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Jesus Vallejo And His Quest Against Injuries

Kiyan Sobhani’s column on Vallejo’s ability to endure mental tests, his calm nature, and his progression towards consistent health and playing time.

Sevilla v Real Madrid - La Liga Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.

It’s been 24 weeks since Jesus Vallejo has played a competitive football match for Real Madrid. On October 11th, he came close to playing his first official match in 155 days — this one, for Spain’s U-21 team — but was an unused substitute against the Albania U-21s. He finally made his comeback on Tuesday, where Spain thumped Iceland’s U-21 team 7 - 2.

Vallejo’s injury concerns are nothing new. They’ve haunted his young career to an extent that tests one’s mental strength as much as it does physically. During his impressive 2015 - 2016 season, where he featured as captain of Real Zaragoza in Segunda, he missed 24 games due to injury. During a great Frankfurt stint where he morphed into one of the league’s best defenders under Niko Kovac; Vallejo missed 11 games. The following season — his first with Real Madrid’s A team — Vallejo missed 19 matches. Once you accumulate all of the torn muscle fibres, hamstring injuries, and various muscle traumas, the 21-year-old has sat out a total of 307(ish) days through three seasons due to some kind of knock. The statement “Following tests carried out on Jesus Vallejo at the Sanitas La Moraleja University Hospital, he has been diagnosed with a muscle strain... His recovery will continue to be assessed” has become a norm.

Vallejo has been vocal about wanting to “repay” his debt to Real Madrid. His humility has always been a trait of his, and part of a more holistic part of him that makes him a great candidate to captain Real Madrid in the future. He’s grateful for the opportunity of being signed by the club after succeeding abroad, but has some lingering guilt about not being able to play.

Watching from the sidelines has been difficult for Jesus, as he eagerly looks to vindicate the club’s decision to show faith in him.

Vallejo knew the club took a big leap bringing him back on loan last season. They didn’t have to. They could’ve given Pepe a two-year contract instead of parting ways with the Portuguese center-back who gave the club so many legendary moments. As they do, they moved on from an older player rather than mortgaging money to a post-peak great. Vallejo knew what it meant.

“I have wanted to repay that trust,” Vallejo said last summer. “I still have a long way to go.”

Vallejo was close to rebooting that process before the season started. Lopetegui had him available to play in the preseason, and Vallejo started against Manchester United during the International Champions Cup. But then came the relapse: Jesus didn’t play in the win over Roma during the US tour, and it was revealed after that he had a hamstring injury again — one that would see him out for a couple months.

Having the young center-back around now wouldn’t swing Real Madrid’s season one way or another, or solve their offensive issues — but not having such a talented player around on the pitch is a bummer for everyone. Both last season and this one, particularly domestically, Real Madrid have conceded possession by being uncharacteristically bad with their passing out of the back. Maybe Vallejo doesn’t walk in and fix that (he almost certainly doesn’t), but his distribution from deep has always been one of his biggest strengths. Not having him on the pitch to grow and fine-tune the skills that have made him so promising until now is frustrating for everyone.

Real Madrid always knew Vallejo had talent. Bringing him back from his loan spell was calculated. He excelled under Niko Kovac, and was a key cog of Eintracht’s three-man backline. Throughout his season in Germany; Vallejo stated several times he appreciates that his home club had him on the radar, but that he heard from Real Madrid’s medical department more than anything. He didn’t have contact with Zidane and co. until later on. “I have mainly been in touch with Madrid’s medical department,” Vallejo said mid-season with Frankfurt. “The team doctors and athletics coaches regularly get in touch. It’s great that they care about my health and physical situation.”

The club’s medical staff have monitored Vallejo’s health for years now. Even when he was with Zaragoza, he would regularly return to Valdebebas during his injuries so that the club could monitor him. Ditto during his stint in Germany, where he returned to Madrid during his hamstring injury in the Spring of 2017. (This is standard procedure for big injuries when players go out on loan — the club would rather bring them back to their own facilities and make their own assessment.)

