These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.
Let’s make this clear from the start: Jesus Vallejo is a special breed of defender — one ahead of his age, carrying the composure of a 30-year-old bulwark, with a special ability to see the game being played at slower speed than the other 21 players on the pitch. He’s always been ahead of the pack.
Watching him spew tactful words in the microphone at his presser on Friday may have pleasantly surprised some fans who were yet to take in his young career — but those who followed him over the years expected nothing less. Age and maturity have not been linear for Jesus Vallejo — they have been manifested within him at an early age and have allowed him to make leaps early and often.
Most players would take years (and years) to develop into what Jesus Vallejo already is at the age of 20. Vallejo’s taken shortcuts — he’s just too good not to outgrow his yearly scenes. At Real Zaragoza, a historically big club, he donned the captain’s armband at the age of 17. It was given to him by then-manager Ranko Popovic in the same match Vallejo scored his first goal — and he continued wearing it for the duration of his stay in Zaragoza.
It is something to be entrusted with the armband at such a young age, but then again, Vallejo’s maturity is not ordinary. At the age of 10, he joined Zaragoza’s Juvenil team. In 2014, he made a leap directly into the first team — ascending directly over the B team without actually having to go through the process of playing with them. After a year-and-a-half of captaincy and defensive safeguarding in Zaragoza, Real Madrid signed him, loaned him back to Zaragoza where he dominated for another year, then loaned him to the Bundesliga where he turned heads all around.
It didn’t take long for the Frankfurt staff and fans to fall in love with him. “I have not seen a player like him before, neither as player or as coach. The boy is outrageous,” Frankfurt head-coach Niko Kovac said of Vallejo. "This kid is scandalously good."
‘Maturity’ is a hard thing to measure. It’s a feeling one generates — a level-headedness, composure, and dignity one carries oneself with. For Vallejo, it’s more than being respectful or polite on-and-off the pitch — it’s his leadership that impresses more than anything. Watch him without the ball, and he’s constantly barking out orders and pointing at players to make runs and cuts. He’s calm and composed, but not quiet or shy on the pitch. When he releases a pass, it’s with a purpose — vertical and with clear instruction. His qualities are fundamental, but if it was that easy to execute, every defender would be where Vallejo is today. They’re not.
All signs indicate that Vallejo is ready now. He’s no longer just a prospect. His character is one thing, but his presence on the pitch from a tactical perspective is beyond his age too. En route to Frankfurt from Zaragoza, we knew he was promising, but we didn’t expect him to morph into one of the Bundesliga’s best defenders. You may even, make a case that he was the Bundesliga’s best defender up until his injury which saw him miss a stretch of games to end the season. With Vallejo in the line-up, Frankfurt had the third best defense in the league with just 33 goals conceded. In the remaining five fixtures without him, they dropped to seventh. That’s significant — Vallejo’s presence is real.
It’s almost absurd that Vallejo isn’t actually anywhere close to his peak yet — theoretically anyway. The right thing to do would be to remain cautious with Vallejo’s outlook. He is 20, after all -- two years older than Raphael Varane was when Zidane recruited the Frenchman from Lens. Vallejo is neither raw nor completely polished. There is room to improve, still. We’ve discussed his inner-demons when it comes to dealing with crosses in previous columns. Those struggles are not just with aerial crosses either — they become apparent on low crosses too. It’s clear that Vallejo can get outmuscled on set-pieces, but a deeper problem is beating his man to the cross in the first place. With Sergio Ramos’ inevitable suspensions and Raphael Varane’s knack for injuries, an inevitable Nacho-Varane partnership is slightly concerning — but mostly if it comes in the heat of a big game, when facing behemoths on set-pieces.
Even at Zaragoza, things weren’t perfect for Vallejo, who found himself on the bench for small windows of his sophomore season due to injury — then a larger stretch of two months with another injury. Couple that with his injury this season with Frankfurt, and Vallejo actually spent more time rehabilitating in Valdebebas than he or the club could foresee.
Those are minor admonitions, to be sure. You can be cautious with Vallejo, but you’re in your right to be excited too. Real Madrid isn’t known for having heavy depth at that position historically. Fans have starved for a Hierro ever since he turned over to the wrong side of his peak. Finding generational talent is hard, and grooming generational talent is even more intricate. Until now, Real Madrid has played their cards perfectly. They purchased Vallejo from Real Zaragoza for just five million, then strategically loaned him out until he was ready.
“Vallejo is our best player right now – he makes my work much more simple,” Teammate Lukas Hrdecky said of Vallejo back in October.
Those are incredible words for a 20-year-old kid, who had just catapulted from Segunda and straight into the Bundesliga. Another teammate, Omar Mascarell, echoed the same: "He has incredible potential. If he goes to Madrid, training with the best players in the world every day, he can go a long way. He is ready to get playing time at Madrid and, if he gets a chance, can show the good player that he is."
Jesus Vallejo will be here for a very long time, and when you connect the head on his shoulders to the talent laced in his boots, Jesus Vallejo being here for a very long time is something Real Madrid fans should be ecstatic about.