The New Enganche
Javier Pastore talks about his move to Paris Saint-Germain and living up to the playmaking ideal
There was much talk in December of English football's most recognisable globetrotter David Beckham moving (perhaps for one last time) to a club in one of Europe's fanciest cities. It would have been hard to countenance Paris Saint-Germain being so competitive in the transfer market a mere year ago, but the elevation of PSG to the top table of Europe's big-spending clubs was heralded in the middle of last year by the signing of a talent who, unlike Beckham, still has most of his career ahead of him: Javier Pastore.
Pastore's first goal for PSG came against Brest, and was in many ways typical of his elegant, almost old-fashioned, style of play. Starting an off-the-ball run before dropping off to work some space, he received the ball at the end of a length-of-the-pitch counter attack just inside the box, neatly sidestepped a challenge and then, when many expected a powerful strike to the far corner, sent the ball floating into the near side of the goal with a neat chip.
The quickness of his feet and his tall frame (not to mention his looks) drew comparisons, early on in his career, with another South American attacking midfielder, never more blatantly than when the Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini described his 2009 signing at his unveiling as 'the new Kaká'. It seems Zamparini wasn't just picking a name at random but was making a concerted effort to make him feel welcome, because Pastore told me that — perhaps surprisingly for an Argentinian — the Brazilian is his favourite player and a major influence on his style. "I've always really liked Kaká," he said. "I like his technique, the style of his play, and when I started playing, I also started to watch him. He's influenced my game a lot. From a position of admiration, I came to really enjoy playing in the same way."
There are differences between the two, of course. Pastore, who's known in Argentina as 'El Flaco' ('the skinny one'), isn't as physically robust or lung-bursting in his running style as Kaká. They share a position, but Pastore is really a traditional Argentinian enganche, the player who drifts between the lines of midfield and attack (as well as between the flanks and the centre of the pitch), linking the two and providing the focus for the rest of the team to work around — the Spanish word translates as 'hook'. "I used to play as a striker as well," he said, "but I've always felt more comfortable playing as an enganche. It's always been more my position."
Pastore grew up in Córdoba, which competes with Rosario for the unofficial title of Argentina's second city. Like many Argentinian men he wears his love for his mother on his sleeve — or rather, in this case, on his back. "I chose to wear the number 27 [he's worn it at all his clubs] because of my mum," he explained. "It's her favourite number." He supports Talleres, one of the city's 'big three' (the other two are Belgrano, currently in the top flight, and Instituto, of the second division). Talleres were in the Primera División until 2004, but are now in Torneo Argentino A, Argentina's regional third tier. When Pastore made his debut in 2007, they were in the second division and he's often said that he likes the idea of one day returning to play for the club.
Previous reports and interviews have claimed that at the age of just 15, before making his debut for Talleres, Pastore already had his sights set on a move to Europe and went for trials to Saint-Étienne and Villarreal. He could have been one more of many eligible Argentinians (he has an Italian passport) to move to 'the old continent' without setting foot on a professional pitch in his homeland. He, though, claims that wasn't the case. "I went to Europe to play a few matches [for the youth sides], but not to go on trial with any clubs there," he said. "My parents had already made clear that they weren't going to let me go to play so far away at such a young age. I was really young, so I wouldn't say that trip helped me adapt to Europe later [when he moved to Palermo], but I got to see some beautiful places and it was an incredible experience."
Whatever the reason for the journey to Europe, Pastore was given his debut for Talleres by the manager Ricardo Gareca in January 2007, when he was 17. Later that year he moved to Huracán, then of the Primera División and in 2009, he would play a controversial title decider for them against Vélez Sarsfield which left Vélez — by then managed by Gareca — as the Torneo Clausura champions; Huracán had a goal disallowed and a good penalty shout turned down, while Vélez's winner came following a foul in the build-up. Pastore had broken into the Huracán first team squad near the end of 2008, with their manager, the ultra-romantic Ángel Cappa, claiming during their time at the club together that "he's the kind of player who makes people want to go to the stadium." From his position behind the forward line, where he combined superbly with his fellow youngster Matías Defederico (who later moved to Corinthians and is now back in Argentina with Independiente), Pastore was Huracán's top scorer in that 2009 Clausura campaign.
