It’s August 13th, 2017. It’s a balmy Sunday night and even at close to midnight, the heat and humidity of a Catalan summer is clear for all to feel. Camp Nou is sold out and packed to the rafters. Zoom down to the pitch and you’ll find a young man wheeling away in celebration, lifting his blue Real Madrid shirt off his shoulders, highlighting the name on his back: Asensio. Marco Asensio had arrived.
Only 12 months before, Asensio was returning from a loan spell at Espanyol. There, he had played alongside Gerard Moreno and excelled. He returned to Real Madrid and shone beyond anybody’s wildest expectations, exploding onto the scene as the club’s most promising youngster.
A goal on his Real Madrid LaLiga debut against Real Sociedad started the 2016/17 campaign, and it ended with him again on the scoresheet, only this time in Cardiff against Juventus in the Champions League final. It was a statement of intent from one of Los Blancos’ most promising players, and one he built upon the following year.
Struggling to step up
It’s a familiar story for many Real Madrid figures, but the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo did little to help Asensio in 2018. At first, it had seemed that it could work. He recorded five assists in his first three LaLiga games the following year, with a goal following up in his fifth league appearance of that season.
The issue came in that he was only involved in three more LaLiga goals in the remaining 33 league matches. In fact, of his six goals in that 2018/19 campaign, three came against third tier UD Melilla in the Copa del Rey.
Given the chance to gain influence, it perhaps came at the wrong time for Asensio. He was no longer the hungry teenager seeking to prove a point, but was not quite ready to be the man to take the lead either. It was almost a matter of the wrong place and the wrong time for the wide forward.
It was the first sign that Asensio may not kick on as many had hoped. Given the chance to excel, it was instead Vinícius Júnior who was getting fans on the edge of their seats. It would be harsh to say that there were already doubts about Asensio, but fair to say that this failure to step up could well be the beginning of the end.
An underwhelming comeback from serious injury
Asensio is not the first, and nor will he be the last, athlete to be hit by an anterior cruciate ligament injury and return to be a different player. Having lost a little of that pace which set him apart, his game changed. From 5.13 dribbles per 90 in 2018/19, it plummeted to 3.03 in 2021/22. No longer was he the player who could break through lines and progress rapidly.
Even still, three goals and an assist in his first nine games back as one of the few to benefit from a prolonged season in 2019/20 was a pretty impressive return. Introduced for his first outing in almost 12 months, he relieved the pressure to set up one goal and score another in just 16 minutes against Valencia.
But from there on out, Asensio has never quite lived up to his promise. Having lost his starting role which looked almost guaranteed at one point, he had to regain it from behind the likes of Vinícius and even Rodrygo Goes, while Eden Hazard had also joined.
While Asensio had been forced to stand still, the rest of Real Madrid continued moving on. Others advanced and improved, stepping up the preference ladder, but Asensio struggled to regain his place.
The wrong fit
This season, Asensio finally seems to be back to his best, in a limited way. He’s been a prolific goalscorer, yet only started 42% of matches under Ancelotti in this campaign.
The concern comes in that Asensio doesn’t seem to be fit in anywhere in this Real Madrid squad. He’s no longer the promising youngster, yet not an experienced pro. He’s not energetic or a presser, yet his positioning and movement isn’t so special that it sets him apart.
He’s a player who can see Real Madrid through a changing of the guard, but he isn’t one that Florentino Pérez will break the bank to keep. And the simple, albeit brutal, truth is that he hasn’t lived up to the potential that earned him such substantial wages when he signed his last contract back in 2017.
With 12 goals from 7.92 xG, this one season saw him outperform xG by a greater total than the sum of his career to date.
Much of that has to do with the fact that his role has changed. In Asensio’s first two seasons of first team football, his assist tally outnumbered his goals scored. Since joining Real Madrid, his numbers for goals and assists have primarily seen him score more than he’s assisted, but that trend has only become more evident this season. Rather than looking to contribute to build-up play, we see him drift deeper and shoot from deep rather than look to play a killer ball. In 2018/19 his average shot distance was 17.5 metres, in 2021/22 it had risen to 18.6 metres. At the same time, his key passes fell from 1.85 per 90 to 1.44, and his xA almost halved from 0.22 per 90 to 0.12. He’s become a more selfish player in a team which has become increasingly unselfish under Ancelotti.
But perhaps the factor where he is most out of kilter is in his salary demands. Reportedly demanding €7 million per year, approximately €135,000 per week, his requests do not seem to be extortionate in the context of the wider footballing market. He’s a Spain international nearing the peak of his career and with three LaLiga titles and three Champions League winners’ medals in his trophy cabinet.
Even still, that salary does not fit with Real Madrid’s wage structure. Pérez has proven time and time again that he will not bend his own rules for anyone, as the likes of Sergio Ramos have found out in the recent past.
Asensio’s career at Real Madrid has been one that has faded and vanished. It’s a matter of a player of immense technical quality finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Elsewhere, he could more than justify his wage. Instead, he finds himself slipping as far as third choice on the right flank and with Real Madrid unwilling to offer him a new contract. Asensio has not been a failure for Real Madrid, far from it, but he has most certainly not lived up to expectations.