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What’s Next for Julián Álvarez, Argentina’s Breakout World Cup Star?

Only Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé scored more World Cup goals than the 22-year-old, whose stock is rocketing through the roof. But there’s just one problem when he gets back to Manchester City: Erling Haaland.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The otherwise perfect image of Lionel Messi thrusting the World Cup trophy into the sky while perched on the shoulders of Sergio Agüero contains an unfortunate blemish. It’s an awkward reminder of what could’ve upended this whole achievement. There’s Messi, exalted, on a raft of Argentina players and fans in various states of rapture and euphoria, and then, behind and above him, ruining it, is Lautaro Martínez. Going into the tournament, the 25-year-old striker had scored seven goals in 15 Serie A appearances for Inter Milan; he’s led Argentina’s line for most of the last four years, playing a decisive role in the 2021 Copa América victory. But Martínez was a blunt edge in Qatar, failing to register a shot on target in his first two World Cup starts and missing multiple chances to bury the game against France in the final.

“Lautaro has saved us many times,” Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni said after a narrow round of 16 win against Australia earlier this month. Again, his striker had failed to convert several clear-cut chances, but Scaloni would insist on protecting him. Martínez is a quality player—you don’t get to Inter Milan by accident—but the problem for Argentina is that he is an out-and-out striker. If he’s not scoring, he’s not offering much else, and in this World Cup, the team had no room for passengers.

A lot was made of the amount of time Messi spent playing at a canter in this tournament. At 35 years old, he’s found a new gear at Paris Saint Germain and then Argentina by eschewing defensive work and conserving almost every ounce of energy for when he eventually receives the ball. Someone else has to do the running, stretch the defense, and, for heaven’s sake, finish the chances. That’s where Julián Álvarez came in. If Martínez’s stock has fallen precipitously over these last few weeks, then Álvarez’s is through the roof. Álvarez is 22, he comes from the village of Calchín in the central province of Córdoba, and he made his international debut against Chile last summer. He left Qatar with four goals—only Messi and Kylian Mbappé scored more—having seized his first World Cup opportunity with unconquerable industriousness.

Maybe what we’ll remember most about Álvarez’s 2022 World Cup is the running. The curler into the top corner against Poland in the group stages was a striker’s finish, a neat readjustment of his limbs to pull off two deft touches in the box, one to settle, one to score. But more often, Álvarez was a blur of churning legs and arms, like a sheet of paper in the wind when defenders chased Argentina in possession. He made himself an absolute nuisance when Argentina were without it, too. Aurélien Tchouaméni is a sleek midfielder for France and Real Madrid—he looked world class against England in the quarterfinal last week, torpedoing their best-laid plans, which had been two years in the making. But early on in Sunday’s final, his coolness was in turn destroyed by Álvarez and Enzo Fernández (another young Argentine for whom life will probably change after this tournament) nipping at his heels like terriers after an unwelcome houseguest. It’s a knock-on effect. If a striker like Álvarez is willing to track back and offset the numbers in midfield, the ball can be won back higher up the pitch, and counterattacks are launched quickly. Games against even the canniest opposition can suddenly become academic.

Argentina were not a shoo-in to reach the final. In the semis, they faced a well-drilled Croatian side that had reached the final four years prior. But twice in the first 15 minutes, Croatia’s center backs were pulled apart in fairly similar ways, and La Albiceleste not only looked more vibrant but also, for the first time in the tournament, instituted a measure of control in the game. Fernández pounced on the usually reliable Luka Modric to arrest the buildup, and Álvarez ran into the space between Dejan Lovren and Josko Gvardiol, who had drifted into complementary positions to receive a pass from Modric. The first time through, Álvarez won a penalty, and the second time culminated in an unthinkable piss take. Álvarez, dashing from the halfway line, dribbled the ball into a thicket of players. His momentum led to the ball bouncing off Lovren, a knee, a head, and himself and then finally going in, through the sheer force of Álvarez’s will. Buy the ticket, take the ride, as they say.

Álvarez plays under Pep Guardiola for Manchester City, currently five points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal, and his biggest selling point is his mobility. Unlike Martínez, Álvarez can drift out wide or drop deeper, depending on what the team needs at the given moment. He joined from Argentine club River Plate last January for $19 million or, rather, less than a third of what City paid Borussia Dortmund for Erling Haaland, who has 18 goals in 12 league starts—and his own song.

Haaland is the unavoidable fact that both Álvarez and the Premier League have to work around next year. When he is scoring, it seems he’ll never stop, but, like Martínez, when he’s not scoring (which seldom happens), he doesn’t really affect the game. While Haaland has transformed City’s attack, there’s still the question of where that transformation leaves the team in the longer run. What to do when his slide tackle finishes aren’t coming off, when he succumbs to his sketchy injury history, or when he simply plays like the green 22-year-old he allegedly is? In league losses against Liverpool and, most notably, Brentford before the World Cup break, the solution was to play steady on. In past years, when the striker wasn’t delivering or simply did not exist, City was able to find goals anywhere on the field, out of necessity. Haaland’s prowess introduces a hierarchy, which means that Kevin De Bruyne will not look to score himself but instead will funnel the ball to the main man. When the main man can’t step up, will City look lost without him?

Álvarez could offer something different and has now showcased it on the world’s biggest stage. He has only three league starts for City and featured in a Champions League tie against Sevilla because Haaland was unavailable due to injury. He’s scored four goals in those four appearances, a great, if limited, ratio, but it seems unlikely that he’ll come back to a regular starting job. Maybe Álvarez’s future lies on the wings, where Ferran Torres was deployed from time to time during his spell at City. Maybe Álvarez’s progress will be halted by a continued lack of first-team soccer and he’ll secure a move to another big club that can offer him a crucial role, also like Torres. What we should all worry about is the first possibility: the doomsday event in which Guardiola figures out how to get both Haaland and Álvarez on the pitch together. As Cesc Fàbregas stated with playful concern during the World Cup final, that “is not very fair.”