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Analysing Marco Asensio’s false nine role for Spain: Could he do the same for Real Madrid?

Luis Enrique played him as a centre-forward vs Switzerland

Spain v Switzerland -UEFA Nations league Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

This isn’t the first time that Asensio has played in a number nine role, but it was surprising. In June, Luis Enrique twice brought him on as a centre forward and deployed him in a similar role, though those two appearances only added up to a total of 34 minutes of game time. He’s also featured in the role sparingly as a substitute at times for Real Madrid, most notably in the Copa del Rey defeat to Athletic Club in early 2022.

In the position, he produced one of his best displays in recent memory, playing a key role in linking up the midfield and attack. It was not easy to do that either. Luis Enrique described Spain’s performance as “not imprecise, worse than that” in a game in which Spain’s passing accuracy was 88.35%, the fourth lowest percentage for any Spain game since Vicente del Bosque quit after the 2016 World Cup.

Asensio’s role was partly false nine, but partly also a number 10. Playing almost like the front end of a diamond midfield, As can be seen in his heat map below, he dropped more into the middle third of the pitch and tended to move across to the right.

He dominated play in these areas and was effective, not that it did many favours to Ferran Torres on the right flank. In these areas, he looked alert and dragged Swiss defenders all over the place. They were clearly as surprised as anyone to be marking Asensio as a false nine rather than a more traditional target man like Álvaro Morata or Borja Iglesias.

Asensio heat map Spain Switzerland
Asensio’s heat map vs Switzerland
Source: Wyscout

Much is to be said with Asensio’s passing map. As can be seen here, adding to his heat map, his average position was very deep. In fact, he was almost stood next to the average position of Gavi (number nine) and Marcos Llorente (number six), the two midfielders who were given the most freedom within the midfield three. He was far deeper than the man who replaced him, Borja Iglesias (number 17).

Marco Asensio passing map Spain vs Switzerland Source: Wyscout

His passing connections reflected that. He interchanged a total of 14 passes with the two wingers (10 with Ferran Torres, four with Pablo Sarabia), while he interchanged 23 passes with defenders Eric García (12) and César Azpilicueta (11).

It was that kind of passing which would lead to his involvement in Spain’s goal. He dropped deep, collecting the ball from Eric García, and then turned with great technique to dribble past his marker, exploiting space in the Swiss back line and then feeding in Jordi Alba to convert from the left flank.

Such movement to move into a deeper role is possible thanks to the kind of wingers which Spain was deploying. In Ferran Torres and Pablo Sarabia, Luis Enrique’s forwards would tend to be the furthest forward players and would drift into more central positions, allowing the full-backs to break forward into more advanced positions. That was exactly what happened for Jordi Alba’s goal.

Asensio assist Spain Switzerland
Asensio drops deep to collect the ball and quickly turns.
Asensio assist Spain Switzerland
That turn and dribble sees him through with space in the final third.

At Real Madrid, in contrast, the wingers tend to stay in wide positions. Vinicius Junior, for example, is more a touchline-hugging figure then Karim Benzema is in the team. While Dani Carvajal and, to a lesser extent, Ferland Mendy do get forward, they do not overlap into space in quite the same way. That means it’s a very different kind of false nine to fit into Ancelotti’s system.

The other challenge in bringing that to the Bernabéu is that this occurred in a significantly contrasting context. A look at the images shows quite how high Switzerland’s defensive line was, allowing Asensio to find himself facing four back-tracking defenders after turning around one man. In contrast, take a look at this example of Rodrygo, collecting the ball in a similar position against Mallorca and finding himself running into eight Mallorca defenders.

Rodrygo Goes false nine Real Madrid Mallorca

The reality of the false nine role at Real Madrid involves a lot of patience and coming up against teams who play with incredibly low blocks for most of the time. Asensio’s turn and burst of pace was lethal against Switzerland. Against teams like Mallorca, it might see him remove one or two defenders from the equation, but he’s still running into a dead end.

One of the many reasons why so many were surprised to see Asensio deployed in this role is that it Asensio’s biggest strength is his ability to cut inside from wide and produce an attempt on goal from a wide position. This robs him of that ability.

One final area to consider of the performance, and yet another which suggests that this strong display may not translate to Real Madrid, was in Asensio’s defensive contribtution. Across 63 minutes, Asensio failed to make a single recovery of possession. He was the only player who started the match to do so.

In part, that can be put down to his positioning. By placing himself so deep when in possession, Asensio was often too distant to press the Swiss defensive line, and that responsibility instead fell onto the shoulders of Ferran and Sarabia, but the concern came in that Asensio seemed to place himself in a no man’s land when out of possession.

By positioning in a deeper role, he could easily apply pressure to the double pivot of Granite Xhaka and Remo Freuler, but he didn’t. Too often he would drift wide, needlessly given the presence of Ferran and Sarabia, and leave gaps open in the middle. That in turn pulled out a midfielder from the Spain trio and would open up gaps in behind.

Asensio press Spain Switzerland
Asensio has drifted left and leaves a gap in the middle.

In his last seven appearances in a centre-forward role, he has made just one recovery. For context, Rodrygo made five recoveries in the match against Atlético Madrid. It reflects the difference between the two, with the Brazilian adding to the high intensity press that killed Atlético so lethally and that has been deadly in a front three with Fede Valverde and Vinícius.

This was a promising display from Asensio, who played more minutes in one game for Spain than he has featured for Real Madrid across the nine games to date this season. However, the more you dig into the details of his performance, the more it seems that the greatest source of inspiration that Madridistas can take is that a series of games like that at the World Cup could inflate his value to sell him in January.

It was, in fact, the kind of performance that shows exactly why Asensio’s future lies elsewhere. There is a good player in there, but he is a square peg in a round hole anywhere in this Real Madrid team. Given Ancelotti’s preference for Eden Hazard initially and the impressive form of Rodrygo Goes since has shown that Asensio is unlikely to get a chance in this role. If he does, there is little to indicate that such an experiment would be a success.

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