Exequiel Palacios: Leverkusen’s Unsung Argentine Dynamo in Midfield

Exequiel Palacios was 20 years old when he starred for River Plate as they defeated crosstown rivals Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores Final. He was 21 when he departed his boyhood club and joined Bayer Leverkusen for €22 million. He was 22 when he came off the bench and led Argentina to victory against Brazil in the Copa América Final and 24 when he featured in Argentina’s World Cup win. Now 25, he has played a pivotal role in Bayer Leverkusen’s domestic double.


Palacios has proven essential in their stellar form, and after a decade of patiently developing his trade, he has emerged as one of the finest midfielders on the continent. Having made a name for himself in the 2017 U-20 World Cup in South Korea, Palacios quickly rose through the ranks at River following his professional debut in 2015, claiming two Copa Argentina titles and one Recopa Sudamericana.



2019 was a mixed year for Palacios, who missed out on a move to Real Madrid after suffering a fibula injury, but he did recover in time to start for River in the Copa Libertadores Final. Whilst Rafael Santos Borré Maury gave River the lead within 14 minutes, Gabigol’s late brace would see Flamengo pull off a 2-1 victory in Lima. Two months later, Palacios joined Leverkusen on a five-year contract, ending his River career with 10 goals and 11 assists in 77 appearances for Los Millonarios.


After biding his time under Peter Bosz and Hannes Wolf, Palacios took his performances to a new level under Gerard Seoane, who took charge in the summer of 2021 on the back of a sixth-placed finish. The Argentine scored 2 goals and 2 assists in 23 Bundesliga appearances — 3 of those goal contributions coming in the final month of the campaign — as Leverkusen finished third in the league, behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and ahead of RB Leipzig.


However, Seoane’s second season did not enjoy the smoothest of starts, with Die Werkself taking just 1 win, 2 draws and 5 losses. A 2-0 loss at Porto decided Seoane’s fate, with the Swiss manager receiving his marching orders in the start of October. Xabi Alonso took charge with the club in 17th place, and he managed to guide them to a sixth-place finish as well as the Europa League semifinals, where they would lose to Jose Mourinho’s Roma.


What’s Gone Wrong at Bayer Leverkusen?


Alonso set up his team in a 3-4-3 formation, similar to the system that he used at Real Sociedad B, with the likes of Amine Adli, Moussa Diaby and Callum Hudson-Odoi working around the shoulder of the center forward – typically either Adam Hložek or Patrik Schick – with wing-backs Mitchel Bakker and Jeremie Frimpong providing overlapping support when needed.


This season, however, Leverkusen would shift to a box midfield with the two 10s dropping deep and combining with the two 6s — two of Robert Andrich, Granit Xhaka and Palacios. In doing so, they could not only overload the opposing midfield but also enabling the wingbacks to push forward, dribble and pick out their attacking teammates with dangerous passes.


Photo: Wyscout


Indeed, the 2023/24 campaign would see Leverkusen go with a 3-4-2-1 formation to take advantage of penetrative movements and intricate passing sequences. Florian Wirtz and either Jonas Hofmann or Adli would operate as the 10s, cutting inside and allowing Frimpong and Álex Grimaldo to bomb forward and double up on the opposing fullback, whilst the arrival of Victor Boniface enabled Leverkusen to create havoc in transition, accelerate the tempo and build overloads in the final third.



It has been nothing short of an impeccable campaign for Bayer Leverkusen, who have claimed their first-ever Bundesliga title, ended a 31-year trophy drought, and became the first team since Germany’s reunification to finish a season unbeaten. Despite playing with 10 men for the second half, they edged Kaiserslautern 1-0 in the DFB-Pokal Final via Xhaka’s early goal, and their only loss in the entire season came to Atalanta in the UEFA Europa League Final.


Palacios was crucial to the title winning season of Bayern Leverkusen working alongside Granit Xhaka as a double pivot, utilizing his work rate and discipline to perfection and enabling the likes of Wirtz, Grimaldo and Hofmann ample creative license. The Argentine operates at the base of midfield and is tasked with winning the ball back in dangerous areas and dictating the tempo of possession with his passes, and he is capable of shifting defense to attack and launching attacking transitions for Leverkusen.




The 25-year-old demonstrates work rate, stamina, and intensity and these qualities have been crucial in his transformation into a box-to-box midfielder. Whether it be pressing the opposition up the pitch, always making himself available for a pass or tracking back to help the defense, he is a multifaceted threat whose range of pass and accuracy allows him to break the lines with his sharp forward passing.


Compared to midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues over the past 365 days, Palacios sits in the 99th percentile for passes attempted per 90 (98.59) and passing completion (92.1%), the 94th percentile for tackles (3.21) and the 89th for progressive passes (7.62). He also averages 1.34 interceptions per 90 (82nd), 0.19 assists (85th), 1.01 successful take-ons (77th) and 3.02 shot-creating actions (72nd), per FBRef.com.


Along with his defensive skill set, he can find space between the lines to combine with teammates and he isn’t afraid to take a gamble and make late, lung-bursting runs into the box. He is capable of operating anywhere in central midfield, whether more of a holding role, a more attacking role or a box-to-box role, boasting a great sense of timing for making late runs into the opposition area.



Moreover, he has developed a penchant for chipping in with crucial interventions in the final third, scoring a 94th-minute penalty in their 2-2 draw vs. Bayern Munich in September and kicking off 2024 by grabbing a 94th-minute goal in their 1-0 victory against Augsburg. In total, Palacios has racked up an impressive 6 goals and 5 assists in 36 appearances across all competitions, and despite missing a month with a thigh muscle problem, he made a seamless return from injury and played a key role in getting Leverkusen’s title over the line.


With a contract until 2028, Die Werkself will be hoping to safeguard their prized asset for the foreseeable future, but an impressive showing in the Copa América could see him showered with a bevy of potential suitors. Lionel Scaloni’s side will be taking on Canada, Peru and Chile in Group A, and if the Albiceleste are to defend their Copa América crown in the United States, Palacios will have a major role to play for Argentina.


By: Ogunniyi Abayomi / @Cerebralcardo

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / ANP – Getty Images