VFB Stuttgart managed to upset the apple cart last season when they finished seventh in their first year back in the Bundesliga. It was a stunning achievement by Die Roten, which was aided by ending the season undefeated in their last five League games, including a brilliant 4-1 win at Bayern Munich. However, it was the defence that lay behind their successful League campaign, with the 36 goals conceded the second lowest in the Division that season. But their attack at times was a damp squib, the 36 goals scored the joint fourth lowest in the League, with their top scorers Mario Gomez and Daniel Ginczek pitching in with just eight goals for the season.
Unsurprisingly, Stuttgart’s main aim over the summer was to bring in a striker who could fix their goalscoring woes. In paying €8.5m for Nicolas Gonzalez from Argentine club Argentinos Juniors, they have pinned their colours on the 20-year-old. It may be largest amount Stuttgart have ever paid for a striker but there are several reasons why Gonzalez is one to watch in the Bundesliga this season.
Born in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Gonzalez joined Argentinos Juniors’ youth academy at the age of 10, despite the interest of city rivals River Plate. The club’s academy have developed some of the best players in world football, let alone the continent, such as Diego Maradona, Fernando Redondo and Esteban Cambiasso. Gonzalez would be one of the brightest prospects in the academy and soon got the attention of the first team — then coached by ex-Manchester United player Gabriel Heinze. He was promoted to the senior squad, making his League debut in August 2016 at the age of 18.
Argentinos were in Primera B Nacional at the time, Argentina’s second tier of professional football, but would top the table to win promotion to the top flight in 2017. Gonzalez played 20 games that season, scoring four goals and gaining valuable experience in the lower Leagues. He would also score the goal to seal promotion for Los Bichos.
Gabriel Heinze would resign as Coach after Argentinos won promotion and be replaced by Alfredo Berti. Gonzalez would benefit considerably from the change and made his mark in the top flight by scoring four goals in his first six League games. Playing against the giants of Argentinean football did not faze him at all, as his purple patch of form included goals against River Plate and Newell’s Old Boys.
“He was excellent in the first team,” explained Argentine football writer Peter Coates. “Gonzalez established himself as an excellent top flight performer and his relatively big money move to Stuttgart is evidence of that. His pace and versatility to play across the attack, dart in behind the last defender and present a goal threat was ideal in Los Bichos’ quick, counter attacking style.”
An example of utilising his blistering speed as a potent weapon was in a League fixture in October 2017 against Rosario Central, when he blitzed past a centre back with contemptible ease, before effortlessly rifling the ball past the goalkeeper.
González’s seven goals during the 2017-18 season helped propel Argentinos into a respectable mid-table finish. The youngster’s versatility was an advantage for the team, with Berti deploying him up front, but also on both wings — mainly on the left, where he was able to use his pace to torment full-backs. Gonzalez was even deployed as an attacking midfielder for a few games in support of Lucas Barrios when the Paraguayan joined the club in 2018.
Seven goals in his first season in the top flight represented good progress, but Gonzalez stating he wanted to improve further despite a successful season highlighted his commitment and professionalism.
Unsurprisingly, due to making such a positive impression at the start of the 2017-18 season, Gonzalez would soon become a target for defenders. At times he was kicked from pillar to post yet showed no weakness against his markers. Whenever he was felled by a rough tackle, Gonzalez would refrain from engaging in theatrics, but get up and strive to help his team win.
Such impressive form for a youngster prompted Berti to compare him to Mario Kempes. Being mentioned in the same breath as such a legend of Argentinean football is high praise and his breakthrough season in the top flight would soon attract interest from Europe. Summer 2018 saw Italian giants Inter linked but Stuttgart were quick to nab Gonzalez after scouting the forward extensively last season.
It was a blow for Argentinos to lose one of the best talents produced from the academy in the last few years but they were well remunerated. The €8.5m paid by Die Roten to Argentinos is the biggest fee they have ever received for a player. In addition, the deal includes a 10% sell-on clause, which could lead to a further windfall if Stuttgart sell him on for big money in the future.
Often, when young talents from South America move to Europe they head to clubs in Spain, Portugal or Italy. In Gonzalez’s case, Stuttgart were able to nab a player of great raw quality thanks to linguistics. “The fact that two Argentines [Emiliano Insua and Santiago Ascacibar] play here and the Coach [Tayfun Korkut] speaks Spanish influenced my decision to come to Stuttgart,” acknowledged Gonzalez.
Having his parents come with him to Germany will help reduce homesickness but having Insua and Ascacibar in the squad should help him settle at the club footballing wise – Gonzalez stayed at Ascacibar’s house for the first few weeks. Already, the striker has been quick to grasp how different the football is in Germany compared to his homeland. “The football in Argentina is completely different because the defenders pursue you mercilessly,” he noted. “In Europe [there are] open spaces for an attacker.”
The key question is can he be a success in the Bundesliga? “Put simply, yes,” Coates predicted. “At 20 years of age, Gonzalez has already show enough to suggest that he can make an impact now but with the potential to develop much further, he could prove to be another astute piece of business for the Bundesliga club, as Ascacibar has been.
“Despite the step-up in quality, the hope and aim will be that Gonzalez can replicate that in Germany and while there is obviously room for development, his raw talent can make him an immediate asset.”
This first season will certainly be a learning curve for Gonzalez, as he will be playing in such a high quality League when compared to Argentina. Gonzalez will learn new things, possibly make mistakes and have tough games. Stuttgart have already deployed him in attack with veteran striker Mario Gomez. Playing off the tall striker when the Swabians go direct can — in theory — help utilise Gonzalez’s pace to cause problems by getting in behind the defence. Although Korkut has used him on the left in the Bundesliga, just like Berti did at Argentinos, Gonzalez will try to gain as much experience as he can from a veteran such as Gomez when playing in tandem.
The fact Stuttgart have invested substantial money in a player of potential, as well as a long-term contract, shows just how highly they think of him. Time will tell if Gonzalez can fulfil his genuine promise and help rejuvenate a once-faltering attack. If he can, then it will be money well spent by VFB Stuttgart.
Name:Nicolas Ivan Gonzalez
Born:April 6, 1998 (Escobar, Argentina)
Ht / Wt:1.80m / 67kg