Eredivisie

Late bloomer Tagliafico's long road to the top

 • by Ryan Baldi
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Perhaps more than any other club, Ajax are renowned around the world for their prolific academy. Generation after generation, they’ve produced some of the most technically proficient and high-achieving players in football.

But the Dutch side also have a stellar track record when it comes to scouting and signing talent from elsewhere and developing them into some of the most sought-after players in Europe.

Edwin van der Sar and Jari Litmanen, key players in Ajax’s Champions League success in 1995, both joined in their early 20s, and later Zlatan Ibrahmović, brought in from Malmō, launched his career after a move to the Amsterdam Arena.

And the club’s current run to the quarter-finals of the Champions League has been built as much on Ajax’s ability to unearth gems in the transfer market as their reliance on academy graduates, with Brazilian David Neres, Hakim Ziyech and Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong all getting their starts in football elsewhere.

Argentine left-back Nicolás Tagliafico is another of the current crop of imports starring in Amsterdam, and the 26-year-old, like so many of the club’s astute signings of the past, could soon be about to turn Ajax a tidy profit, reportedly attracting interest from Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

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Unlike many of the other players Ajax have picked up, developed and sold on to one of Europe’s elite, Tagliafico, signed from Independiente in January 2018, was already in his mid-20s by the time he made the move to the Eredivisie. He has taken a the long road to the top of the European game.

An international at various youth levels with Argentina, Tagliafico was a prospect of some note with Banfield, but it was in second-tier football that the young full-back initially began to make a name for himself, first on loan in Spain’s Segunda División with Real Murcia in 2012/13, then returning to Banfield to help them earn promotion back up to the top flight.

A move to Independiente followed in 2015, with whom he won the Copa Sudamericana two years later, and in 2017 he finally won his first senior cap for Argentina, six years after his last outing at under-20 level for his country.

Stylistically, Tagliafico is part of an increasingly rare breed of full-backs in that his primary assets lie in his defensive capabilities, a precise tackler with impressive stamina, able to traverse the touchline relentlessly for 90 minutes.

He has been likened to compatriot and Internazionale legend Javier Zanetti, owing to the pair having both started at Banfield and sharing a no-nonsense, uncompromising style blended with understated technical skill.

For his all defensive nous, though, Tagliafico is no slouch going forward. For Ajax, his lung-busting forays down the left are a crucial part of manager Erik ten Hag’s attacking plan, providing reliable width and allowing the left winger, be it Dušan Tadić or Neres, to cut inside.

Tagliafico has also tended to save his best for the biggest occasions. With the exception of Argentina’s elimination from the 2018 World Cup at the hands of France – a game in which Kylian Mbappé, as the young attacker has to many of the world’s best defenders, gave him a torrid time – the in-demand left-back seems to shine brightest when the stakes are high.

His Ajax debut, for example, shortly after completing his £4million move to the club in January last year, came in an Eredivisie showdown with Feyenoord, the Amsterdam side’s biggest rivals. Ajax won 2-0 and, for his marauding, powerful presence down the left flank, Tagliafico was named man of the match.

He was a scorer against the same opposition in February, and three of his five goals this season have come in the Champions League.

In Ajax’s triumphant last-16 face-off with Real Madrid, he was again outstanding, reducing direct opponent Gareth Bale to the fewest touches of any player on the pitch in a 4-1 second-leg victory at the Bernabéu.

It is perhaps because he will turn 27 this summer that Ajax are reportedly keen to move Tagliafico on at the end of the season, cashing in on the defender when his value will be at its peak, despite having only signed him 18 months ago.

When asked about the swirling speculation over his future, with many of Europe’s biggest clubs said to be battling for his signature, Tagliafico welcomed the attention while insisting he will not allow himself to be distracted.

“It’s great that they talk about me, because that means things are going well,” he told Spanish publication Mundo Deportivo. “I am enjoying life and football. We are privileged as footballers.

“Our work is something fascinating and something we love to do. I enjoy playing for the national team and my club. I can’t think of what’s coming, that’s disrespectful to my club.”

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