Players to Watch at Copa América 2024: Who Will Be the Game Changers?

Pulisic
© IMAGO / ZUMA Wire (Avier Vicencio)
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  • Will Captain America put on his greatest show on home turf?
  • Without Neymar Jr is it time for Vinicius Jr to shine for Brazil?
  • Could the best player at Copa América be a Left Back?

The cream of world soccer takes center stage after the domestic European leagues conclude in May, with the Copa América and the Euro 2024 overlapping for the first time ever during June and July.

The European leagues increasingly supplies playing talent for the Pan-American showpiece. With the extension to 16 teams and the inclusion of six countries from CONCACAF, we’ll be seeing top-class players from the biggest-named sides worldwide, as well as raw, emerging players who’ll be trying to impress and force a big-money move to the top leagues.

Copa América 2024 starts a week after its European counterparts, with the opening match set for 21 June, when reigning World Champions Argentina faces Canada.

With so many stars on show, let’s run through where their talents lie and what we can expect from high-profile individuals before the big kick-off of Copa América 2024 in the USA.

Lionel Messi – Argentina – Forward

© Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

Soccer players, especially forwards, often begin their age-related decline in their late 20s, and Messi will be 37 three days after Argentina’s opening game. But he’s still the pre-eminent player on the world stage, evolving his style of play, while being excused any defensive duties to adapt to his aging legs.

Messi’s greatest skill is definitely his football IQ. Seemingly disinterested when out of possession, Messi can regularly be seen wandering out of position to test defenses, scanning for potential defensive mismatches before scampering into space or exchanging crisp one-two’s to break open the opposition’s defensive structure.

He’s spanned the expected goals revolution with his reputation enhanced. Few players consistently outscore their xG totals, but Messi did season after season at Barcelona. Shot placement, along with the power of his predominately left-footed attempts, fuels his xG over-performance, and he’s also generous when providing assists for his side.

Lionel Messi is the star attraction of Copa América and an avid collector of late-career international trophies.

Darwin Nunez – Uruguay – Forward

If Messi were the darling of soccer analytics, the data revolution would have been less kind to Darwin Nunez. The two may share a birthdate, separated by 12 years, but Messi’s finishing prowess often eludes the Uruguayan.

Nunez reached Messi-like goalscoring heights for Benfica in 21/22, overperforming his expected goals figures by 40%. However, he has squandered many excellent scoring positions he has found himself in for Liverpool.

More encouragingly, being in the right place at the right time to take a shot is considered the primary, repeatable skill for a striker, and Nunez excels at this. Also, he’s often failed by the slimmest of margins by striking the woodwork.

His recent international scoring glut includes a high-pressure penalty conversion, further goals against Argentina, Brazil and a brace against Bolivia.

Darwin Nunez can be exhilarating or frustrating and he’ll shoot often… no matter what, he certainly won’t be dull.

Luis Diaz – Colombia – Forward

Luis Diaz
© IMAGO / Andres Pina (Photosport)

A speedy winger, with excellent feet and difficult to dislodge from the ball, Diaz was the joint top scorer with Messi in the last Copa América.

For Liverpool, he’s the left-sided threat, willing to back his pace down the line or break inside. Increasingly, he’s become a viable target in the center of the opposition penalty area, a goal-poaching trait he’d shown previously at Porto.

He’s in his prime years and a near automatic Premier League starter. 0.35 xG per 90 at Liverpool is good, without being exceptional. Sadio Mane, the player he replaced for the Reds, had a career figure of 0.5. Diaz’s expected assists are somewhat pedestrian.

These trends carry into his international career. Diaz is much more of a scorer than a provider, as Brazil will testify. He had ten shots, four on target, and two goals in a 2-1 win over their South American rivals in November.

Vinicius Jr. – Brazil – Forward

With Neymar an injured absentee, much of the weight of Brazilian expectations falls on Vinicius Jr.

Debuting for Flamengo at 16, then Real Madrid and Brazil at 18: Vinicius Jr’s shoulders are broad enough, despite his tender years that still leave him a year short of entering his primetime career phase.

Introduced as a rapid, left-sided winger blessed with typical Brazilian skills, he’s evolved into a player capable of playing anywhere across Madrid’s attacking front line under Carlo Ancelotti – a perennial entry on Brazil’s managerial wish list.

He’s as prolific a taker of chances as he is creating opportunities for others, developing an excellent understanding with Karim Benzema when the latter played the central role at Real Madrid.

At times he’s downright unplayable, he was dubbed “the new Neymar” while still at Flamengo, and Copa América 2024 should allow him to fulfill that moniker.

Christian Pulisic – USA – Forward

© Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

The host team’s “Captain America” is firmly in his peak years. Initially a teenage prodigy in Germany’s top-flight, he won a Champions League with Chelsea, despite injuries and lack of minutes that ultimately led to his move to AC Milan.

