The biggest compliment you can pay Julián Álvarez is that Kevin De Bruyne has played just 23 minutes of football this season and Manchester City haven’t really missed him. You know, the same Kevin De Bruyne who has been the most creative player in the Premier League since joining Manchester City.
The loss of City’s captain and talisman obviously remains a huge blow to Pep Guardiola’s side. There’s not really another player in world football who can replicate what De Bruyne can do on a pitch.
But Álvarez is giving it a good go. He has stepped up in De Bruyne’s absence, making the most of the opportunity that injuries to the Belgian as well as Mateo Kovacic and Bernardo Silva have afforded him in midfield.
Álvarez has started all six of Manchester City’s Premier League games so far – something that’s never happened before in his fledgling City career – and only two outfield players (Erling Haaland and Kyle Walker) have played more minutes than him. He also started in both City’s cup fixtures – the 3-1 home win over Crvena Zvezda and the 1-0 EFL Cup defeat to Newcastle United.
The major difference this season is that Haaland has also started in seven of those matches. Álvarez arrived last summer in the same transfer window as Haaland and was initially considered an alternative to the Norwegian as City’s number nine. That manifested itself last season – the majority of Álvarez’s minutes came as a central striker, while Álvarez and Haaland started together just eight times across the entire league campaign.
But this season, Álvarez has started in a deeper position behind Haaland. You’d nominally call him a number 10, but he’s got a clear license to drift wide into the half-spaces, particularly on the left.
His touch map this season compared to last shows he’s getting on the ball more often and in deeper areas.
That’s reflected in the numbers, too, with Álvarez averaging more touches and passes per 90 than in 2022-23, while his touches in the opposition box are down.
But what’s most notable is that he’s basically tripled his chance-creation numbers. In the absence of City’s best creator, Álvarez has really stepped up.
With 27 chances created in all competitions so far, not only does Álvarez lead the way for Manchester City in that department, but all Premier League players too. In fact, only Freiburg’s Vincenzo Grifo (28) has created more chances than Álvarez in all competitions of every team in Europe’s top five leagues.
Álvarez is never going to have the passing brilliance and passing range of De Bruyne, but he is a technically-gifted player capable of pulling off difficult passes in his own right.
This slide-rule pass to Haaland on Matchday 1 for instance…
Or this first-time flick round the corner to his strike partner against Fulham…
It’s interesting that Álvarez has taken on responsibility as City’s primary set-piece taker too, taking ownership of free-kicks and corners. He notably crashed a beauty of a free-kick onto the post against West Ham.
And yet, despite the wild increase in his ability to create for teammates, there’s still solid shot volume to Álvarez’s game. Yes, some of that is naturally going to come because he plays in an absurdly dominant side, but his 3.6 shots per 90 is second in the team only behind Haaland’s 5.3. It’s also higher than the rest of City’s midfielders, even looking back at 2022-23.
That’s because Álvarez still has those centre-forward instincts and, although he is playing deeper than last year, still starts close to Haaland with whom he’s struck up a brilliant partnership.
The pair have created nine chances in total for each other, which is the third-highest figure for a duo in the Premier League this season behind Aston Villa’s Moussa Diaby and Ollie Watkins (10) and Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze and Odsonne Édouard (also 10).
Not only is that because Álvarez has the vision to pick Haaland out, but when Haaland drops deep to receive, Álvarez has the acceleration to burst forward beyond Haaland to offer a passing option.
The examples below show Haaland dropping deep to receive a pass and turning to face the opposition’s backline. Álvarez then sprints beyond his marker into space and receives the pass from Haaland. He scores (against Crvena Zvezda) and gets a shot away against Fulham.
The graphic below shows all of Álvarez’s off-the-ball runs in which he’s been targeted with a pass. It’s notable how many of these start centrally but see him angle his run wide into the inside channels. Álvarez’s runs often start quite deep as well, making him hard to track.
The Haaland-Álvarez combination has been frighteningly prolific for Manchester City. They’ve started together in 20 games in all competitions. Haaland has 21 goals and two assists in those games, while Álvarez has 12 goals and four assists. That’s a cool 39 goal involvements between them in just 20 starts.
On the ball, Álvarez has been a dual threat so far this season, able to create chances for teammates or be on the receiving end of them himself. He’s been involved in 44 open-play shot-ending sequences for City, a total that only Rodri can surpass. Álvarez’s split between shooting, creating a chance or being involved in the build up is very nicely balanced – although it’s not quite as neat as Phil Foden’s perfect split!
But it’s his work off the ball that really demonstrates what a hybrid, multi-functional role Álvarez is now doing for City.
His work out of possession is incredible. He is City’s most active presser, making 24.4 pressures per 90 minutes, the most of any of his teammates. Such is his work rate that he leads the team for pressures in the attacking third per 90 (11.7) and also the middle third (9.8).
Álvarez was City’s most frequent presser last campaign too (33.4 per 90) and in one regard this is something he offers that Kevin De Bruyne does not. The Belgian’s 18.5 pressures per 90 was seventh highest in the side last term.
The youngster has had to be patient for his opportunity. After being signed in January 2022, Álvarez remained on loan at his native River Plate to see out the season. Last campaign brought a handful of opportunities, but game time was scarce. He was more influential for his national team – winning a World Cup no less – than he was for his club. In spite of this, Guardiola has said he’s dealt with this waiting game admirably.
Speaking ahead of Man City’s recent 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest, the City boss said: “He always has good behaviour, playing, not playing, being a world champion or not. Always the same. [He has] the perfect dose of disappointment when he doesn’t play but is always ready for the opportunity.”
That opportunity is now. And Álvarez is seizing it.