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Five Observations, Featuring The Authenticity Of Asensio’s Latest Bangers

Asensio’s recent run of form has Kiyan Sobhani reflecting on his 2017 season. That, and more, including Toni Kroos stomping his authority on this season in this week’s column.

Juventus v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Etsuo Hara/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.

Just enough time in between the Sevilla and Athletic games to reflect on some recent themes:

How real are these Asensio bangers?

Josep Bartomeu recently said in October that Barcelona, in 2017, felt that Ousmane Dembele was the better signing over one young Kylian Mbappe. “His (Mbappe’s) signing was on the table,” Bartomeu explained to ESport3. “But the coaches preferred Dembele because they wanted a player who would open up the pitch,”

(Bet you’d never see the day where one of my columns would lead with a Bartomeu quote, did you.)

In hindsight, Barcelona’s decision was crazy, but hindsight is easy, and if we put ourselves in a time machine, and went back to the summer of 2017 (without any knowledge of the future), we’d remember that Dembele was a top-three candidate for ‘young player you’d want to build your team around for the next half-decade’. The other two? Kylian Mbappe, and, Marco Asensio.

Four years is a long time in football. It was a different era. Marco Asensio was kicking grapes in an ocean. Every time he tilted his head up at goal from 40 yards, the stadium gasped — eagerly anticipating him to fling his left laces through the ball and letting the ball bend its way to the top corner. Just the mere glance at goal from distance felt like experiencing the electric jolt that vertebrates through the arena when Steph Curry pulls up from the logo.

I remember the goosebumps vividly — can still feel them — when Asensio casually looked up and ripped a left footer beyond Ter Stegen at the Santiago Bernabeu in the 2017 Spanish Super Cup 2nd leg, just one game after he sheered one from a tighter angle at the Camp Nou. There was something special brewing. The Spaniard had a certain energy and hype around him that was uncommon for a player of his age, even in a world of overhyped youngsters.

Supercopa de Espana Final 2nd Leg match - Real Madrid vs FC Barcelona
Marco Asensio, laughing at his transcendency over Barcelona in 2017
Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images

What Asensio has become since then is a good reminder (football gives us plenty every year) that nothing is certain. The ebbs and flows of a career arc are numerous and often with aggressive variance and unpredictability. Some fates are changed by managers; others injuries. For Asensio, his form dipped far before a cruciate ligament rupture in the 2019 preseason sidelined him for nearly an entire calendar year.

Asensio’s career was derailed by multiple things — some of them wounds from external factors, and other things in his control. He went through a slump any talented rising star can go through, but even without his major injury, he didn’t seem destined to be the alpha of the team. That’s OK. Every team needs good role players. The question now is: Can he be a reliable contributor off the bench like Santiago Solari, Savio, and others were in the past?

My skepticism lies in his player profile, and how that fits into modern football. He’s not able to take players on and dribble past them at a reliable clip (miles behind elite line-breakers). He is an average progressive passer. If you put him on the wing, he won’t carve past wing-backs. If you put him as a central midfielder, his defense is a liability. Asensio will provide you with reliable outlets and simple distribution, but the team already has plenty of players who can do that, while having more complete player profiles to be ahead of them in the depth chart.

Asensio’s best situation will be against teams who operate a high line where he can carry the ball 20 yards behind exposed wing-backs. Teams rarely play that way against Real Madrid, though, unless chasing a game late.

There is some irony that all of this was written after Asensio put in three-to-four really good games this season — but it was written in part because those performances reminded me of how good he was when he was 21. Against Mallorca he bagged three goals, but I’d rank his performance against Osasuna a bit higher as Jagoba Arrasate’s men suffocated the space on the wings and defended (infinitely) better than Mallorca did.

Asensio made good runs in the right half space against Osasuna and made calculated shoulder drops to free himself from pressure and find the right pass. He also read passing lanes well (one of his better defensive attributes).

But how few and far in between will those games be? Asensio is already 25 (somehow). He should be grabbing the very much up-for-grabs right-wing position by the scruff of the neck and driving away with it. He is far from that level, still.

A more modern youngster: Brahim Diaz

Speaking of player profiles who fit modern football more seamlessly: Welcome to the chat, Brahim Diaz! Diaz at Milan has been playing that scoffed-upon 10 role which Real Madrid have no room for. The 10 is basically the Bermuda triangle where all former stars fall into and disappear — never to be heard from again. Have we found Isco yet?

Brahim Diaz of Ac Milan gestures during the Serie A match...
Diaz returned to the lineup against Inter Milan after missing time due to COVID-19
Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

Here’s where Diaz should survive where others didn’t: He is versatile, defensively diligent, a relentless tracker when asked, and can play as a line-breaker from either wing. His pressing stats are above average, and he’s developing into a reliable goalscorer from midfield.

“I can play in various roles,” Diaz said after Luis Enrique called the Spanish attacking midfielder up to the national team for the first time. “The coach decides. I can play inside and out. In the end I try to make my contribution, but the coach decides where to let me play. I am there for him and for the team. In addition to being a good coach, Luis Enrique is very close to the team and is a good person“.

Luis Enrique hasn’t given minutes to Diaz yet, but it’s easy to see what he sees in him. Diaz plays exactly the way Lucho wants. He is direct, incisive, active off the ball, and can play on the wings in a 4-3-3.

Against Inter Milan on November 7th — Diaz’s first game back after contracting COVID-19 — AC Milan head coach Stefano Pioli had the Spaniard play a super-advanced role, where he almost paired, in line, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. Diaz would play off the shoulder of the defensive line trying to latch onto through balls, and made numerous runs into the box — evening waiting for a cross from Zlatan who switched over to the right at one point.

