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The Case for Antonio Blanco vs Atalanta

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The return leg against the Italian side could be the perfect opportunity for Blanco to make his first team debut

Salzburg v Real Madrid CF - UEFA Youth League Semi-final 2019/20 Photo by Harold Cunningham - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

With Casemiro suspended (due to an accumulation of yellow cards) for the return tie against Atalanta in the Champions League on March 16, Antonio Blanco may be the best option to replace the Brazilian.

Blanco has been with Real Madrid for the past seven years, working his way through the youth sides until he was promoted to the Castilla squad back in 2019. He’s made 36 appearances for Castilla since then, most often anchoring the midfield in a double pivot in Raul’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation.

As Casemiro (who has been arguably Real Madrid’s best player so far this season) is unable to play against Atalanta, there is a hole in the base of Real Madrid’s midfield that needs to be filled. While Zidane has occasionally deployed Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in a double pivot this season when Casemiro hasn’t been in the squad, this isn’t a viable solution. Real Madrid have only won one of the four matches where Zidane has used the Kroos - Modric double pivot: a 3-1 win against Athletic Club back on December 15 that saw the Basque side’s Raul Garcia receive a red card in the 13th minute of the match.

It’s safe to say that this isn’t the best option for the match against Atalanta, as Kroos and Modric will already have their hands full trying to control the midfield against the incredibly fluid and aggressive Italian side. It would hinder their performances greatly if they were forced to limit their movement and progression so that they could remain in positions that would be advantageous to defending Atalanta’s attacks. The same results would occur if one of them (or Fede Valverde) were forced to anchor the midfield by themselves, as well as being a defensive liability.

This is where Antonio Blanco comes in. As there isn’t a backup defensive midfielder in Real Madrid’s first team, the role of ‘second-choice holding midfielder’ rests on his shoulders. While he hasn’t made his first team debut yet, he’s been included in multiple match-day squads, including Real Madrid’s recent clashes with Alaves, Levante, Getafe, Real Valladolid, and the first Knockout Stage match against Atalanta. He has practiced quite a bit with the first team, and I’m sure he’s itching to make his debut after seeing Zidane hand other Castilla players Sergio Arribas, Marvin Park, and Hugo Duro their first team debuts this season.

So, how would Blanco fit into the squad? Most likely, if Blanco was to start against Atalanta, it would be alongside Modric and Kroos, who would play their traditional midfield roles. Blanco could slot straight into Casemiro’s spot, and he’d be a like-for-like change with the Brazilian.

Data via Wyscout.com

As can be seen in the picture above, while Blanco and Casemiro have very different play styles, their general statistics are quite similar (granted, Casemiro has played much more than Blanco this season, and at a higher level of competition). This leads me to believe that Blanco could perform Casemiro’s role successfully.

Data via Wyscout.com

Their heat maps are similar as well, with both players covering roughly the same areas of the pitch (aside from Casemiro’s immense presence in the opposition penalty area, something that I don’t see Blanco replicating). Like Casemiro though, Blanco does like to get forward and support his team in attack, and he has no trouble waiting outside the penalty area for a loose ball that will give him a chance to shoot.

In possession, Blanco should be fine against Atalanta. He passes quite well (though he does heavily favour his right foot), and his composure under pressure is high for a player of his age and experience, which will be key when facing his high-pressing opponents. He should be able to handle himself well when trying to evade Atalanta’s man-to-man pressing system, as his movement off the ball to give an option to his teammates is one of his biggest assets.

He most likely won’t be too troubled with progressing the ball and making incisive passes through Atalanta’s midfield, as Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Sergio Ramos (if he’s deemed fit to play) will all handle the majority of Real Madrid’s ball progression from deep, allowing Blanco to focus on his positioning and retaining possession for the team.

It’ll be defensively where Blanco will be tested when playing against the Italian side. He’ll have to deal with Matteo Pessina, whose runs from the midfield will be particularly tough to deal with. He’ll also have defend against whichever two strikers Gasperini decides to deploy (assuming he uses the 3-4-1-2 formation again), which becomes even more difficult as the three forwards all rotate fluidly and mix up their runs. Luckily for Blanco, he typically does well with tracking runners and keeping close to players that he’s marking. And if he does end up in a position where he is out of position to defend an Atalanta attack, he recovers very well, using his speed to track back and position himself between the attackers and the goal that he’s defending.

Blanco is also a very aggressive presser who tries to get his body on opponents as quickly as possible. This will come in handy when trying to limit the amount of time and space given to Atalanta’s attackers, especially when trying to limit the time that Josep Ilicic is allowed during hold-up play. The Slovenian forward often drops into the midfield to pick up the ball and change the focal point of the attack, and Blanco’s intense tracking and pressing could be the key to limiting Ilicic’s influence on the match.

Finally, you can guarantee that Blanco will give what all academy players give when they’re given a chance in the big league: a level of passion and effort that you just don’t get out of players that play week-in and week-out at the top level. You can be sure that Blanco will run his heart out for 90 minutes, and give everything he has for the badge. Giving Blanco a chance, as opposed to starting the Modric-Kroos double pivot, could be the difference when facing an Atalanta side that are coming to the Di Stefano with nothing to lose.