Future Galactico

In an era of a bloated transfer market and a significant hike in transfer fees, Real Madrid’s €3.9m deal for a Mallorcan teenager appears increasingly priceless. Just months earlier, the European champions had announced Colombian playmaker James Rodriguez as their marquee summer signing for €75m, while Angel Di Maria left the club for a similar fee to join Manchester United. Across the divide in Spanish football, Luis Suarez joined Barcelona in excess of €80m. Madrid’s deal for Marco Asensio was less than a twentieth of that price.

In the four years since, the explosive winger has blossomed into one of world football’s brightest talents, yet it was not always clear that he would enjoy such a steady ascension to stardom. Now 22, Asensio suffered a number of personal and professional events set him back during his teenager years. When he was just 15 his mother, from the Netherlands, passed away from cancer. Five years later, when he was being presented as a Madrid player, he broke down in tears when recalling her death: “My mother, from above, is always supporting me and giving me strength,” he said.

Six years earlier, there was the story of how Asensio walked along the port of Puerto Portals in Mallorca when they passed a yacht and, recognising the owner, his mother Maria Gertruida Willemsen proudly announced: “My son will play for your team one day.” That man was Florentino Perez, President of Real Madrid, and the prophecy was to fulfil itself spectacularly.

However, there were issues with Asensio’s physical development, as he suffered growth problems for large spells of his rise through Mallorca’s youth system, having joined the islanders as a 10-year-old. “As a child I had many problems in my knees and on my heels because of the growth,” he later recalled. “I had a very bad time because I played and ended up with inflamed knees…it was awful, and I cried a lot. They had to carry me because I could not even climb the stairs.” The problems only subsided several years later, by which time his sharp development had alerted several notable clubs.

Ironically, it was Barcelona who were said to be the early frontrunners for the signature of the player named after the great Dutch forward Marco van Basten. Mallorca’s sporting director was Miguel Angel Nadal, a former Barcelona defender, and he noted that Asensio was ‘similar to Isco but over longer distances’. His Coach at that time, Jose Luis Oltra, described the winger as possessing ‘a change of pace, with great daring and the ability to beat defenders’.

La Blaugrana were said to be heavily monitoring Asensio, ready to offer him a significant pay-rise and the chance to progress through the famed La Masia youth system. Eventually the idea was scrapped, with the club seemingly unwilling to commit financially to such a raw talent. Barca’s loss was Madrid’s gain and two months before his 19th birthday, Asensio signed a six-year contract with Los Blancos.

However, that tear-filled inauguration would wait a further two-and-a-half years. Initially, Madrid felt it beneficial to leave the starlet to continue in the same environment at Mallorca, then in Spain’s second tier. He joined his new teammates at Santiago Bernabeu that summer and whilst he impressed during pre-season, Rafael Benitez instructed him that it would serve him best to find another loan club for regular football.

This followed a similar path of many Madrid youngsters: Dani Carvajal spent a year at Bayer Leverkusen, Casemiro went to Porto on a season-long loan, Alvaro Morata spent two years at Juventus and Lucas Vazquez enjoyed a year at Espanyol. It was the Catalan club to whom Asensio moved on a season-long loan, one of 27 clubs interested in his signature, according to his agent. Asensio featured in 34 La Liga matches that campaign and provided an impressive 10 assists – the youngest player to reach such a tally across Europe’s top five Leagues.

Hopes were high that Asensio could contribute to Madrid’s squad the following campaign – he was already closing in on his 100th professional appearance – but few could have predicted the degree of his impact. He scored on his debut for the club, in the European Super Cup. Then he scored on his La Liga debut and then, in his first appearance in the Champions League. To put to the icing on the cake, he netted during his first Copa del Rey tie too. It was a unique run of form to illustrate the fearlessness of the winger.

The season was to prove historic for Madrid. They won their first League title in six years and followed it up by becoming the first club to retain the Champions League trophy in the modern era, Asensio netting in the showpiece, a 4-1 triumph over Juventus. It was an exciting time for Madrid, who were blessed with young, exciting talent. Such was the embarrassment of riches at their disposal, James, Morata and Mariano Diaz were among those forced to seek moves away. The diamond Asensio and mercurial playmaker Isco were retained, viewed as the future for club and country.

Asensio’s trademark cutting inside from the wing and raw pace has caused opposition defences continual nightmares, while his knack for spectacular goals has not gone unnoticed. In the following season’s Supercopa de Espana, he produced a stunning 25-yard finish at Camp Nou as Madrid won 3-1 against Barcelona. The following week, a similar effort helped Zinedine Zidane’s team to a 2-0 victory to complete an emphatic aggregate victory.

The next month, the winger – who at this stage had captured the attention of the global football audience – signed a new long-term deal with Madrid, committing his future to the club until 2023. For the second season in succession he weighed in with a goal tally of double figures while his strike in February’s 5-3 win at Real Betis was Madrid’s 6,000th in the Spanish top flight.

