Meet Portugal's most exciting midfielder who Angel Di Maria wants at Man United
The 60-second story
- Date of birth: February 23, 1988
- Place of birth: San Martin, Argentina
- Height: 5ft 8in
- Position: Attacking midfield
- Club: Benfica (209 apps, 30 goals)
- Former club: Boca Juniors
- International: Argentina (9 caps, 2 goals)
In summer 2010, Nico Gaitán was bought to replace compatriot Ángel Di María for what at the time was Benfica’s second-most expensive transfer ever (€8.4 million). And although he was an automatic starter from the outset, Gaitán's adjustment to European football was neither swift nor perfect, with inconsistency an obvious flaw along with his lack of tactical awareness.
Nevertheless, in his debut year with the Eagles he scored nine goals in 48 appearances, and was named breakthrough player of the season at the Primeira Liga's official end-of-season gala. The Argentine followed that up by topping the Champions League assist chart in the next season's group stage.
The latter achievement is telling in that although consistency remained elusive, Gaitán had – and still has – the fortunate habit of producing his best performances in the biggest games.
Why you need to know him
Gaitán’s name is a glaring omission from the long list of raw talents that Benfica coach Jorge Jesus has expertly moulded into polished performers before being sold on for a whopping profit in Lisbon.
Given the brilliance of the Argentine’s displays over a number of seasons, the decision by Europe’s top clubs to overlook him as they've raided the Estádio da Luz year after year is nothing short of gross negligence.
The Eagles are currently three points clear at the top of Portugal’s Primeira Liga despite losing six regulars from last season’s treble-winning team, which is testament to Jesus’s coaching ability. But arguably even more important is the fact that amid the brutal summer cull, the club was able to keep hold of Gaitán.
Simply put, the Argentine has been the best creative midfielder in Portugal for at least three seasons. All-action heroes João Moutinho, Nemanja Matic and Enzo Pérez were rightly lauded as the most influential members of their respective title-winning teams, but with Benfica's path to goal routinely blocked by 10 opposition players stationed in the defensive third, Gaitán’s ability to conceive and execute defence-piercing passes or conjure magic when all else fails has been invaluable.
Tight control, two-footedness, outrageous skill, speed of thought and pinpoint passing are all part of his repertoire. All these attributes were on show in the 2012/13 Benfica-Sporting showdown as Gaitán fashioned one of the truly great goals in this massive fixture's history (below).
The Argentine was originally a winger, is deceptively fast and has indeed spent most of his time deployed on the flanks during his Benfica career, usually on the left.
Although highly productive there, it's when he cuts infield that he makes best use of his sumptuous skills, and Jesus has also shifted him to central midfield on occasion, generally to great effect.
Gaitán is a potent threat able to prise open the most well-organised of defences, but don’t expect him to do a whole lot of tracking back. Although he has considerably improved in this respect, his value is not in how he exercises his defensive duties. Despite being a mainstay of Portugal’s most popular team for half a decade now, Gaitán likes to maintain a low profile and rarely gives interviews.
So perhaps it goes against his personality, but one sometimes feels that on the pitch he should demand more of the ball from his team-mates, and dominate games more frequently.
“Gaitán played with intelligence and showed great individual skill,” exclaimed Sir Alex Ferguson after Benfica played Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League group stage.
Boss Jesus declared last summer that his No.10 was unmatchable within his ranks. “Nico is a player of different characteristics, we have no equal,” said the Eagles' chief. “He's a player with a lot of influence to be with us for many years. He is a leader on the pitch and it's good to know that he will be in the game.”
Did you know?
Gaitán was originally bought from Boca Juniors to replace Di Maria at Benfica, and reports in the British press suggest the latter is keen to trigger a transfer for his compatriot a second time, recommending to Louis van Gaal that he purchase his international team-mate for Manchester United.
- Shooting 7
- Heading 6
- Passing 8
- Tackling 5
- Pace 8
- Dribbling 8
- Creativity 9
- Work-rate 7
What happens next?
In November 2014, Gaitán signed an extended and improved contract at Benfica until 2018 but significantly his release clause was lowered to €35 million – €10m less than the previous buyout figure – which has seemingly paved the way for his departure.
As alluded to above, it was something of a surprise that the Eagles were able to hold onto the Argentine last summer as they took desperate measures to cut their debt. It's a given that Gaitán will move on in the close season, and the list of clubs chasing his signature gets longer with each passing day. Just this week the Portuguese press has reported that Chelsea, Manchester United, Valencia, Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco and Zenit Saint Petersburg are all tracking him.