Shifting the focus to his new club, Pastore insists he's now "focused on Ligue Un" although "I like watching every league because they've all got different characteristics and incredible players, all of them. I've always liked watching football as well as playing. With respect to my position and style, I think as every league is different, it's necessary to change some small things [regarding how I play]. Because of that, one never really stops learning. That's the best thing about football." It sounds suspiciously like an answer thought up by marketing men keen not to cause offence, but the speed with which Pastore adapted to life in both Italy and France suggests it's probably true.
"I just love playing football, I think that's my main strength," he added. "I enjoy myself on the pitch. I think it's vital to improve day on day. There are always things to learn [in any aspect of life], and this sport is no exception." One thing he's currently learning is that the clubs with the most spending power tend to rise to the top — at the time of writing PSG, without a league title since 1994, were clear at the top of the table — although he denies his move was about money. "I'm really happy both in the city of Paris and with PSG as a club," he said. "This seems like a great club and it's an interesting league. What made my mind up, really, was the plan the club had for the season. They explained that to me and I found the idea really seductive."
Pastore began the season brightly before a dip in form around Christmas, indicating, perhaps, the need for PSG to add depth to their squad so they don't come to rely on the most glamorous of their signings to date; the suggestion is that fatigue lay behind that slip in his form. Pastore may be so key to his club at present that he's suffered from burnout, but the same can't be said of his national side, where already in a short career he's had the dubious pleasure of competing with the likes of Juan Sebastián Verón, Fernando Gago, Éver Banega, Esteban Cambiasso and Sergio Agüero for a place in what's tended, during his time with Argentina, to be an ever-shifting tactical setup.
Alejandro Sabella, the manager appointed by Argentinian FA last year after the cluelessness of Diego Maradona's and Sergio Batista's spells in charge, should in the medium-to-long term bring more tactical balance to the team. Even with a more regular setup, though, Pastore realises he still has a lot of work to do if he's to break into the selección on a more regular basis. Pastore's role in Sabella's vision remains unclear, his words on Argentina's recent record betray what all of their players find hard to deny — that given the available talent, the national team has underperformed. "I think we've lacked some things, and that luck hasn't always been on our side, but we've got some highly impressive players who are among the best in their respective leagues," he said. "We've simply got to work and move forward in the search for better results."
As for how Pastore sees his own place in that search, he's reserved, and also refuses to criticise Maradona and Batista when I ask whether their lack of experience as managers was a hindrance during the 2010 World Cup and the 2011 Copa América. "I think there's something to be learned from every manager, they've all got some experience related to football, and we as players can take something from that," he said. "As for Sabella, everyone talks very highly of what he's achieved [various honours as an assistant coach, as well as a Copa Libertadores title and an Argentinian league title with Estudiantes de La Plata]. I'm going to work hard to earn a place in his starting line-up."
Then, of course, there is Lionel Messi. There are doubters, but Messi's place in the national team is assured and under Maradona and then Batistuta the question was whether Pastore could be a partner for him. Using Pastore as a substitute during the World Cup with express instructions to get the ball to Messi more often was perhaps one of Maradona's better ideas; Argentina's midfield seems less flat after his addition and there's less need for Messi to drop too deep when Pastore is there to link with him. Messi himself was among those who wanted Pastore to join Barcelona last year. So, what is it like to play and train with the world's best forward?
"Whenever anyone asks me that question, I always respond that it's incredible to play with him," Pastore said. "Playing alongside Messi is like playing with a lot of extra teammates on the pitch, because when you send the ball his way [for a one-two] he gives it back to you just perfectly, and he's everywhere on the pitch! As far as the other squad members are concerned, it's great just to be a part of that team. I get on very well with all of them and they're great players. I love being involved with the selección."
When he's no longer living out of a suitcase in a hotel room and is more settled in Paris, Pastore, most would agree, has the ability to become perhaps the outstanding player in the French league. That would be true for most leagues and surely for the majority of national sides he wouldn't face the same scrap to get on to the team sheet as he does for Argentina. His enthusiasm for the game is clear and, while PSG might not have signed Beckham, the signing that matters was made last year; in Pastore, they've got a player who's likely to be key to their side for a long time yet.