The stakes could not have been much higher for Asensio. Having already seen off James and Morata in the competition for first-team places, he was often selected ahead of Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale while under Zidane’s tutelage. The exit of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus last summer has afforded him even greater prominence. Whilst the club brought in Vinicius Junior and re-signed Mariano Diaz, they chose not to sign a ‘galactico’ attacking talent in what was partly a display of trust to those already on the books.

Asensio is a player who excites – direct, incisive and confident, he is perfect for either counter-attacking or dragging opposition defenders out of their position. Unlike Vazquez, Benzema and others he cannot be relied upon to provide shape or balance to defensive duties, and such industry would surely limit his attacking potential.

“I try not to pay too much attention to expectations they have of me,” Asensio told reporters during an interview in July. “It’s normal that there are a lot because they have been two very good years at Real Madrid. I just hope to keep surpassing them.”

Asensio has been challenged by Madrid to continue his rapid rise to the top of the sport. Tasked with increasing his goal tally to offset the loss of Ronaldo, he will be hoping to add to his trophy cabinet which already boosts eight major honours including two Champions League titles. He may still be somewhat raw, but this diamond will shine for club and country for years to come.

 

Factfile

Name:Marco Asensio

Born:January 21, 1996 (Palma de Mallorca, Spain)

Ht / Wt:1.82m / 76kg

Position:Winger

Club:Real Madrid

Club stats

Season            Club                           Apps   Goals

2013-14           Real Mallorca             20        1

2014-15           Real Mallorca             36        6

2015-16           Espanyol                     34        4

2016-17           Real Madrid               23        3

2017-18           Real Madrid                32        6

2018-19           Real Madrid

Asensio at Real Mallorca

Marco Asensio began his fledgling career at hometown club Real Mallorca

Asensio at Espanyol

He featured in 34 La Liga matches for Espanyol and provided an impressive ten assists

Asensio presentation at Real Madrid

The winger’s late mother had predicted her son would join Madrid one day

Asensio with Champions League trophy

At just 22, the winger has already lifted two Champions League titles

Honourable mentions

Unai Simon

Chelsea broke the world transfer record fee for a goalkeeper this summer when signing Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Club Bilbao, but the Basques appear to have a ready-made replacement.

Unai Simon has starred for Los Leones since making his debut at the start of this season following an injury to Iago Herrerin, with the 21-year-old appearing to have all the assets needed to enjoy a successful career.

Mikel Oyarzabal

Athletic’s Basque rivals Real Sociedad have an outstanding natural talent of their own in the shape of forward Mikel Oyarzabal.

The 21-year-old has risen through the ranks for both club and country, netting 14 goals for La Real last season and possessing a €50m price tag.

Marc Roca

Over in Catalonia, Espanyol central midfielder Marc Roca is developing into an all-rounder with tremendous natural talent. Aged just 21, he is already one of the club’s most influential players and is another star at Under-21 level for Spain.

Carlos Soler

Another of La Rojita’s most exciting prospects is yet another central midfielder who is starring at Valencia – Carlos Soler. He has already amassed over 60 first-team appearances for Los Che and has been linked with several big money moves away.

Junior Firpo

Another blossoming talent is Real Betis full-back Junior Firpo, who earlier this year confirmed his choice to play for Spain ahead of the Dominican Republic.

The left wing-back is one of the first names on the team-sheet for Quique Setien’s side, showing tremendous work-rate and natural ability, offering an offensive threat alongside balance to the team.

Madrid’s market

The days of Real Madrid splashing the cash every summer are long gone. Colin Millar examines how Los Blancos’ strategy has evolved.

The summer arrival of Thibaut Courtois this summer was Real Madrid’s first signing to be elevated into their starting XI since the signing of Toni Kroos in 2014.

Under President Florentino Perez, the club have shifted into a recruitment model based on finding greater market value and with more focus on player development. This in part explains the deal for Marco Asensio four years ago and also helps highlight why Madrid now enjoy the biggest presence in the Spanish national team.

Isco arrived at Santiago Bernabeu from Malaga a year before the deal was struck for the Asensio, while a number of other young Spaniards have been integrated into the first team squad.

In 2017, Madrid struck a cut-price €16m deal to sign Real Betis midfielder Dani Ceballos while a year later they added Real Sociedad full-back Alvaro Odriozola for €40m. Central defender Jesus Vallejo arrived for a cut-price €5m from Real Zaragoza in 2015 while game-time has also been afforded to youth products Marcos Llorente and Borja Mayoral.

Both Castilla graduates were loaned out to top-flight sides in deals similar to those for Dani Carvajal, Alvaro Morata and Lucas Vazquez, who all returned to earn their spot in the first-team squad. The idea is that the players will grow into first-team regulars and if not, can be sold at a handsome profit to benefit the club financially.

Recent deals for Brazilian teenagers Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo Goes may appear risky but fit logically into this new, long-term vision of Madrid.

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