Technically gifted, he’s comfortable receiving the ball in tight attacking areas. When running from his wide starting position, he often looks to break defensive lines. He’s not a traditional touchline-hugging wide man; instead, he looks to combine with attacking teammates in and around the box.

He’s flourished at AC Milan, ten goals and six assists are personal seasonal highs. Pulisic will be the focus of everything the USA does in the attacking third.

Moises Caicedo – Ecuador – Defensive Midfielder

Moises Caicedo is one of a couple of players with Brighton & Hove Albion connections who’ll likely grace the Copa América.

He is now part of Chelsea’s midfield, which boasts the Premier League’s fourth-best combined attacking and defensive process, even if results haven’t always matched the underlying performance levels.

His physical presence and technical ability in pressurized possession are often the starting points for attacking sequences. Defensively, he forms a shield to allow others to race forward, and Caicedo’s engine can also provide box-to-box support if needed.

Tackles, interceptions and blocks are his staple plays, but he’s also an accomplished and abundant passer and circulator of the ball.

A new breed of sought-after defensive midfielders.

Alphonso Davies – Canada – Left Back/Winger

Alphonso Davies is among the world’s best-attacking left-backs with an astonishing career path from a refugee camp in Ghana to the MLS as a teenager and the Bundesliga as a regular at 18.

His ball progression, both from carries and passes, is world-class, along with his attacking receptions and touches in the opposition box. Speed and dribbling ability underpin his potent mix of talents.

Even as a nominal full-back, his pace going forward can quickly transition defensive third possession into an attacking third threat. Combination passes with attacking teammates or accurate feeds into the box is a creative hallmark.

Without neglecting his defensive duties, 0.17 assists per 90 for Bayern Munich is an impressive return, as are 15 goals in 45 games for his adopted Canada.

Edson Alvarez – Mexico – Central Defender/Midfielder

© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Coveted by many teams after a successful stint in the Netherlands for Ajax, Edson Alvarez made the jump to the Premier League with West Ham. He played either as a right-sided center-back in a back four or a deep-lying midfielder, positions he’ll reprise for Mexico at Copa América 2024.

It’s a compliment that he was seen as a replacement for Arsenal-bound Declan Rice. His combative style, based on tackles, interceptions, blocks, and aerial strength, creates a formidable barrier across West Ham’s defensive final third.

Goal attempts have been rare and from distance, but he was a threat from set plays at Ajax.

Occasionally over-aggressive, he’s reached double-figure yellow cards in his last two seasons. He drives the Hammers forward with both carries and passes, and he’s an influential presence both with and without the ball in the side’s engine room.

Miguel Almiron – Paraguay – Winger

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

An MLS export to the Premier League, he joined Newcastle from Atlanta. Almiron has flourished thanks to his excellent work ethic and sublime finishing skills.

His 0.29 xG per 90 in 22/23 was cranked up to 0.4 goals per 90, mainly down to his eye for goal from the danger zone between the penalty spot and the six-yard line. Throw in a handful of goals from outside the box, and he’s a goal threat, especially from his right side of the field.

Fickle finishing was less kind last season, but his underlying xG output only wavered slightly.

A front-foot style that allows him to receive the ball high up the pitch, often hugging the touchline, with license to roam and play short passing interchanges may not always be possible with club teammates from Brazil on the group stage itinerary.

Emiliano Martinez – Argentina – Goalkeeper

Emi Martinez
© IMAGO / Luciano Bisbal (PhotoCero5)

We started with Argentina’s first point of attack, so we’ll end with their last line of defense.

He was a relatively late starter before becoming an Aston Villa regular in 20/21, claiming individual goalkeeping awards as easily as he claimed crosses.

He was an integral part of Argentina’s World Cup win, not only in regulation play but also in penalty shootouts, where he relishes the mental aspect of the challenge as much as the physical element of keeping the ball out of the net.

Martinez is an adept sweeper keeper, and he’s also comfortable starting moves with the ball at his feet. But he’s excelled at the keeper’s core ability, shot-stopping.

Based on the quality of shots faced in four seasons at Villa, he’s saved ten more goals than you’d expect compared to an average Premier League keeper. Not quite Messi levels of over-performance, but a handy credit to bank.

Copa America Players with Most Value

Most valuable Players in Copa América © Oddspedia Insights

Previous Player of the Tournament

Edition Best Player Team
2021 Lionel Messi Argentina
2019 Dani Alves Brazil
2016 Alexis Sánchez Chile
2015 Lionel Messi Argentina
2011 Luis Suárez Uruguay
2007 Robinho Brazil
2004 Adriano Brazil
2001 Amado Guevara Honduras
1999 Rivaldo Brazil
1997 Ronaldo Brazil
1995 Enzo Francescoli Uruguay
1993 Sergio Goycochea Argentina
1991 Leonardo Rodriguez Argentina
1989 Rubén Sosa Uruguay
1987 Carlos Valderrama Colombia

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