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What to Expect From Marco Asensio in a Midfield Role

A look at what the reinvention of the Spaniard might look like

Levante UD v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

The return of Carlo Ancelotti this season has brought about a number of changes to Real Madrid, with the Italian making alterations to the club’s play style and tactics from how Los Blancos had previously played under Zinedine Zidane. Along with these tactical changes, it seems as though Ancelotti is also open to trying some of Real Madrid’s players in roles that they weren’t utilized in under Zidane.

One of these players is Marco Asensio. Now twenty-five years old, Asensio hasn’t reached the high talent ceiling that was predicted for him after his breakout 2016/2017 and 2017/2018 campaigns with Real Madrid, where he scored 21 goals and assisted 10 in all competitions. After that, Asensio’s form began to dip, both due to injuries and coaching styles that didn’t match his own strengths.

Asensio has spent most of his career playing as a winger in a 4-3-3 formation, just about splitting his time playing on both the left and right flanks. However, due to the limited squad Ancelotti is faced with as he begins the 2021/2022 campaign, it looks as though Asensio might be converted from a traditional creative winger to a central midfielder.

This decision from Ancelotti doesn’t completely stem from the belief that a transition into the midfield will be best for Asensio, but from a standpoint that adding a midfielder to the squad is necessary for depth purposes. Martin Ødegaard has recently departed for Premier League side Arsenal, Dani Ceballos is sidelined with an ankle ligament tear he sustained during the Tokyo Olympics, and Toni Kroos is out until the end of September with a groin issue. That leaves Luka Modric, Fede Valverde, and Isco as the only players who can suitably play in a center midfield role in Ancelotti’s 4-3-3.

Currently, Luka Modric is also questionable for the next couple of matches (also a groin issue, but less serious than Kroos’), leaving Fede Valverde, Isco, and Castilla player Antonio Blanco as the only players able to play ahead of Casemiro in midfield. David Alaba could also step into midfield, as he has experience playing there from his time with Bayern Munich, but he’ll most likely remain in the left back spot as Ferland Mendy is still injured as well. There is obviously a glaring lack of depth in midfield for Real Madrid, and with the club likely to not spend money on a midfielder during the current transfer window, Ancelotti will be left with the players that he currently has.

As Ancelotti has only three viable options in central midfield for the foreseeable future, he’s recognized that he needs to find another capable midfielder from within his current squad. As Asensio is far down the pecking order for spots on the wing (behind Vinicius Jr. and Eden Hazard on the left, and Gareth Bale and Rodrygo on the right) and he has experience playing in central midfield as well as in an attacking midfield role, it makes sense that Ancelotti is looking to him to fill the gap.

Asensio has played 1,066 minutes (almost twelve full matches) in a center midfield role since making his debut with Espanyol back in 2015. Asensio has accumulated 3 goals and 2 assists over the 36 appearances he’s made whilst playing as a central midfielder (most of his appearances coming as short cameos at the end of matches), an above average tally for a player in that role. He’s come off the bench to play in central midfield in both of Real Madrid’s matches this season, completing forty-three minutes in the role so far this campaign.

Obviously Asensio would bring his usual creativity to central midfield, but what exactly could Madridistas expect from the Spaniard if Ancelotti were to commit to playing him in midfield? I used the data from Asensio’s prior appearances in midfield as well as observations I’ve made to theorize how well he’d make the transition into a deeper role in the attack.

Anyone who watches Real Madrid knows how technically strong Asensio is when it comes to his dribbling and passing abilities (though he does favor his dominant left foot a bit too much). Asensio loves to dribble at defenders and into space, though the frequency of his carries has dipped as the season’s have passed. Over his entire career playing on the wing we’ve seen Asensio average 4.72 dribbles at the opposition per match, which is near the average for a creative winger. During his time in midfield though, his carrying rate doesn’t drop that much, as he averaged 4.39 attempted dribbles from central midfield. This is a very high rate for someone in that position, and there are definitely some external factors that contribute to this high value.

The first factor that needs to be considered when evaluating Asensio’s data while playing in midfield is the short period of time that he’s played there. As ten full matches (900 minutes) is widely considered to be the lowest amount of time to accurately assess a player’s overall performance, the conclusions drawn here will be reliable (since Asensio’s completed the equivalent of almost twelve full matches in a central midfield role). However, as most of Asensio’s appearances playing in the ‘8’ spot saw him coming off the bench to make short ten-or-so minute cameos, he never really got into a comfortable rhythm of playing in the role. Also, as most of his appearances came late on in matches, and the fact that he was going up against tired opposition needs to be considered.

