Ajax Amsterdam were extremely confident they were soon welcoming one of Mexico’s finest football talents, back in the winter of the 2018-2019 season. The first half of that season Diego Lainez took the Mexican Liga MX by storm, becoming the youngest goalscorer in history for Club América. Ultimately, it was Real Betis that paid over $14 million to secure the services of the versatile attacker; Lainez becoming the second most expensive Mexican player ever.
While Lainez was slowly introduced to Spanish top-flight football, he did manage to show some of his potential. However, there has been some criticism as well regarding his supposedly premature move to Europe. So how did Lainez perform in his first years away from Mexico?
Diego Lainez is more than an exquisite dribbler
In his first minutes in the green-white of Real Betis Diego Lainez immediately showed the Estadio Benito Villamarín what he was all about. He subbed on for the last ten minutes with a 2-2 draw on the scoreboard against Girona. The first three balls that came close to Lainez were all defensive clearances which forced him into duels with a much stronger and taller Girona defender (just judging on those minutes you wouldn’t say Real Betis was a Quique Setién team). But in typical Lainez fashion, he battled and jumped with all he had, quickly showing the home crowd he did not come all this way to just be called a dribbly winger.
When he finally received a real pass, from Giovani Lo Celso, close to the touchline on the left hand side, he instantly dribbled towards his marker, forcing him back and put in a low and dangerous cross back to Lo Celso. The Real Betis fans are now cheering and looking at each other in disbelief, while it’s still just 2-2 against a Girona that would relegate a few months later. Diego Lainez mania has arrived in Europe, although it wouldn’t last very long.
His debut came just ten days after his arrival in Sevilla. It was one of twelve appearances he would make in La Liga that 2018-2019 season, contributing to a total of 353 minutes while assisting just one goal (against Barcelona nonetheless). He also didn’t complete 90 minutes once. Now, this does seem a little grim, but we must not forget Lainez was just 18 years old and is still getting accustomed to a new country and competition. There are definitely positives to take from his debut season for Real Betis.
It’s pretty obvious, both from watching Lainez play and from looking at his underlying numbers, that he is a very gifted dribbler and a skilled ball-progressor. In his first year in La Liga he attempted 24 dribbles with a success-rate of 54.2%, providing 3.31 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. His 2.8 actions per 90 minutes that resulted in a shooting opportunity for Real Betis is nothing to sneeze at either, while three nutmegs over the course of 353 minutes made sure the ‘OLÉ’s’ kept rolling down from the stands.
How Diego Lainez uses his body to his advantage
While it’s apparent Lainez isn’t shying away from direct duels with defenders, he still rarely comes out on top. His physique and his 1.67 meter height show perfectly well why Lainez prefers the ball on the ground and at his feet. It’s at that moment where he found ways to use his body composition and quick feet to become untouchable.
The young Mexican often uses body feints in possession of the ball, to send defenders the wrong way. It’s his go-to approach to avoid direct physical confrontations and to make sure he is a step ahead of them. He’s an expert in luring in a defender and letting the commit in one direction, before taking the ball the opposite direction. And because Lainez often already knows where the space is on the pitch, before receiving the ball, his body feints are very effective.
Diego Lainez almost seems immune from external pressure and expectations
The biggest strength of Diego Lainez, however, seems to be his character. His football talent brought him to the other side of the world, where he was hailed as one of the best prospects in the game. Meanwhile in his home-country, many see in him an elite player whose job it is to bring new successes to their national team.
That’s a lot of pressure for a player his age, who is still adapting to a new environment in Spain, and who is all but sure of a regular spot for his national team. Observing Lainez’ behavior on and off the pitch, he doesn’t seem to be too fazed by it all, he’s just focused on his own mission.
A famous example is his bust-up with United States-defender Matt Miazga, who mocked him for his height, basically saying Diego is a small child who gets to enjoy some time with the grown-ups. While he was, probably unawarely, demonstrating what an exceptional talent Lainez is, it also speaks volumes of Lainez’ determination and composure. Lainez kept his head down, dribbled like there was no tomorrow, got fouled a number of times and overall made sure the United States defense wouldn’t be forgetting him anytime soon. In an environment so heated and hostile, he kept his cool and proceed to do what he’s good at: challenging defenders over and over again, looking at opportunities to dribble his way out of tough situations.
It’s time to step up
Someone who wasn’t a big fan of Lainez’ move to Europe, is Mexico national team manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino. He was not overjoyed by the lack of minutes the youngster was getting at his new club, instead of being a regular in Liga MX, which was the main reason Lainez wasn’t included in the Mexican squad that would become champions at the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Unfortunately, the 2019-2020 season hasn’t been kind to him at all, starting only one game and clocking a total of 215 minutes in La Liga. Teammate and fellow countryman Andrés Guardado has spoken out about Lainez’ progress and is very confident his time will come. He just needs to keep working, learning and improving.
The experienced centremid also hinted that Lainez needs to improve heavily in his tactical approach of the game. He supposedly didn’t fulfil the tactical duties his coaches and teammates were expecting. While it’s unsure what these duties entail exactly, his low rate of 16.7% gaining possession for his team when applying pressure on defenders suggests something isn’t working as it should.
That is not to say Lainez seems lazy and uninterested when the ball is not at his feet, there seems nothing wrong with his work-ethic to regain possession. His enthusiasm to start a new attack as soon as possible might be what’s preventing him from being disciplined and playing his part out of possession. Also, during his last season in Mexico he averaged 1.41 interceptions per 90 minutes, which shows he is very capable of doing his defensive bit.
It’s perfectly reasonable Lainez is still adjusting to life at his new club in order to become a serious contender for regular minutes, considering the competition for attacking slots at Real Betis, in club captain Joaquín, newly signed Nabil Fekir or the experienced Juanmi, among others.
Hopefully, his lack of minutes give him the opportunity to develop further out of the spotlights, both tactically, physically and mentally. If his (even) younger years are any indication, when he insisted on moving away from his family to train at a bigger professional football academy, Lainez is bound to come back and claim his place in Real Betis’ first eleven. Above all, Diego Lainez seems extremely driven and mature, which are key ingredients for a young foreigner to make it big in European football.