it was richly deserved.
Coates sat out Uruguay's first match in the group stage, against Peru, but replaced Mauricio Victorino for the 1-1 draw against Chile and never looked back. Playing alongside Uruguay captain Diego Lugano, he was afforded a certain amount of protection perhaps by his more experienced team-mates. What really made him stand out, though, was that at no point did he need it. He barely put a foot wrong throughout the tournament, and it's clear that Victorino is going to have a real fight on to win back his place from the 20-year-old now.
Those of us who'd seen Nacional in the Copa Libertadores weren't surprised. The Uruguayan giants went out in the group stage, but by the narrowest of margins; Brazilians Fluminense scored an incorrectly awarded penalty in stoppage time of their final group match against Argentinos Juniors, and Nacional went out on goals scored as a result. In six group games they conceded only three goals - two of which came in the opening match away to America de Mexico, a match Coates didn't play in. They only scored three, which was what eventually cost them, but Coates provided the final pass for all three. Not bad going for a central defender.
It goes without saying, then, that he's comfortable bringing the ball out of defence and breaking forward to join the attack whenever possible. His timing in the tackle is also superb, and whenever I've seen him for Nacional or Uruguay he's rarely been caught out of position. Defence especially is an area of the pitch where inexperienced players can be found out and lose confidence, but that shouldn't be a problem for him.
One British journalist visiting Argentina for the Copa America couldn't believe it when, after the final, we told him Coates was only 20 (the matter came up because he'd offered up the opinion that the defender was surely too old for the Young Player award). He'd caught several of Uruguay's matches during the Copa, and thought the kid must have been more like twenty-four or so.
Of course, as a South American joining a Premier League club, there are bound to be a few sweepstakes held on how long it takes before a commentator questions whether he's ready for the physical hurly-burly of the English game, especially at centre-back. Again, it's not an area I think Coates is likely to be troubled by; he's not far shy of six feet six, and though no stranger to the referee's notebook, he's young, level-headed and intelligent enough to adapt his game to the new climate he'll find himself in in terms of officiating. Anyone concerned about whether he'll handle the pressure of a trip to Old Trafford or Goodison should get on YouTube and search for his name along with 'Nacional Penarol'. Nacional are in white, and Coates has put in some epic performances for them in Uruguay's biggest derby.
A glut of Player, Defender and Young Player awards in Uruguay, and two league titles already, having cemented his starting position in Nacional's defence way before his 19th birthday, demonstrate that he's got an old head on his young shoulders, and he looks set to be a fixture in Uruguay's side for years to come. If Liverpool are making this signing with the idea of finding a medium-to-long-term replacement for Jamie Carragher, I struggle to think of anyone who'd have been a better pick, especially given the fee they've paid for him (around £7 million).
That fee doubles the previous Uruguayan transfer record (Ajax paid roughly £3.5 million for Nicolas Lodeiro when they bought the playmaker, also from Nacional, in 2010), although due to a part-ownership agreement Nacional will only receive around half the money. The fact that these two figures have come within a couple of years of each other is perhaps further proof -if it were needed after the 2010 World Cup and 2011 Copa America -that Uruguayan football is on the up.
A work permit now having been sorted (he doesn't have appearances in the required 75% of Uruguay games in the last two years to have got one automatically), the only further misinformation I expect will be spread about Coates now is the pronunciation of his surname. If ESPN's Premier League commentators - or any other commentators, for that matter! -are reading this, it's closer to 'CWA-tes' than 'Coats'. Confusion about the passport he holds may be a matter of debate, but before long an awful lot more people in Europe will be fully aware of the name.
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