The injury concerns didn’t outweigh his upside and talent. But that doesn’t make his injuries any easier to deal with. This season, he was ready to hit the ground running to start the season, only to suffer a big injury that impeded his momentum. The same thing happened last season, when Vallejo suffered a thigh injury in August before the season opened. Watching from the sidelines as your teammates start the season is testing.

Zidane was often labelled as someone who didn’t trust Vallejo, but that’s not entirely fair nor accurate. Last season, between August and April, Vallejo sat out 78 days due to injury. On relatively rare moments where he was available, Zidane had to balance playing a cold Vallejo when the team was playing catch-up in the league. When Vallejo played, he was often brilliant, but he did have defensive lapses. In one match against Malaga, the Spanish defender had some incredible interventions and made two mistakes en route. To be sure, no defender was immune to blunders during the ‘17/18 campaign; and Vallejo’s errors in that match were magnified unreasonably, as I wrote about here.

Against Tottenham, where Zidane’s defensive line was spread thin with injuries, he had the option to either start Vallejo centrally — pushing Nacho to the right — or to start Achraf Hakimi as the right-back while sliding Nacho to the middle. Zidane opted for Achraf instead — relying on the Moroccan’s pace on the flanks and his (at the time very wonky) crossing. Vallejo could’ve proven to be the safer choicer over a raw Achraf, but playing the Spaniard in a big game at Wembley without much match fitness is at the very least something to be weighed upon.

That’s what you’re up against if you have injuries, regardless of your talent level. You lose match fitness, you lose momentum, and other players step up in your absence (see: Gareth Bale losing his place even when returning from injury last season). In Vallejo’s case, being healthy is just one step — the second being having some more fortunate timing with your match fitness so that you can ease into the rotation incrementally.

Vallejo’s maturity is often lauded, and, somehow, it’s underrated — and certainly not exaggerated. When he’s injured, he’s studying film, learning from coaches. He’s not a big social media guy (he finally caved and opened up a Twitter and Instagram in October of last season), and devotes most of his energy towards his career — a necessary mental-focus needed with so much time to think about injuries and what-ifs. “I’m approaching things in a very disciplined fashion and am learning a lot every day,” Vallejo says.

“The lad is crazy good. Honestly, I really have to describe him in superlatives,” Kovac said of Vallejo last season. “Jesus is so calm. It’s the sort of calmness and maturity you usually only have when you’re about 30. He can be as good as he wants to be.”

Kovac also went on to say that he’s never seen a player like Vallejo in his life. Frankfurt’s goalie during that run, Lucas Hrdecky, at one point said “He is our best player at the moment.” Eintracht’s board was vocal about how big a set-back Vallejo’s injury that season was to the team’s run, stating that he’s a player that’s “very difficult to replace”. They had a top-three defense in the league with Jesus in the line-up. After his injury, the team’s defense fell off a cliff.

Kovac’s high-praise for Vallejo was reciprocal. “He always tells me that I should not rest on my achievements, but I have to improve on a daily basis,” Vallejo said of Kovac. ”He is very challenging in training and much of our success is due to him.”

Vallejo has been compared to Real Madrid legends like Sergio Ramos from a young age. A lot of that comes down to his leadership ability. Some journalists have mistaken his calm nature as being ‘too shy’ — but he’s vocal on the pitch, encourages teammates, and always communicates. During Ronaldo’s goal slump last season, Vallejo, starting his first La Liga game, famously went up to Cristiano in the tunnel and said to him “It will go in, mate, be patient.”

For Vallejo, ‘replacing’ Pepe, or following in Ramos’s footsteps, is premature. All he cares about is playing consistently — that’s the first step.

“I appreciate it so much,” Vallejo said of his comparisons to Pepe and Ramos. “To be compared to those players is a great pride. But I do not compare myself with anyone, I try to go on in my own way.

”Yes, it is true that I observe a lot the defenders of Real Madrid because they are the best in the world and I try to learn every day from them.”

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