Out of all the players brought in during West Ham’s summer transfer splurge it’s fair to say that Fabian Balbuena is one of the more under the radar additions.
Signed from Brazilian champions Corinthians for a fee believed to be around £4mil, the Paraguayan centre-back might not go straight into the first team but nevertheless represents a fairly low-risk investment and provides some much-needed reinforcement to the Hammers’ back-line.
So, who is the man nicknamed “The General”?
Born in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s second biggest city that forms the Triple Frontier with Brazil and Argentina, Balbuena started his career at second division side Cerro Porteño (PF) as an 18-year-old. By the following season, he was already captain of the team and helped lead them to promotion to the Paraguayan Primera for the first time in their history.
Balbuena’s performances earned him a move to Rubio Ñu before he was snapped up by then-defending champions Club Nacional just six months later. Again Balbuena quickly established himself as a starter and was part of the Tricolor side that reached the 2014 Copa Libertadores final.
Balbuena was hot property and Libertad, one of the biggest clubs in the country, came in for him and the young defender added the 2014 Clausura title to his list of honours.
Having impressed at every level in Paraguayan football, Brazilian giants Corinthians signed Balbuena in February 2016. Although inspirational manager Tite left for the Brazil national team later that year, the foundations of his well-organised side remained and under new boss Fabio Carille Corinthians claimed the 2017 Brasileirao title. Balbuena was a mainstay of their watertight defence that shipped just 30 goals in 38 games and was also named in the team of the year.
Having steadily progressed through the levels of South American football, playing over 300 games and winning numerous titles, the time is right for Balbuena to make his move to Europe. Here we take an in-depth look of what West Ham fans can expect of his playing style.
Balbuena is a physical, combative presence in the heart of defence, befitting of his militaristic nickname. Strong and aggressive, Balbuena likes to step up and get tight to his man to stop the danger at source.
Unafraid to go to ground and put in a big crunching tackle, his no-nonsense approach will endear him to fans. Having said this, his tackles are usually well-timed, as demonstrated by the fact he only picked up six yellow cards last season.
In theory, this physicality should see him well suited to English football but he will have to be wary of not relying on this aspect of his game to deal with the increased pace and powers of strikers in the division.
Standing 6 ft 2, Balbuena may not be the tallest but he can more than hold his own in the air. Last season in the Brasileirao, he won on average an impressive 3.1 aerial duels per game and this season of the 111 players to contest 25+ aerial duels, Balbuena has the best aerial success rate (82.1%).
Furthermore, Balbuena is also an aerial threat going forward from set pieces, scoring four goals in 32 games in the Brasileirao last season, three of which proved to be decisive winners.
A confident if not overly loud character, Balbuena is someone who leads by example on the pitch. At almost every club he’s been at and from a young age he has been a captain which demonstrates his leadership qualities which will no doubt be an asset for West Ham.
What’s more, having captained Corinthians and his international experience with Paraguay means that Balbuena is used to dealing with high-pressure situations and has come up trumps in big game situations.
Even with the language barrier, this experience and strength of character should also bode well as he adapts to a new league and country. He’s talked of wanting to emulate Tevez and Mascherano which again attests to the confidence he has in his own ability.
Rather than being all blood and thunder, one of Balbuena’s better qualities is his positioning. Last season he averaged 2.2 interceptions per game in the Brasileirao and his reading of the game is good. While no slouch, he isn’t the quickest and as such this positioning and intelligence means that he doesn’t have to rely on pace.
Balbuena usually opts for a short and simple pass but over the last couple of seasons in Brazil he has averaged around an 85% pass completion rate which shows he can look after the ball. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Ajax were looking at him as a possible option
Having said that, Balbuena also averages a high number of clearances too, so he’s not afraid to get rid or go direct. His long balls down the right channel can be effective, particularly when he’ll have the likes of Yarmolenko and Felipe Anderson stretching the play and getting in behind full backs.
Balbuena is most likely to be used in squad rotation but should be providing strong competition for Angelo Ogbonna and new boy Issa Diop for a starting place in the XI. The fact he has a fellow Spanish-speaker as manager in the form of Manuel Pellegrini will certainly be helpful in his integration and understanding of what is expected of him but there will obvious need for patience.
One factor that is worth considering is that he was part of a very settled and well-drilled defence at Corinthians and therefore was able to shine. It will be intriguing to see how he can adapt not only to a new country and a team that has a new manager and a big influx of new players.
The leap of going straight to England from South America is a big jump and I personally expected him to maybe go to Holland or Portugal first but he has plenty of experience and the right grit and determination to become a useful player. Whether he takes to life in East London like a duck to water like Manuel Lanzini or flops like Jonathan Calleri remains to be seen but considering the low fee in today’s market, it is a signing that should at least provide some strength and depth.