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Federico Valverde: The Generational Swiss Army Knife

Diving Deep Into Fede’s Improvements

Real Madrid CF v UD Almeria - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Alvaro Medranda/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Federico Valverde is a Generational Swiss Army Knife

For a lot of his Real Madrid career, Fede played as a pseudo-winger who defends and attacks space in transition.

Fede got one season as a deeper lying midfielder in 2019/20, when his defense was key to Real Madrid winning La Liga.

This season, he’s having a career year with highs in the following categories: progressive passing, progressive ball-carrying, pass volume and pass completion rate, shot creating actions, percentage of dribblers tackled and clearances per 90.

In many ways his impact is on par with some of the best defensive-minded, box-to box style midfielders to ever play the game. Right now, his impact is akin to peak N’Golo Kanté.

Lets look at how his role has evolved using data going back to 2018/19.

NOTE: Data in this piece came from before the Las Palmas game. But we’ve been tracking Fede all season, and the conclusions and overall trends remain the same.

Firstly, Fede has been tasked with more central roles this season, taking touches in the middle and left third more often than before. He’s also taking more touches than ever, commanding the ball in buildup play and recycling possession. In many ways, he contributes to the control of games more than ever before, and is an extremely safe player to give the ball to in any situation.

Fede’s touches per 90 minutes by season:

2019/20: 62.2

2020/21: 63.7

2021/22: 65.7

2022/23: 67

2023/24: 77.7

With Kroos and Modric in their twilight years, Fede’s growth in this area couldn’t have been more timely.

Playing deeper and more confident than ever, Fede is better at carrying the ball forward than before. He’s become a bit of a buildup juggernaut this season.

Progressive Carries by season:

2019/20: 1.95

2020/21: 2.77

2021/22: 3.74

2022/23: 2.94

2023/24: 3.86

Fede’s ball carrying better illustrates how much more responsibility he’s taking on in possession:

2019/20: 38.1

2020/21: 38.1

2021/22: 41.2

2022/23: 42

2023/24: 57.1 (Over 25% increase!)

Fede is taking on players less often than at any point since 2019/20, when he was first learning how to use his speed to his advantage. Instead, he drives the ball into space when he sees it, and avoids using his dribble to avoid duels, which is the best use of his speed and style of dribbling.

The Uruguayan’s rise and fall in take-on numbers illustrate how he’s learned to use his speed to his advantage in open spaces instead of trying to take-on players like a winger.

In 2019/20, he seemed to be too subdued, almost unaware of how much he could use his speed to his advantage.

Next he was used as a pseudo-winger and tried playing the part, before maturing into a selective deep lying ball-carrier this season.

Fede’s take-ons over the years:

2019/20: 0.92 completed, 1.27 attempted

2020/21: 1.58 completed, 1.98 attempted

2021/22: 1.54 completed, 2.41 attempted

2022/23: 1.09 completed, 1.66 attempts

2023/24: 0.92 completed, 1.62 attempts

Fede’s increased presence in central areas and importance to buildup is seen in his passing chart.

Fede’s pass volume and completion per 90 minutes over the years:

2019/20: 46 completed, 87.2% completion rate

2020/21: 46.1 completed, 85.7% completion rate

2021/22: 47.8 completed, 86% completion rate

2022/23: 50.1 completed, 87% completion rate

2023/24: 60.7 completed, 90.5% completion rate

Fede has gotten better at switching play with timely long balls, slowing play down, and picking out the right pass in buildup period. His primary growth has been with short and medium passes.

See the splits for yourself:

Short Passing per 90 minutes:

2019/20: 27.5 completed, 92.6% completion rate

2020/21: 23.8 completed, 91.8% completion rate

2021/22: 27.9 completed, 93.1% completion rate

2022/23: 30.5 completed, 93.4% completion rate

2023/24: 35.9 completed, 95.7% completion rate

Medium Passing per 90 minutes:

2019/20: 13.7 comleted, 87.5% completion rate

2020/21: 15 completed, 85.8% completion rate

2021/22: 14.2 completed, 87.3% completion rate

2022/23: 14.1 completed, 85.8% completion rate

2023/24: 18.9 completed, 91.3% completion rate

He is close to his career high in long ball completions, but his previous high came in a more conservative system under Zidane, and he’s already played more minutes this season than he did in the entirety of 2020/21. We haven’t seen him consistently switch play this well before.

Long Passing per 90 minutes:

2019/20: 3.19 completed, 74.1% completion rate

2020/21: 4.36 completed, 80.7% completion rate

2021/22: 3.15 completed, 66.7% completion rate

2022/23: 3.61 completed, 76% completion rate

2023/24: 4.12 completed, 70.1% completion rate

Some of the change in Fede’s usage in seen with his xThreat heatmap. He’s more involved below the halfway line this season than any prior season barring 2019/20.

Interesting to note how involved he was in deeper areas under Zidane in 2019/20 as well, as that was the Real Madrid team that controlled games most comfortably and intentionally in this dataset, plus he had largely been pushed to the right wing after the pandemic so opportunities to play the ball in deeper areas were not as frequent.

Fede’s presence in deeper areas in 2019/20 and this 2023/24 season stand out once again when looking at where Fede receives the ball.

Fede received more passes in advanced areas last season than ever before. As a deeper lying player, his progressive receptions (when he is receiving 10+ yards ahead of the passer in the direction of the opposition goal or in the box) are understandably lower this season.

Progressive Receptions p90:

2019/20: 3.35

2020/21: 3.27

2021/22: 4.13

2022/23: 4.96

2023/24: 3.29

However, Fede receives more passes overall p90:

2019/20: 46.2

2020/21: 46.8

2021/22: 48.5

2022/23: 52.5

2023/24: 61.2

The length of time Valverde has to patiently wait for this opportunity to become a buildup midfielder is quite notable, all because of Luka Modric’s unprecedented longevity.

Valverde displaced Modric from the starting lineup for a long stretch in 2019/20, before Modric regained his place with stellar performances in La Liga after the pandemic break.

The delay in Fede starting here is largely because Modric was also responsible for an incredible sequence against PSG, the outside of the boot pass to Rodrygo against Chelsea, and the match winning line-breaking pass against Liverpool.

Those performances bought Modric tons of credit and opportunities to play through rough stretches of form, and Fede himself wasn’t fully fit after the last World Cup, so it’s understandable that its taken till this season for Fede to truly stake his place in midfield.

Defensively, Valverde is still an all-action engine, but acts more as a deep lying ‘free-safety’ or sweeper at times instead of a pure ball-winner, which impacts his numbers a bit. He was more aggressive further forward as a winger, which is to be expected. His impact is all the same, if not better.

Players Tackled p90:

2019/20: 1.83

2020/21: 1.88

2021/22: 1.96

2022/23: 1.27

2023/24: 1.67

This season, half of Fede’s tackles come in the defensive third, which is the highest proportion of his career by a good margin.

Interceptions p90:

2019/20: 1.23

2020/21: 1.83

2021/22: 1.10

2022/23: 0.76

2023/24: 1.3

Notably, he’s tackling dribblers more efficiently than before.

Dribblers tackled p90 and success rate in those duels:

2019/20: 0.6 tackled, 29.4% success rate

2020/21: 0.79 tackled, 42.1% success rate

2021/22: 0.66 tackled, 38% success rate

2022/23: 0.57 tackled, 47.8% success rate

2023/24: 0.96 tackled, 66.7% success rate

This is free safety Federico Valverde, a machine that devours dribblers in a more intentional manner than ever before.

Data Courtesy @WhoScored and @fbref

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