Yeferson Soteldo: Diminutive winger could carry Santos to Copa Libertadores glory against …

There was huge adversity in the early stages of Yeferson Soteldo’s career.

He grew up in the underprivileged neighbourhood of El Muertico in the city of Acarigua, where he claims an early grave was the likely alternative to a career in professional football, and although he gained a spot in the academy of Caracas – Venezuela’s most successful club – he was thrown out aged 14 for “indiscipline”.

Furthermore, there were huge question marks over his physical capability to make it as a pro – now 23, he only stands at five feet and two inches tall.

But Venezuela’s most-decorated coach Noel Sanvicente gave him a second chance at Zamora and put him on the path to Saturday’s Copa Libertadores final between Santos and Palmeiras at the iconic Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.

In Messi’s footsteps

Six-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi is an obvious inspiration for a number of players, but Soteldo felt a stronger connection than most to the Barcelona superstar as he worked his way through spells with Zamora, Huachipato and Universidad de Chile before ending up at Santos in 2019.

“Everyone was talking about my height, that I was not going to be able to play football because of my size, because I was very small. Now I’m here, I got over it,” Soteldo told the official Libertadores website.

“That’s for the young ones who are little too. They can see Soteldo and say, ‘I can too.’ I did that with Messi. I saw he was small, that he made it and I can too.”

Since his arrival in the Campeonato Brasileiro, it is not just his short stature and bleached blond hair that have made him stand out on the pitch.

Soteldo has established himself as one of the league’s most potent wingers, his low centre of gravity, incredible pace and quick feet making him a serious threat when in possession out wide.

It is no surprise he has attempted more dribbles (308) than anyone else since the start of the 2019 Brasileiro, but it is what he does in those moments that makes him dangerous.

Soteldo averages a carry with a shot every other game (0.6) in Brazil’s top flight and creates a chance following a carry at least once per 90 minutes (1.1) – a league-leading amount among players to have featured for at least 1,800 minutes over the past two seasons.

That ability has seen him directly set up five goals and score three following a carry, accounting for over one third of his 22 goal involvements (13 scored, nine assisted) in the competition.

It is tough for defenders to stop him and he is unrelenting. Per 90 minutes, he averages 5.3 carries of at least 10 metres and 3.8 carries with a take on – the latter being the most among active players in the division.

Stepping up

He has managed to translate that form to the Libertadores this season, with only Carlos Tevez (30) and Nicolas de la Cruz (31) supplying more key passes than Soteldo (28) in the competition.

However, Soteldo has played one game fewer and averages three chances created per game, so would be expected to move level with De la Cruz after the final.

Carries have again formed a key part of the Venezuelan’s output, with 11 of his key passes coming after a carry – three more than any other player – though only one has resulted in an assist.

This does not mean Soteldo is consistently involved, though. In this season’s Libertadores he has 22 direct chance involvements, where his only contribution in those open play sequences was to create the chance. No player in the competition has more direct chance involvements and it shows the 23-year-old is always capable of popping up with a killer ball.

The next step

Life at the Vila Belmiro has not been a walk in the park for Soteldo.

Santos accepted a transfer bid from Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal last October but Soteldo opted against the move because of his desire to play in Europe.

The Brazilian side were only keen to sell to avoid a punishment from FIFA over fees owed to Huachipato following his arrival at the club, with a financial crisis making his future look increasingly uncertain.

In South America’s biggest club game, at one of the continent’s most famous stadiums, Soteldo can have a huge say in what happens next for him.

His journey to this point proves he will not let anything stand in his way.

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