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Embracing Alvaro Odriozola

Kiyan’s column, on welcoming yet another young and extremely talented player

Spain v Switzerland - International Friendly Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/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.

‘KO’ — by Finn

It’s almost as if Real Madrid are on a quest to sweep in any young prodigy that shows itself to the world. If you’re young and you’re lighting up your respective league, you’ve basically already blared your bat signal directly towards the Bernabeu: “Come sign me. I’m good. Possibly even a future great.” Alvaro Odriozola just went through a memorable season as Real Sociedad’s starting right-back, where he acted as a funnel for the team’s offensive flow. He showed himself to the world, and Real Madrid coddled him. Odriozola now joins the armoury — the depot that has Andriy Lunin, Jesus Vallejo, Theo Hernandez, Marcos Llorente, Dani Ceballos, Federico Valverde, Achraf Hakimi Martin Odegaard, Marco Asensio, Vinicius Jr, and Rodrygo Goes — among (believe it or not) others. Five of the six players that made up the spine of Spain’s U-21 Euro side from last summer are now under the ownership of Real Madrid. (The sixth is Saul.)

Odriozola’s signing may have gotten lost somewhere, with, you know, the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo; but in a vacuum, it shouldn’t. The signing was anticipated. When Real Madrid inked him, there wasn’t any surprise. Julen Lopegeui has long been an admirer of the Basque right-back. Odriozola wasn’t quite old enough to be under Lopetegui’s wing in the 2013 Euro U-21 Championships (where Loeptegui coached Nacho, Isco, and Carvajal); but it was Lopetegui’s call to give Alvaro his international debut at the age of 21 last season. Odriozola may have arrived with or without Lopetegui, but there is a mutual admiration between the two that makes this signing extra cogent.

Real Sociedad will have a very difficult time replacing Odriozola, who was such a focal point of their offense. But then again, this is what they do. They’ll groom and profit, and they’ve already started signing young and talented players again. They’ll presumably flip Mikel Merino for a lot of money one day given his promising trajectory.

There were question marks surrounding Odriozola’s fit. The team already has Dani Carvajal, who, when healthy, is among the greatest in his position on both ends of the field. He’s not old, either, and has possibly not entered his peak yet. Titles await him — as do more naive wingers to feast on for years to come. Under the books, Real Madrid also employ Achraf Hakimi who, while not setting the world on fire yet, already has experience as a starting wing-back in the World Cup, is versatile enough to play on either flank, has absurd pace, high defensive IQ, and is only 19 — young enough to improve his technical ability and deliveries from the flank in the final third.

But there are reasons to pull the trigger on Odriozola now, despite the wobbly safety net at that position. Carvajal missed a lot of time last season. He was sidelined for eight games due to an unfortunate heart condition back in the fall, then another five games for a hamstring injury. Another hamstring injury saw him miss some time in the World Cup, and in between all that, he wasn’t his dominating self from the 2016 - 2017 season. In the midst of it all, he did put in good defensive performances in the Champions League, and his presence (even when off-form) elevates the team to another dimension — but the club has real concerns about their over-reliance on both starting wing-backs given the drop-off the team suffers when either of them sit.

The wingback position has long been a source of offensive curation for Real Madrid. No starting right back in La Liga had more touches per game than Dani Carvajal last season. Being deployed as a wing-back for this club is taxing. You’re asked to provide overloads constantly, find a way to create from the flank when teams clog lanes in low-blocks, and the center-backs will look for you constantly as an outlet. If you’re out of position, you’ll get blamed regardless of how bad the midfield coverage was to mask your offensive surges (have fun with this, Alvaro). There is good reason that Lopetegui will want to rotate this position as often as he can to keep legs fresh in May, and Achraf, while still cooking, is still hedging towards the raw side — maybe too raw to trust when the season is on the line and Carvajal is unavailable.