Another area that Asensio ranks quite highly from his time in midfield was his touches in the opposition penalty area. He averaged 2.53 touches in his opponent’s penalty box per match, which is marginally more than what Isco has averaged in that role (2.42), and far more than what Real Madrid’s most advanced member of the Modric-Kroos-Casemiro midfield trio has ever put up, with Modric taking just over one touch in the opposition’s box each match. It’s safe to say that Asensio would certainly be involved in the buildup to Real Madrid’s attacks from the midfield, as well as finishing off the moves.

Asensio takes 1.86 shots per match from the midfield position (22 in total), with half of his shots coming from outside of the penalty area (with most of those shots coming from the right half-space). Having a midfielder who is willing to drive at defenders with pace and shoot from distance is a very valuable asset to any squad. Asensio thrives on the counter attack, and his ball carrying ability combined with his willingness to take shots himself could be very useful for Real Madrid, as Ancelotti seems to be favoring a quick, counter-attacking style.

(From Marco Asensio’s shot map from his time spent playing in central midfield. Pink dots represent goals, blue dots represent saved shots, and crosses represent misses.

Though Asensio’s dribbling and shooting skills will be valuable if he is to be utilized in midfield, I believe that the most valuable asset that the Spaniard could bring to the ‘8’ role is his passing range. Asensio is an excellent passer of the ball, and is especially good at creating chances via passes. His crossing ability is one of his biggest strengths, and he’s one of the best in Real Madrid’s squad at playing passes through opposition defenses.

Whether he’s played on the left side or right side of Ancelotti’s midfield trio, Asensio will have no trouble creating chances for his teammates. If he’s played on the left side, he’ll be able to play in-swinging crosses with his left foot from wide areas, and if he’s played on the right he’ll be able to cut into the half-space and deliver out-swinging balls into the penalty area (an example of a cluster of these passes can be seen in the passmap below).

Marco Asensio’s passmap from his last four appearances as a central midfielder (22/8/2021 at Levante, 14/8/2021 at Alaves, 10/4/2021 vs. Barcelona, 14/1/2021 against Athletic Club in the Spanish Supercup). These appearances total for 80 minutes of playing time.

Asensio averages 2.62 attempted crosses per match from the center midfielder position, which is far above what is generally expected from a creative midfielder in a centrally-based position. He also has played 1.52 passes that lead directly to a shot from the midfield role, averaging 0.25 Expected Assists per 90 minutes played.

One issue with Asensio playing in the midfield that Ancelotti will have to address is Asensio’s positioning when Real Madrid are in possession. As can be seen in the passmap from earlier, the majority of Asensio’s actions (especially in the final third of the pitch) take place in wider areas. This is to be expected, as Asensio will have inherent tendencies to want to drift wide from his extensive time playing on the wing throughout his career.

Another issue that will have to be sorted out is Asensio’s participation in Real Madrid’s buildup play. While I would assume that other (more experienced) midfielders would shoulder more of the responsibility of facilitating Real Madrid’s buildup, we did see Isco bear this burden against Levante in the absence of both Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. Isco is far more involved when he plays in a midfield three than Asensio usually is, with the former Malaga man averaging 67.5 passes per match compared to Asensio’s 44.16 (Isco does have much more experience in this role though, he’s played over 6,000 minutes as a central midfielder). Isco also happens to be a much more progressive passer than Asensio, as he attempts 19.31 forward passes per match (with 9.71 of these passes entering the final third of the pitch), which dwarfs Asensio’s 12.5 forward passes and 6.75 passes into the final third.

Finally, I wanted to look at the potential defensive side to a midfield move for Asensio. While Asensio is not a great defender (and he has little reason to be as he traditionally plays in a position that doesn’t require you to be defensively sound), he should be able to handle himself against opposition that will hopefully be more focused on defending deep rather than quickly attacking on the counter. I would also assume that Asensio playing in midfield would be a coming-off-the-bench role, and Asensio would be up against a tired opposition that will have less energy to generate attacks than what they would have at the beginning of a match.

In the few appearances we’ve seen him make in midfield, his defensive contributions have been above average. He attempts 5.57 defensive duels, quite a high number, a deserving testament to Asensio’s work rate in defense. He also attempts 2.36 loose ball duels (also called fifty-fifty challenges), and completes 2.2 interceptions and 4.81 ball recoveries per match. He would be more than capable on the defensive side, especially late on in matches.

In summation, playing Marco Asensio as a central midfielder could be very beneficial to Carlo Ancelotti, as he offers a profile unlike any other midfielders that Real Madrid currently possess. If Real Madrid are looking for someone to make runs out of the midfield and get involved in the play in the final third, Asensio would be a great option. While he’s definitely in no position to be fighting for a starting place in midfield, I think that he could be a great asset coming off the bench midway through the second half of matches. Hopefully, Ancelotti can put all of the pieces together and find the best spot for Asensio, as it’d be great (and maybe necessary for the success of Real Madrid’s season) to see Asensio flourish once again.

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