Diaz had trouble adjusting. He was isolated, unable to get a grasp on the game. But it will be interesting to see how he grows in his continually offensive-minded role, where Pioli has him conserving his energy higher up the pitch while others do the dirty work in midfield.

“This year I’m reaching scoring positions a little bit more, I am looking forward to helping the team by being close to the box,” Diaz said earlier this season. “I’m scoring goals but more importantly we’re getting good results.”

Real Madrid Femenino, and baked-in bad habits

Las Blancas’ performance at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano vs PSG was a much-improved performance from the bloodbath they suffered in Paris. From a four-goal loss, to a two-goal loss, Aznar’s team held a better defensive shape, pressed better, and out-performed PSG in the first half. (A quick shout to Olga Carmona, who didn’t feature in Paris but did in Madrid, and made a huge impact).

Where they failed was offensively, where there was no clear game-plan or pattern to the team’s random offensive decisions. Slow build-up sequences while talented players look off forward passes in favour of strange, backward giveaways:

Caroline Møller looks off Kenti Robles on the right wing. The play, in isolation, is rough enough: the decision to pass it back to a heavily-marked player allows PSG to annul a decent offensive possession. But with more context, the play is even more frustrating. Kenti was the team’s best source of offense in that half, and that she barely had been given the ball when the team had opportunities to pass it to her speaks to the random anarchy of Aznar’s methods. What works isn’t emphasized, but aimless attacking map-reading is.

Making the wrong pass goes hand-in-hand with delaying the offensive surge. Real Madrid Femenino have a lot of talent. They should be putting their foot on throats, ruthlessly. Part of the problem with their offense is that it allows teams to get away with bad positioning, and it gives them time to recover and set their defense. Other times a simple vertical pass works better than a forced, more difficult one, which Claudia Zornoza tries here:

Aznar should’ve emphasized more overloads from Kenti and Olga more in games like this. They are going to make things happen. And Møller — leading the Champions League in goals per 90 through four games — is too good not to be getting more chances created for her.

Alberto Toril will have to change some engrained bad habits.

Still waiting on Alvaro Odriozola

Odriozola has the ceiling of a really good, dependable offensive right-back presence, but something is continually missing from his performances, preventing him from reaching the heights he needs to. He has yet to hit the peak of his Real Sociedad playing days, where the team would play through him to spur their offense into motion. It’s not often you see teams funnelling — even relying — their offense through their right-back, and not some midfield playmaker or attacking threat. Odriozola was that good at La Real. Since then, the ceiling has started to enclose.

If he doesn’t get there, I don’t see any top tier club taking him on as he enters his late 20s. Even Fiorentina have suffered at the wrath of his ribaldry. The Spaniard turns 26 (!) in December. His career has flown by so far without any real development since leaving Anoeta. He can’t be coddled, he has to make the leap, and shake himself out of bad habits before it’s too late.

Odriozola has made some strides (exclusively on offense) in his time at Fiorentina this season. Consistent playing time — something he hasn’t had since the 2017 - 2018 season — has helped. His passing is fine, but usually only if it requires a safe ball. He is in the bottom 2% in progressive passes among full-backs; though, his progressive carries have been encouraging. He is good at getting into vertical passing outlets, and like many who are defensively frail, he is a better presser than a 1v1 defender.

But those positives are not enough — and certainly not unique enough — for world class teams to take a shot on him, even as a back-up. Marcelo could get away with being a defensive liability because he was a unicorn on offense. Not just good — a unicorn. Odriozola not only struggles defensively — his positioning, synergy with the defensive line — but is also (through no real fault of his own) physically outmatched. If he’s defending someone at the far-post, he’ll get bullied — physically sacrificed. Even on ground duels, attackers will dust him off their shoulder like he’s some annoying gnat.

Against AC Milan in November, Stefano Pioli’s men recognized that Fiorentina’s biggest weakness was the half-space between Odriozola and Lorenzo Venuti. Over and over again, they would play a through ball to slice the pairing:

Odriozola doesn’t get goal-side of Rafael Leao, then his challenge on the Portuguese simply melts off the attacker. This is textbook Odriozola defense.

My gut is that Odriozola will improve, and form some kind of respectable offensive baseline that allows him to slide into a fixed starting role at a low-to-mid-tier club.

Opponents letting Kroos tear them apart

Real Madrid are used to facing low blocks. Opponents taking away space in the box is nothing new. But sometimes teams make the ultimate cardinal sin: Letting Toni Kroos have as much space as he wants:

That is just bad defense from Sherriff, and that clip is not ever going to make a Tifo Football segment entitled “How to create the perfect defensive block”. It is neither pressing ball-carriers nor staying compact with numbers. But the overarching point stands: The worst poison you can pick defending Real Madrid is leaving Kroos as the free man. Even if you sit in a deep block, Kroos can pick you apart with his movement and visionary passing. Teams are better off taking Kroos out of the game by man-marking him. Liverpool found that out the hard way last season.

Kroos ranks fourth in the league in passes into the final third, seventh in progressive passes, and eighth in through balls. You can’t give a surgeon a knife and an endless clock unless you want him to slice you mercilessly.

I expect Kroos to be #1, or close to it, in all the metrics above by the end of the season. He has dominated Europe in all passing statistics for years now, and is already #1 in a couple areas per 90 in La Liga, as noted below.

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