IN FOOTBALL, the playmaker can often be an enigma. Delicately dancing the line of success and failure, they are expected to dictate the tempo of a team and are often paid handsomely to do so. It is something that Sunderland have arguably lacked in recent years. A central player with the ability to “see a motorway where others only see a path” as the famed Serbian coach Vujadin Boškov once coined.
Ricardo ‘Ricky’ Alvarez could be just that man. Signed from Inter Milan, the rangy midfielder arrives on Wearside after a contrasting three summers with the blue and black half of Milan.
When he arrived at the club, there was an air of excitement among Inter fans and even Alvarez himself. After all he was representing the club his father supported and spoke of how he was excited to begin his ‘wonderful adventure’.
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While the years that followed for the 26-year-old were an adventure, they were not always wonderful. Joining the club from Vélez Sarsfield in a deal worth €11.75million, he initially drew comparisons to former talented playmaker Alvaro Recoba due to his gifted left foot.
Having spent time in the youth side of Argentine giants Boca Juniors, Alvarez himself conceded he was slow developer and too small at the time to succeed.
That same slow development would also best describe his time in Italy. Alvarez was bought as the intended replacement for Wesley Sneijder. The Dutch midfielder had wained after the Champions League win under Jose Mourinho and after being touted to Manchester United, the sale seemed inevitable.
However the deal fell through and meant that Alvarez’s ability to make an instant impact was hampered. At Velez, he had dictated the play in the final third, a piano player surrounded by piano carriers. Oozing class, his lack of pace continues to be offset by an ability to pick out the most dangerous passing opportunities.
Inter were now forced to accommodate two playmakers in the side, Alvarez was initially pushed out wide by Gian Piero Gasperini and Claudio Ranieri. Inexperienced in the position, the 26-year-old understandably struggled as he attempted to adjust.
Positionally, Alvarez is flexible. Happy to play on the wing, he spent a significant portion of last season playing just off the front man.
That versatility means he could inhabit the wide left position or operate in a midfield three alongside Jack Rodwell and Lee Cattermole. The latter option would arguably give Sunderland’s midfield the balance it has so desperately lacked.
Eager to drift wide and sometimes come deep, Alvarez can be a difficult player to track. However it also means he has the ability to drift in and out of games, which could prove a concern for Gus Poyet and his system that seeks accountability from all eleven men.
Asked where he prefers to play Alvarez told La Repubblica: “Where I like to play? To the right because I have the whole field in front and I can come in and kick with the left. But it's the coach who decides and I'm ready to play wherever he puts me. "
Returning to a central position under Andrea Stramaccioni, it seemed to ignite Alvarez’s career. Considered a flop and linked with moves away from the club up until that point, he spoke glowingly of Stramaccioni and the confidence he instilled in him.
Continuing to build momentum under Walter Mazzarri, Alvarez was often given a free role that would spell a change in approach from Sunderland if mirrored. However in the game against Catania this time last year, Alvarez displayed his versatility once again by playing in a deeper role, picking passes.
Known as a ‘regista’ (director), their aim is to dictate play from deep and pick out passes to players in wider positions.
With consistency still an issue for Alvarez, he undoubtedly has all the qualities required to thrive and become a fantastic player. Given Inter were keen to raise funds in the summer, it came down to a decision to sell Fredy Guarin or Alvarez. Surprisingly the club has decided to part with Alvarez despite having a wealth of midfielders in Guarin’s mould.
Inter’s loss is Sunderland’s gain however with the midfielder not only addressing the side's creative issues but also giving them options in a number of positions, Alvarez could easily prove to be one of the shrewdest deals in recent club history.
Kristan Heneage is a European football expert and is on Twitter @kheneage