Although technically Celtic’s third signing of the summer, there is perhaps an extra dimension to Alexandro Bernabei’s arrival from Argentinian club Atletico Lanus.
Fans are already well-acquainted with the popular Cameron Carter-Vickers after last season’s loan from Tottenham was made permanent earlier this month, while Dundee United goalkeeper Benjamin Siegrist’s free transfer this week is intended to improve strength in depth more than the starting XI.
Bernabei, however, is a new name who is hoped to elevate Celtic’s level.
The 21-year-old is also Celtic’s first ever Argentinian player, and their first signing directly from a South American club since Rafael Scheidt’s disastrous £4.8 million transfer from Gremio of Brazil in 1999. It also signals Mark Lawwell’s impact as head of recruitment, given his experience in the South American market in his former role at City Football Group.
Although there are inevitably areas for improvement in Bernabei’s game at his age, he looks an exciting, well-suited addition to Ange Postecoglou’s side.
He came through the academy at Lanus initially as a left winger, but increasingly established himself deployed as a left-back by then-manager Luis Zubeldia in 2019.
Seba Ongarelli, an Argentinian journalist, tells The Athletic: “He came through as an attacking player, but they didn’t have many left-backs. Lanus had a left-back for many years, he was the captain and most important player (Maximiliano Velazquez, who left the club in 2018 having played until he was 38).
“They were looking for someone as fast as the previous left-back, and they found Bernabei. He got more than 50 games, so he started as a prospect, but grew important.”
Lanus are historically a mid-table top-flight club based in a city of the same name just south of Argentina’s capital, although they won their second Primera Division title in 2016 and went on to reach the following year’s Copa Libertadores final, where they lost to Gremio. They have a prestigious academy, with graduates including former Atletico Madrid and Benfica winger Eduardo Salvio. Of the current crop, there is lots of hype around winger Pedro de la Vega, also 21.
“Lanus over the past two or three years have been trying to develop a lot of young players,” Ongarelli says. “They don’t have the chance to buy players from other clubs, especially not from other parts of the world. Bernabei is one of those players (Jorge) Almiron, the current manager of Lanus, knows and wants in his team because of the style he has. It’s an exciting young team.”
Bernabei had previously represented Argentina at under-19 level at the 2018 South American Games, but has made only two appearances for the under-23s, both against a Japan side that included Celtic’s Reo Hatate in March of last year.
Ongarelli believes Bernabei is ready for the move to Europe and is adamant he will be a success: “Absolutely, 100 per cent. I think the most important thing for a South American player is the jump to the big Europe leagues but it’s not easy. Especially in Argentina. Julian Alvarez going from River Plate to Manchester City is a special case because he is so good.
“It’s going to be a huge step. Celtic is going to be playing Champions League, which is very attractive, against the best teams in the world. He wants to be here (at that level), and in a league that can help him grow as a player too, to develop the skills he needs for a better future in Europe. He’s young, which is big for Celtic because clubs like them need to develop and then sell these players, to get profit. I think that Bernabei can be one of these players.”
If you could only use one adjective to describe Bernabei as a player, it might well be “fun”.
Looking at his profile on smarterscout — a tool that uses advanced metrics to give players a rating from zero to a maximum 99 based on either how often they perform a specific action compared to others playing in their position, or how effective they are at it — you can infer just how fun he will likely be.
A carry and dribble volume score of 99 out of a possible 99 underlines six or seven times that his dribbling and close control are probably his biggest strengths.
He is not a dribbler for its own sake, however. He is effective at moving the ball into dangerous areas of the pitch (xG from ball progression: 93 out of 99 — even adjusted to an English Premier League standard), and he contributes creatively too (xG from chance creation: 88 out of 99). With Bernabei moving from a lower mid-table side to one who dominates possession and chances in most Premiership games, it is expected that these attacking metrics will improve further in a Celtic shirt.
Defensively, he looks active off the ball in getting tight to his man (defending intensity: 92/99), suggesting he is an aggressive, front-foot defender. His defending impact, how a player’s defending affects the opposition progressing the ball, score of 27/99 implies there is room for improvement when it comes to efficiency.
Comparing Bernabei to Celtic’s current first-choice left-back Greg Taylor, there are clear differences.
It is not a perfect comparison, as there are both league and team-style distinctions between the Primera Division and Lanus, and the Premiership and Celtic — while the metrics adjusted for an English Premier League standard are slightly more forgiving towards the Scottish top flight — but it can still be instructive.
Although not as significant a contributor in an attacking sense, Taylor is generally more defensively secure than Bernabei — as illustrated by his having a better defending impact score (66 out of 99).
Given Celtic tend to camp in the attacking third for most games, as suggested by Taylor’s high scores for receptions in the opposition box (98 out of 99) and link-up play volume (98 out of 99), it can be expected these are areas in which Bernabei will improve too.
By the eye test, Bernabei would immediately become one of Celtic’s most technically gifted players.
He is a competent and inventive passer, while his close control and first touch are excellent which, complemented by his low centre of gravity, makes him as confident a dribbler as the smarterscout data suggests.
“Bernabei is a fast player — sort of like (Josip) Juranovic but on your left,” says Ongarelli, who lives in Glasgow now and knows Celtic well. “He will always move to the box, to either score or cross, and that’s something that, if you watch Ange Postecoglou’s games, you know he wants those kinds of players.”
Jon Cotterill, a South American football expert and author of the book Anatomy Of A Football Scout: An In-Depth Look At Player Recruitment, says that despite his short stature at 5ft 7in, Bernabei is “robust and can bounce off challenges”. “He’s shown determination and has quick feet,” says Cotterill, “has good balance and is capable of making strong dribbles.”
