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Two eye-catching things from the win over Celtic

Notes on Asensio’s performance and the state of Real Madrid’s defense

Real Madrid v Celtic FC: Group F - UEFA Champions League Photo by Alvaro Medranda/Eurasia Sport Images/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.

Here are some scattered post-game thoughts from Real Madrid’s 5 - 1 win over Celtic, mostly on Marco Asensio’s performance and the state of Real Madrid’s defense:

Marco Asensio throwing it back

Rolling into Wednesday night’s game against Celtic, Marco Asensio ranked 20th on the Real Madrid playing time list in La Liga — behind Eden Hazard, and ahead of just two players: Mariano Diaz and Casemiro, who departed before the transfer window closed.

Asensio has taken a backseat behind four attackers, and sometimes five. But he hasn’t complained, and in his start against Celtic came good with a man-of-the-match performance, throwing it back to some of his better, more clinical days.

Against Celtic, he displayed everything in his holster: Long-distance shots, surgical through-balls, link-up play, and ball-carrying.

This ball through Celtic’s throat — right in the half-space where they nearly bled to death — was a regular dagger:

Asensio generated that incisive pass often. He completed 22 forward passes — with the bulk of his damage coming in the right half-space. He mangled Celtic for a game-high five key passes.

At his peak, Asensio has the craft of a solid playmaker. He’s at his best when he has plenty of touches on the ball so that he can be part of the natural rhythm where he can help dictate play. He is a great short-range passer and shooter. Where Ancelotti has struggled finding time for him is in his contribution on the defensive end and his ability to break lines with his dribbling — traits that he falls short of behind Rodrygo Goes and Fede Valverde.

Asensio has lost his way ever since the tipping point: The first leg debacle in Paris last season. Ancelotti started to prioritize Rodrygo and Valverde more, and virtually cut Asensio out of the rotation. It will be hard to regain Ancelotti’s trust in those big games that loom.

But Asensio can be an important contributor in games like this where he can rotate in and provide valuable rest to the starters. In games like this, against an opponent that is permeable and will let you have control of the ball, the Spaniard can shine. His 10 goals last season came in the natural flow of games like this.

You might not get this version of Asensio every game, but with Valverde and Rodrygo taking the leap, and Benzema still yet to hit his stride, you may not need to. As Ancelotti himself put it after the game: “We’ve done well when we’ve played without Karim, who was the star of last season. Other players have had more responsibility in this period. The other players have shown a lot of confidence now, especially Valverde, who has changed a lot since last year. Vinícius is also doing better without the ball and finding better positions. They’re all playing well, but can still improve in some aspects.”

Ancelotti also stated his admiration for Asensio’s performance, while also highlighting that Asensio has “responded positively” to his lack of playing time.

“For me, Asensio was the man of the match,” Real Madrid’s manager explained. “He did well with Valverde and Carvajal. The three of them combined very well. Even when starting as a winger, he can come inside and make a difference in that space where he’d play if he were an attacking midfielder. He has always shown a good attitude, even when he hasn’t played. He could have responded positively or negatively, and he’s responded positively.”

Should we be worried about Real Madrid’s defense?

On our post-game Zoom call, one of our Patrons remarked the slight annoyance on conceding a goal and losing out on a clean sheet (and otherwise perfect night for Thibaut Courtois). Obviously Jota’s beautiful free-kick has zero consequences on Real Madrid’s season, but it’s a worthy thought exercise to analyze and measure where the team is at. How worried should we be about Real Madrid’s low-volume of clean sheets? Can this team score enough this season when it matters to balance out the defensive lapses?

Far more concerning than the free-kick goal was that Thibaut Courtois had to make several point-blank saves (plus a penalty) after defensive meltdowns. In the past two games, teams have exploited Real Madrid’s high line, Dani Carvajal has looked a step slow defending in transition, and David Alaba has been out of position.

It shouldn’t be this easy for teams to take a hot knife through Real Madrid’s structure:

It took three passes and less than 10 seconds for Celtic to break the press and get the ball to an unmarked Kyogo Furuhashi in the box. Fede Valverde hedges towards the central man, and Asensio steps to the wing — both actions leaving a wide-open outlet behind them. The margin of error on those sequences aren’t as catastrophic in a 5 - 1 win over Celtic, but will likely be magnified more as we head into the Champions League knockout rounds.

Another concern: The defensive line has been giving the ball away, particularly on the right side where Dani Carvajal and Eder Militao have been careless on the ball when pressured. Those kinks needs to be cleaned up as the season progresses.

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