The club has been fortunate (or just well managed, rather) to not have to splurge big money on their starting wing-backs. Dani Carvajal is a Castilla product. Marcelo, who’s since morphed into arguably the greatest offensive wing-back in the history of the sport, was signed for just under £6m from Fluminese back in 2007. Nacho, the reliable stalwart of the club who can fill in for either of those two titans, was also a Castilla product. But since the emergences of those three, finding fillers has been challenging. Fabio Coentrao (yes, still a Real Madrid player!) provided a few incredible years, namely the Decima run, but has since deteriorated. Danilo was a massive disappointment after being signed as a promising ‘next-big-thing’ from Porto. Real Madrid know that nothing is guaranteed, and even Odriozola may not pan out, but they’re hoping that one of these signings sticks so that they don’t have to scramble in the future. 30m (plus add-ons) for Odriozola is not a lot, in the grand scheme of things, if you’ve already secured Spain’s future starting right-back and a player with a scary upside.

Odriozola could have stayed at Sociedad for the remaining (almost) four years left on his contract. Sociedad could’ve kept him for another year and waited for his value to sail a bit. But maybe even the prospect of being a back-up right back at Real Madrid — Champions League football and all — under a coach he loves, was too good to pass up, and Sociedad were happy to cash in and keep relations with Real Madrid good.

At some point, it will be impossible to keep track of all the young talent Real Madrid is signing. You almost need an index that keeps track of which club ‘x player’ is on loan, or where they exist in the depth chart. Odriozola will be prevalent, though. He is not a mere project. Like Asensio, he is one of those players who is ready for heavy minutes now. He will likely not disappear into the dust like Dani Ceballos did in a stacked central midfield position. He’ll play big games. The club has already tip-toed around any problem of clutter at the right-back slot by loaning Achraf to Dortmund (another low-key good decision that maybe didn’t get enough attention given the noise last week), and Nacho can continue to help fill-in across the back-line as Varane and Ramos flirt with injury and suspension and Marcelo deservedly gets rest. There is room for Alvaro, and a lot of it. This is not a clogged, bizarre situation like last season, when Dani Ceballos arrived behind Mateo Kovacic, who was already deep down the pecking order enough.

There is also a sense of urgency to sign players you want now, if their talent justifies it. Odriozola is not an underground talent. He will be harder to sign and will become more expensive with each passing season. There is money (and a lot of it) outside of Real Madrid. This is not a romantic story, where you’re away from your high-school crush and your mother tells you “if it’s meant to be, then one day it will happen”. Real Madrid had good rational to sign him now, while Lopetegui is here. A year from now, who knows who’ll be available and who won’t be? Maybe Lopetegui tanks. Maybe Odriozola looks at Real Madrid and says ‘nah’ — meanwhile Guardiola keeps adding to his 5 billion per year transfer brigade.

Instead, Real Madrid give themselves good problems, which they’ll have to face two seasons from now. Under the books, they’ll have Carvajal, Achraf, Nacho, and Odriozola. Imagine that. That’s a crossroads that Real Madrid have two seasons to plan for. There is something to appreciate about planning this far ahead. When you zoom out, that Achraf loan deal becomes more and more crafty. The club buys itself two years to run this test without having to worry about an over-cluttered roster. Achraf gets to play at a very high level, in a league where the club has successfully groomed both Carvajal and Vallejo (but not Borja Mayoral, although you could argue Achraf will play much more than Borja did, as Dortmund are currently thin at the right back slot, and Achraf is more experienced than Borja was). Two years rather than one means that Dortmund actually have incentive to groom him and utilize him as a resource. Guaranteeing your loanee two years rather than one can help you avoid situations like in the cases of Mayoral at Wolfsburg and Valverde at Depor, where neither club had invested interest in grooming these talented players.

In two seasons, the club will have to assess who goes where. What scenario arises is beyond anyone’s guess. You could choose, at that point, the better of Achraf and Odriozola. Maybe they are both painstakingly good, and one is too good to come off the bench. You could cash in. It’s still a good scenario. Maybe Carvajal declines unexpectedly and you keep both while phasing Dani out. What happens is unknown, but putting yourself in a position to make these decisions is part of the shrewd squad planning process.

Consider this a two-year ‘tryout’ for everyone involved. It’s two years for Carvajal to get back to where he was over a year ago, with more competition breathing down his neck now. It’s two years for Odriozola to prove he can get better defensively so the coach can deploy him in a do-or-die game with some mental security, and it’s two years for Achraf to sharpen his offensive skill-set and work on channeling his pace into something more efficient.