His crossing looks OK, but is possibly his biggest area for improvement when in possession. Instat records his crossing accuracy as 20 per cent for the ongoing 2022 Argentinian season that began in February, a figure which reflects his inconsistency, and he is especially erratic when crossing from deep positions.
In a 2-2 draw with Arsenal de Sarandi in March, Bernabei showed what it can be like when it all comes together.
He proactively reads a high ball towards Arsenal’s Lucas Brochero and intercepts with his head…
…before using pace and deceptive strength to shrug off Christian Chimino and drive to the byline…
…where he takes his time to pick out Victor Malcorra to stroke home, with an accurate driven cross that bypasses three defenders.
Pace, close control, confidence and attacking intent in the final third are his biggest assets.
At the beginning of this passage of play in a Copa Sudamericana group tie — their equivalent of the Europa League — he is being pressed in his own third of the pitch but shields the ball well.
He exchanges a one-two with former Sevilla attacker Lautaro Acosta — a regular ball progression tactic of Lanus’ is one-twos between Bernabei and team-mates to set him running up the pitch — that allows him to speed past two defenders.
A second one-two, with the return as a high ball, involving another of Lanus’ young prospects, Jose Manuel Lopez, gets Bernabei into the final third as his pace outstrips his man.
He continues his run into Barcelona’s box and draws goalkeeper Javier Burrai towards him. With Burrai out of the equation, Bernabei floats a cross to his right for Jose Sand to poke into an empty net.
It is an impressive passage of play and captures his best qualities well.
Bernabei can also score from distance.
The pick of the bunch is either this from last month in a 2-1 Copa Sudamericana defeat at home to Wanderers of Uruguay…
…or there was this a few weeks earlier in the above win over Barcelona.
Though former target Mohanad Jeahze at Swedish club Hammarby has greater experience as an inverted full-back controlling possession and playmaking, Bernabei’s technical competence — and confidence with dribbling infield — suggests he could adapt to the role.
Defensively, his best attributes are his combination of speed and aggression, as highlighted by that impressive smarterscout defending intensity score.
Again from that victory over Barcelona, he showed how much of a natural fit he would be for Postecoglou’s pressing game — and perhaps that willingness to push inside.
The opposition player receives a pass with space to turn… but sprinting towards him is Bernabei.
…who wins the ball cleanly and carries it forward, triggering a counter-attack.
That kind of aggression is something that comes naturally to Juranovic, and less so to Taylor and Anthony Ralston, although it might be hoped that Bernabei tempers it a little as he does tend to foul a lot.
Analytics website FBref ranks him eighth in the Primera Division for fouls committed in the 2021 season (43), and he was sent off for a headbutt earlier this week in his final game for Lanus against Colon.
In general, though, Postecoglou will look to transform that aggressive template into a pressing machine.
While this aggression will be welcome in the Celtic set-up, Bernabei has room for improvement defensively. Sometimes that over-eagerness can be exploited in one-v-ones, as was the case in that game against Wanderers where he scored that screamer mentioned earlier.
Here, Wanderers’ Mauro Mendez receives the ball and turns on the edge of Lanus’ box. Rather than standing Mendez up to block any potential shot, Bernabei tries to nick possession off him.
Mendez drifts past Bernabei’s tackle and, with him out of position, has a better angle to finish powerfully into the near corner.
Bernabei also has a habit of making positional lapses, and his speed and aggression are often his get out of jail free card. Both of these were clear in a 1-0 Copa Sudamericana win over Metropolitanos of Venezuela last month.
Metropolitanos attempt a long ball over the top, and Bernabei loses track of his winger.
Metropolitanos find themselves in a good attacking position, but Bernabei scampers back with such speed and intent that he calmly regains possession, compensating for his initial positional error.
The upside to this is that these defensive issues are not inherent to the player, and can be ironed out through good coaching and experience. He is young — not turning 22 until September — and there is still scope for him to improve his defending while in Glasgow.
“He prefers attacking to defending, but with time and the right manager he should be able to defend as well,” Ongarelli says.
“Of course, he’ll have to pay attention defensively, because at Lanus it could be difficult enough, but in the Champions League it will be even more difficult. You won’t be allowed too many mistakes. I think that if you have a manager who gives him strict instructions defensively to improve, then I think it could work well for him, and for the club.”
“His stats are not outstanding, but he is playing in an average team,” Cotterill adds. “To get a more accurate picture of a player, they need to be monitored over a few seasons to see if they are on an upward or downward career curve. If Celtic have done that, they must believe that Bernabei is a good fit for the club but also that he can be developed and has potential to improve even further.”
There are a lot of variables that can influence this move not panning out.
The culture and language barriers could impact on-pitch performance, as Cotterill warns, with Bernabei being Celtic’s only native Spanish speaker, but hopefully the club have the support network in place to help him settle. Likewise, while on paper Bernabei looks a great fit for Postecoglou’s play style, there is no guarantee it will click into place right away, although the player arriving before pre-season should in theory help that tactical transition.
But while a degree of caution is advisable, this is still a compelling signing.
The prospect of Bernabei and Daizen Maeda as a hard-running, hard-pressing left wing pairing, or of Juranovic and Bernabei as a dominant full-back partnership, is tantalising.
Jeahze, a move for whom stalled a month ago, is currently the more complete player of the two. He is more refined defensively and has a more established pedigree for fulfilling that inverting, playmaking full-back role we saw Juranovic excel in last year. Bernabei is four years Iraq international Jeahze’s junior and is more of a project signing, but because he is so young, is such an exciting attacking talent, and because his deficiencies can be coached out, he possibly has the higher upside and greater sell-on potential of the two.
Bernabei’s profile is such that he could be one of Celtic’s next high-value sales after two or three years of further development, while hopefully producing a few special moments and achieving some silverware along the way.