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Matias Nahuel: A case study in footballers debuting too early

A look at one of our youngest debutants ever.

Spain - La Liga Santander 2018-2019

Four of Villarreal’s five youngest debutants ever gained their first appearances in the 2003 calendar year, which I’m pretty sure will eventually be its own article. The other man on the list is Matias Nahuel, who won a European U19 championship with Spain in 2015, over a year after he received his first team debut for Villarreal on January 13, 2014.

The match that day was won to remember, we destroyed Real Sociedad 5-1 at El Madrigal. Gio Dos Santos and Ikechukwu Uche each had a brace, and a very young Moi Gomez polished it off. Also starting that day were several names still on the books at the club including Sergio Asenjo, Trigueros, and Mario Gaspar (plus Jaume Costa and Bruno). Nahuel was the first sub to enter the match that day, just under two months past his 17th birthday.

Nahuel is originally from Rosario, Argentina, but moved to Spain and joined our cantera as a 14 year old. His first played senior football in Tercera with the C side not long before his first team debut. It’s kind of an odd thing when you see a player this young. The appear on the scene, get minutes, but so many of them disappear not long after. The young winger did have flashes of brilliance though, scoring a Europa League goal against Astata in August of 2014, producing a goal in the Copa Del Rey in both 14-15 and 15-16, but he just never quite caught on.

The player go this chances, twenty league appearances and 1000 minutes in 2015-2016 netted just one assist, two seasons on loan at Betis only garnered him about 400 minutes. His most productive year was probably with Barcelona B in 2017-2018, five goals and three assists in 1500 minutes in the Segunda division (for a team that was relegated). After a brief stop in Greece, he has played for Deportivo La Coruna and now Tenerife in the Segunda.

So what happened? How does a kid go from scoring the decisive goal in the U19 Euros Final and getting a first team debut at 17 to his current place of obscurity? Other members of his 2015 national team were Rodri, Unai Simon, Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos, Jesus Vallejo... why have they all become top flight fixtures but he did not?

I think the biggest part of the issue is that what it takes to be a dominant 17 year old is fundamentally different than what it takes to dominate at the senior level. You can make it through a lot of youth football just being a better athlete or just having a couple of particular traits that set you out. Eventually, in the senior game, you have to develop and round yourself out as a player mentally and tactically. Of the ten youngest players to ever receive debuts at Villarreal, the only ones to make it to 100 appearances in Europe’s top five leagues are Verza (mostly with Almeria and Levante), Cesar Arzo (at least 20 appearances with four different clubs, 39 with Villarreal), and Moi Gomez, with the jury still out on Adrian Marin (who left us and joined Alaves on a free). Ultimately, when a kid is 16-17, you just don’t know what you have yet.

The other thing, though, and the part that concerns me, is that when you take someone who is still basically a child and introduce them into the fully professionalized world of La Liga, you fundamentally change the sort of pressure that exists in their lives. We saw this earlier this year, Fer Nino (the 23 youngest player to get a debut at the club) scores two goals for the first team and suddenly you have people checking the box sheet of every B team game he plays and debating whether he needs a loan to a Segunda or La Liga club next season. None of that existed in his world just a few months ago. Some guys can handle that, many can’t.

When you cross the 18 year old threshold on our debuts list the names who carve out a real place for themselves in top flight fooball start to be more pronounced. Mario Gaspar, Jozy Altidore, Santi Cazorla, and Alfonso Pedreza are the only players to get their top flight debut as 18 year olds at our club and all have or had long established top flight careers. The rate of success stays strong as you get into 19 and 20 year olds.

Football is a rush to always find the next big thing, but maybe players and clubs would be a lot better off if they weren’t, if we let players develop as young people before we put them in the bright lights and expected them to go out and take the jobs of grown men who have been at it for years. Maybe Matias Nahuel’s career would have turned out the same if he hadn’t been thrust into the limelight at 17, but then again maybe if he’d had more time to grow as a player and a person he could have better maximized his potential.