2020 has been a coming of age year for Antonio Blanco. Completing a solid debut at Castilla with 23 starts in 28 games, Blanco made his pedigree known to the world with a series of dominant displays during Juvenil A’s UEFA Youth League victory over the summer. His form earned him a place in a couple of senior squad lists, some transfer speculation, the vice captaincy at Castilla and, unusually, an appearance at Real Madrid’s official kit launch earlier this year.
It’s irregular that the Castilla captain, let alone its vice captain, would appear in a club photo shoot and speaks more of Blanco rising brand than any words could.
His style of play, age profile and start to professional life so far was always going to generate some excitement. However, what makes the Blanco hype particularly unique is that, for many, he has a clear short term route to the first team. As Casemiro’s only “natural” backup, logic dictates that Blanco only need wait for the Brazilian’s minute laden legs to buckle, be it fatigue or injury, to get into Zidane’s team. His occasional appearances at first team training suggests that this could happen. The real question is should it?
Blanco has played for Real Madrid since he was 13. Despite his relatively recent fame, the defensive midfielder has enjoyed a very successful career thus far, winning the European Championship with Spain at U17 and U19 level alongside the titles he has won with Real Madrid.
Since being promoted to Castilla last summer, Blanco has established himself as a crucial part of Raul’s gung-ho possession game. He has been deployed as a single or double pivot with some of his most effective performances coming in the latter role.
I can get specific about what Blanco is good at, but in truth, it would off come as quite cliched as the Spanish midfielder embodies most of the best traits of modern Spanish football. He’s a fantastic playmaker, a safe pair of feet in midfield regardless of pressure from the opposition and loves a cutting vertical pass.
Castilla’s goal against Atlético Baleares by Dotor on a good crois from Peter.— Real Madrid Fabrica (@FabricaMadrid) November 25, 2020
Look at Antonio Blanco's excellent pass at the start of the action .#RealMadridCastillaAtleticoBaleares pic.twitter.com/dwH04IqKdh
What I love and hate about Blanco is that he is very offensive minded despite his withdrawn position. The likes of Ivan Morante tend to play almost as a half back and rarely push far up the field. Though this is in his skillset, Blanco prefers to remain constantly involved. At his best, the defensive midfielder plays a big role in Castilla progressing the ball from their end of the pitch to, ideally, the back of the net at the other end.
It’s around the opposition’s box where some of the hate creeps in. Following the Baleares game, I wrote about how Castilla this season have been excellent at forcing their opponent into hurried decisions and regaining the ball high up the pitch, often just outside the box, and making the wrong decision. Blanco is brilliant at winning these second balls outside the box, but too often this season, he’s opted for a shot that goes miles over. In truth, he gets enough chances on goal with Castilla that one could feel a little disappointed he hasn’t scored more.
Nonetheless, when his decision making is on point in this position, like in the video below, he’s a massive asset to the team.
Blanco’s pass out wide seems like a separate play to the goal, however, the pass and the goal are all the one play with the ball worked to other side for Peter’s cross. It’s worth watching the entire highlight reel as its a great demonstration of what Blanco is all about.
Although capable of picking up a second ball, there are still question marks around his defensive abilities. Up until the Round of 16 game against Juventus earlier this year, I had seen nothing to suggest Blanco had nailed down the defensive part of his position and although he has progressed in this side of the game since last season, he is nowhere near the man he could potentially step in for at senior level.
Casemiro has fashioned himself into the world’s best midfield destroyer. He topped LaLiga charts for tackles won and tackles in defensive third last season and has featured, at minimum, in the top 10 for most defensive statistics in LaLiga. This is partly due to his individual talent, but also because Real Madrid’s are extremely reliant on his defensive abilities. Its why, for all his flaws, Zidane adapts to Case’s obvious weaknesses instead of just replacing him.
Since the UEFA Youth League, I would describe Blanco’s defensive game as fledgling and, across a larger sample size of two seasons, in need of improvement. He’s not an imposing player in defense and has a lot of muscle to build if he wants to start becoming that player (at 20, he has plenty of time to do that). At the moment, Blanco wins the ball back largely by anticipating the second ball or cutting out passing lanes. He can tackle, however, I can’t say it’s a tool he utilizes often.
It’s hard to pin exactly how tossing Blanco into the lone defensive pivot would pan out for Real Madrid, the best case scenario for the player would be his talent outshine some clear deficiencies in his game. The worst case is that it’s one step too far and Blanco’s confidence gets skewered by blowing his big chance in the first team. One way or another, I can’t see a reality where Blanco being Casemiro’s backup pans out as nicely as Real Madrid fans hope.
If the club are serious about giving Blanco first team minutes then it should be done for the player’s development rather than covering for a hole in the senior squad. Ideally, some form of a double pivot with a defensively minded partner alongside Blanco. Another possibility is a rework of the Casemiro-less system that we saw against Villarreal though that would require the team to be on point defensively, as is always the case when Real Madrid are short one of their defensive leaders.
To be frank, however, I don’t see the real need to rush Blanco. He was good last season, but not stellar and surprised a lot of his regular followers with the intensity and form he played with in the Youth League. He has been excellent so far this season and is young enough that a long route to the first team à la Odegaard would still see him return to Real well before his prime.
Regardless of what Real opt to do, it should be for the player’s own good rather than being forced out of necessity. Blanco is talented enough to justify that sort of treatment at the very least.