Having watched the first half of the 2022/23 campaign for Real Madrid, it may be a shock to see that the first Real Madrid player to score at the World Cup was Marco Asensio. If you didn’t, you would be forgiven for thinking that the world-beating number 10 was one of the first names on the team-sheet for club and country. A country, Spain, who destroyed Costa Rica with a 7-0 victory in the first match of their World Cup campaign.
Asensio was not expected to start by many, with former Real Madrid man and now Atlético Madrid striker Álvaro Morata expecting to be leading the line as a more traditional number nine. A cold reportedly saw him dropped to the bench.
The forward started the game like a rabid dog, covering every blade of grass. Operating in the false nine role where he has featured of late for Luis Enrique, he provided the link between the front line and the midfield and had a significant influence over Spain’s approach.
Asensio would drop deep, and occasionally wide, to alternate between the front line and the offensive end of a midfield diamond with Sergio Busquets sitting in the pivot role, with Pedri and Gavi accompanying him with rapid and interlinking movement forwards.
As can be seen with his heatmap above, Asensio operated primarily outside the box, looking to provide that link. He would drop deep and invite Dani Olmo and Ferran Torres to cut inside into the central areas with a lethal impact. Costa Rica taking off full-back Carlos Martínez at the break was the clearest indiaction of how they struggled.
His confidence was soaring too. Asensio asked to take the penalty which Ferran Torres converted on the half-hour mark, but Luis Enrique instructed the Barcelona man to take the spot kick. Only minutes later, he ambitiously attempted an effort from 25 yards out, but it showed the belief that he had in his game to even take on the shot from such a distance.
It took him 31 appearances for Spain to score his first goal for his country, but he now has two in as many games and it looks like more could come. Even by half-time, Asensio’s xG was at 0.67, higher than he’s had across all of his minutes in any match since April 20th as Real Madrid beat Osasuna at El Sadar.
Marco Asensio's last eight games for club and country:— Squawka (@Squawka) November 23, 2022
On a roll. pic.twitter.com/YMfothYfik
Just before the hour mark, Morata was introduced as a substitute and Asensio reverted to a right-wing role more like the one which he tends to take up at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. His influence faded as his intensity also eased off, but the job was already done.
He was central to the fluidity and confidence of a side which played more than 10 times as many passes as Costa Rica in the first 15 minutes of the game. That work rate is what has seen Luis Enrique build such faith in the Real Madrid man.
The other Madridista in the Spain squad is Dani Carvajal, who was surprisingly left on the bench, with reports emerging that he was feeling unwell with a cold, just like Morata, and Luis Enrique opted against risking him. César Azpilicueta made the most of his absence at right-back and was assured throughout, though he was not greatly challenged by the Ticos.
Azpilicueta’s presence allowed Ferran Torres more freedom on the right, free from the shackles of any defensive responsibilities as the Chelsea man provided more conservative cover. It fed into the slightly asymmetrical shape as Jordi Alba bombed down the left flank.
Spain looked like dynamite against Costa Rica, but they will face much tougher tests. Next up is Antonio Rüdiger’s Germany, a difficult opponent with a point to prove after defeat to Take Kubo’s Japan in this opening game.
Whether Luis Enrique sticks or twists with his team could be crucial to their hopes through this tournament, but his loyalty to his players would suggest that Asensio may well have done enough to earn and maintain a starting role throughout this World Cup.