The standout performance of the World Cup’s last-16 belonged to Kylian Mbappe. It was not just the two goals he scored in France’s win over Argentina, nor even the penalty he won, but rather the accelerations, the dribbles, the 11 separate occasions when he took on and beat the man in front of him.
Even for a player who has commanded a €150-million transfer fee, this felt like a coming-of-age: a 19-year-old putting nation on his back and leaving Leo Messi in the shade. By full-time, comparisons were being drawn with the great Brazil striker Ronaldo, though it was actually a compatriot of his, Pele, who was the last teenager to score twice in a World Cup finals game, 60 years ago.
Best of luck, then, Diego Laxalt. On Friday in Nizhny Novgorod, it will be up to the Uruguay left-back to deny Mbappe - and the world - an encore.
Well, OK, that is oversimplifying just a smidgen. France’s quarter-final opponents understand better than most the importance of defending as a team. Uruguay’s manager, Oscar Tabarez, speaks endlessly about the importance of "balance", of establishing control - in both possession and territory - before thinking to launch an attack. No individual could be credited with keeping Cristiano Ronaldo off the scoresheet in a 2-1 win over Portugal. That was very much a shared success.
Even so, Laxalt’s role on Friday will be critical. Barring any last-minute change of heart from Tabarez, he will be charged with defending Mbappe’s flank.
Although six years older than the Frenchman, Laxalt has played fewer than half as many games at international level. Tabarez called him up for the first time in 2016 but only granted him a pair of brief cameo appearances off the bench in World Cup qualifying. Laxalt’s first competitive start for Uruguay came in their final group game, a 3-0 rout of hosts Russia.
That he kept his place against Portugal speaks volumes. Laxalt’s introduction has been transformative, altering the shape of Uruguay’s play even without changing the formation. Martin Caceres - a reliable defender, but less dynamic at 31 years old - had started at left-back during successive 1-0 wins over Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The latter player has now switched across to right-back, the position he fills most often for his club side, Lazio. As a natural right-footer, Ccceres is better able to cross the ball from that flank without cutting inside. Laxalt, likewise, is a natural left-footer, meaning that Uruguay now have greater width on either wing. By hugging the touchline, they have also been able to pull opposing full-backs out with them, creating spaces for Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez to exploit.
Such natural advantages raise the question of why Tabarez did not include Laxalt sooner. It is tempting to imagine that he did not trust the Genoa player in the defensive phase.
Laxalt has, after all, rarely played as a true full-back. He arrived in Serie A five years ago as a midfielder, signed by Inter from Uruguay’s Defensor Sporting. Back then, Laxalt cited Edgar Davids as his footballing idol, yet the Milan club could not find a role for him – farming him out on loan instead to Bologna and then Empoli.
It was only at Genoa in 2015 that he truly started to establish himself as a wing-back, his pace and abundant energy exploited to full effect on the left of Gian Piero Gasperini’s 3-4-3. The manager moved on a year later, but his successors were smart enough to carry on deploying Laxalt in a similar role.
A need for speed comes naturally. As Laxalt tells it, he learned to run almost as soon as he could walk, seeking a way to escape being dragged to the table at mealtimes. Yet he loves fast cars, too, a passion he inherited from his father, who works in a garage. If the costs of competing were not prohibitive for a family of modest income in Montevideo, he might sooner have become a racecar driver than a footballer.
Whether he can keep up with Mbappe remains to be seen, but Portugal can attest that he is no slouch. The European champions funnelled much of their play down Laxalt’s flank, perhaps imagining that they could catch such an attack-minded player out of position. He finished the game with six tackles – the most of any player on the pitch. Portugal’s only goal originated from the opposite side.
Those numbers hint at a truth that Genoa fans already knew. For all that Laxalt enjoys having the freedom to get forward and support the attack, he remains a diligent and capable defender.
His approach to football mirrors his outlook in life. On the surface it would be easy to mistake Laxalt for that stereotyped image of a modern footballer who cares less about his game than his hair and his cars. He is instantly recognisable on the pitch by his cornrows, and his Instagram page is dominated by pictures of his customised classic BMW.
And yet even here there is pragmatism. “My hair, naturally, is like a bush,” Laxalt has explained - likening it to the former Colombian player Carlos Valderrama. He got it braided for the first time by the daughter of Chelsea’s chief scout in Uruguay, who told him nobody would bring him to the Premier League looking like that. Subsequently, he worked out that it saved him an awful lot of time in the shower.
The car is a passion project, but he is not out buying a new one every month. Laxalt had seen this particular model passing by the pitch where he trained as a kid every day and told himself that one day he would have his own. It lives in his father’s garage in Montevideo, where “nobody can touch it except me”.
If anything, the impression that Laxalt gives off is of a man mature beyond his years. He recently started learning the piano, fulfilling another childhood promise to himself, and after scoring two goals in successive games for Genoa this February he cited that hobby as the reason for his enhanced composure in front of goal. “Before I used to relax with Call of Duty,” he said, “which is not the same thing.”
At 25, you could hardly call him an old man. The task of keeping up with Mbappe is not so unthinkable for him as it appeared for Javier Mascherano. Even so, Laxalt has been around long enough to know he cannot do it on his own.
“We cannot let him have the space to launch at high speed,” he said on Tuesday. “We will need spirit and sacrifice.”
Another standout performance from a player making just his 10th appearance for Uruguay also wouldn’t go amiss.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)