Zinedine Zidane, or whomever is manager of Real Madrid come the the end of the season (you never know!), has an extremely difficult decision to make with regard to one particular section of his squad this summer.
The club is bursting to the brim with attacking-midfield talents; their depth in this area puts most rivals—even Barcelona—to shame. Zidane is fighting fires left and right, trying to appease a cluster of incredible players and give them the minutes they feel they deserve, but this can’t continue.
The task has been temporarily manageable due to the sheer volume of games that have flooded Real Madrid’s way this April—their tussle with Valencia on the 29th will be their ninth of the month—but when that abates, and when next season kicks off in its typically slow, steady fashion, something has to have changed.
Zidane has two players constantly asking for more minutes—Isco and James Rodriguez—who could start for almost every other club in the world of football. Then there’s Lucas Vazquez, who has proved reliable for the club and stands trusted by his manager as a deputy on the wing.
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All three are jostling for what is essentially one prime backup spot, and Isco is winning the war. His ability to play on either wing, as a No. 10 or slightly deeper as a No. 8 means he can deputise for every one of Los Blancos’ midfielders bar Casemiro (who no one can truly deputise for).
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But in 2016-17, a fourth party has risen to prominence and has further clouded the picture. Marco Asensio has made the most of the minutes awarded to him in La Liga and Champions League play.
In both matches against Bayern Munich in the quarter-final, he was sent on late to settle matters, assisting the winner in the first leg and netting a crazy solo goal in the second to firmly kill things off. His star is rising.
It is Asensio who will force Zidane to make an unbelievably difficult decision this summer. The 21-year-old has seized almost every chance awarded this season, proving without question he is capable and ready to play on a weekly basis for Real Madrid. For one so young to assert himself so confidently is rare, but also unsurprising in this case: confidence is what fuels Asensio’s game and is what has propelled him so far, so early.
No matter the level, no matter the shirt played in, Asensio is consistently one of the most positive, energetic players on the pitch. A technically exquisite footballer, yes, but also one willing to burst into space, take players on and move the ball forward in a progressive fashion. He starts, links and ends attacking sequences thanks to clever movement and an insuppressible want to get into attacking areas.
He has shown prowess, either for Real Madrid or for Spain’s youth teams, in all three positions just behind the forward. Recent fixture congestion has brought rare starting opportunities for him, and he’s flashed brilliance from both flanks. In particular, his performance against Eibar in March from the left was understatedly great; he gave poor full-back Ander Capa a torrid time, overlapping, dropping into space, crossing with precision and, in the second half, claiming a deserved goal.
When Asensio spies space and bursts into it, he’s almost certain to create a highlight-reel moment. His speed and agility allow him to round players and sear past them, and he often embarks on long dribbles toward goal. What strikes you is his sense of balance—he looks stable even in full flow—and he has an unerring ability to let loose a firm shot at the end of these runs.
In this specific sense, he reminds a little of Kaka (the Milan version), when the Brazilian was able to barrel forward with speed and precision himself.
Off the ball, Asensio is aggressive and willing to hassle opponents. He picks up niggly fouls—a trait found in quite a few Spanish midfielders, it must be said—and works hard to apply consistent pressure on those with the ball. A fan of trapping players in corners or in tight spaces on the sideline, he often forces misplaced, panicked passes if he can’t dispossess cleanly.
Playing from wide positions frequently this season, Asensio has become efficient in picking out players with crosses—particularly low balls into and across the box. Earlier in his career, he showcased mastery of longer, floated passes from deep, but now, in and around the penalty box, he’s picking out colleagues with precision and dealing damage.
There are no hopeful punts where Asensio is concerned; whenever Zidane has let him run free, he’s created chances in bulk with considered, accurate deliveries. He measured in the sweet cross for Cristiano Ronaldo to head home the winner at the Allianz Arena in the first leg of this year’s Champions League quarter-final, and he provided several more in the second leg.
This combination of technique, confidence and consistent production is what has got Zidane in a pickle. It was tough enough keeping James and Isco happy before, but now he has Asensio knocking on his door and asking for chances, too.
It’s a conundrum: Isco and James are borderline world-class players, but Asensio has the potential to be one of Spain’s great midfielders if he’s nurtured properly. The easy solution is a loan, but to where? He’s proved ready and able to cut it for Real Madrid’s first team; where do you go from there?
All Asensio can do is to simply continue what he has been doing: impress in every chance given, making that impending decision all the more difficult, yet all the more important, too.
It’s not as if he’s flying under the radar—Liverpool are reported to have bid more than £40 million for him this week, per Cadena COPE (h/t The Independent). That’s a bargaining chip he can use to ensure his future is taken seriously at the Santiago Bernabeu this summer.