There is reason to believe that Odriozola will be the winner in all this. His relationship with Lopetegui is great — and we’re not just discussing on a human level. Lopetegui believes in him, and can get the best out of him. Odriozola was thrilled when Lopetegui signed for Real Madrid knowing he’ll be joining him, and subsequently, was hurt that his coach was sacked by Rubiales. “I am not going to talk about whether the decision was correct or not but we lost our coach,” said Odriozola after Spain’s World Cup exit. “You want it to not affect you and Julen is also someone that gives a lot to the team but still we gave Hierro everything.

”He was capable but we were not capable on the pitch to show the superiority that we are supposed to have against Russia.

”We would have liked to have been longer in the competition and get to July 15 but for different reasons we were not able. It was an unforgettable experience.”

Lopetegui’s genuine interest in grooming young talent for long-term stability has made him a favourite among young stars. Everything is connected around him now, and there is a sense of excitement he won’t be afraid to empower these players (maybe even more than Zidane did) to create a flowing pipeline that secures the club at multiple positions moving forward — preventing precarious situations of desperate scrambling in the process. He was the first manager to put Casemiro (whom he is a huge fan of) on the map. Over the past year, he’s given national team debuts to Odriozola, Kepa, Asier Illaramendi, Ander Herrera, Iago Aspas, Suso, and Jonathan Viera.

Across the board, he’ll see importance in everyone from Carvajal and Odriozola, to Casemiro and Ceballos. It’s a good thing he’s versatile in his tactical schemes, which should allow him to navigate rotations deep into three taxing competitions — or so the club hopes.

But Lopetegui will have big tests. It’s so easy to paint a beautiful picture that the club is getting everything right. On the pitch, things can be vastly different. Lopetegui’s challenge is to stabilize Real Madrid’s flanks — a task that is historically tough at the Bernabeu. Zidane struggled with this despite obvious success, but did find solutions like switching to a 4-4-2 at times, with Lucas Vazquez and Asensio doing good defensive work while pinning opposing full-backs.

Spain v Switzerland - International Friendly Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Real Sociedad’s defense last season, while very good on paper (like on an individual level), was an absolute mess. It leaked goals everywhere, danced on tightropes with suicidal high lines, almost never covered for Odriozola’s bombing runs up the right flank, and spread the likes of Diego Llorente and Iñigo Martinez thin. Odriozola was a wizard offensively — the kind you could sling the ball to, wait around for him to burn an opposing wing back, then get in position to meet his slinging, dangerous cross. He is a right winger by nature, and in his nature that part of his game will always remain. He’s a wing-back who thinks about the final third constantly, and having to deal with him as an extra overload if you’re on the defending end, can be exhausting — both mentally and physically. (So quick and dangerous he is, by the way, that Real Sociedad started selling Odriozola ‘The Flash’ t-shirts.)

Real Madrid fans will love his offensive ability. But you can almost already hear the collective moan in the Bernabeu when a team like Girona visits and slings counters while Marcelo, Odriozola, Casemiro, and others are high up the pitch with no schematic solution in sight. Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe that’s only an assumption based on past precedence. Maybe Lopetegui will solve the achilles heel that existed in Real Madrid’s (and Real Sociedad’s) blueprint last season. Heck — even Spain showed vulnerabilities defending counters in the games leading up to the World Cup — the most recent example being when Odriozola had to come off at half-time against Tunisia, and Carvajal and Vazquez came in to stabilize the flank. Those are challenges that Lopetegui will face. Rectifying these pitfall’s will be at the top of his coaching agenda.

One tool at his disposal — Odriozola’s pace is, for the umpteenth time, ridiculous. Even if the odds are stacked against him, he can recover into a favourable position on sheer pace alone. He’s a freak athlete who can be in more positions than one at any given time, because his Flash-like tendencies can put him where he needs to be if he’s caught out.

Odriozola’s signing is fun, and above all, the correct move from a sporting perspective. He’s reasonably priced and has a high ceiling. His presence will ensure the drop-off, if something happens to Carvajal, is minimal.

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