Real Madrid: How Fede Valverde could prove to be an incredible asset for Ancelotti

Federico Valverde of Real Madrid (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Federico Valverde of Real Madrid (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) /

At this point in the season, when everyone is fit, it’s clear who 10 out of the 11 players are in the favoured starting lineup of Real Madrid. The 11th spot, which is the right-winger position in the 4-3-3 formation, has been a toss-up for the entire first half of the season. For the most part, the competition for the position has been a battle between Rodrygo and Marco Asensio.

Unlike his Brazilian compatriot Vinicius on the left, Rodrygo hasn’t had a very impressive season so far. In the previous seasons, Rodrygo was able to establish himself as a more clinical finisher than Vinicius, but halfway through this season, Vinicius is one of Europe’s top goalscorers, while Rodrygo has only scored twice for Real Madrid, both goals coming in the Champions League. He does have six assists to his name though, which is helpful for his case.

On the other hand, Marco Asensio has been having a fairly underrated season so far. He’s scored eight goals, putting him on course to reach a double-digit tally in the second half of the season, something he hasn’t achieved since 2017/18.

An effect that Asensio’s intended conversion to midfield has perhaps had on him though is that he’s drifted centrally a lot, something he hadn’t been doing too much of previously under Zidane. This begs the question of whether it’s a good idea to give Asensio a full-on free role, where he can roam between playing centrally and playing on the wing as he pleases.

A good example of the free role is the role that Isco had when he played together with Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. Isco often acted as the tip of a midfield diamond, providing a link between the midfield and the attack, but when width was needed, he would head out wide to the right wing.

At his best, Asensio exhibits these skills, so shifting to the centre and playing behind Vinicius and Benzema a bit more frequently rather than just sticking to the wing might make him more productive as a playmaker, but again, that’s assuming he’d be at his best all the time, which has never been the case.

Fede Valverde in a free-role could open up pathways for Ancelotti’s Real Madrid

Another, perhaps a better option for a player who can take on a free role in the starting lineup is Federico Valverde. In 2019/20, it seemed that Luka Modric was finally demoted to the bench as Valverde consistently put in top-class performances to become a starting midfielder. However, Modric, quite unprecedentedly at his age, returned to a sensational level last season to take back his starting spot, and he’s maintained that this season.

This has left Valverde as the backup central midfielder, often coming on as a substitute for either Modric or Toni Kroos. In a few matches though, Ancelotti has opted to bring Valverde on to play on the right wing. While it’s certainly clear that Valverde’s best role is as a central midfielder, the raw energy that he runs with when he has the ball at his feet makes him quite an apt makeshift winger.

Real Madrid, Federico Valverde (Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Federico Valverde (Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images) /

Starting him in a four-man midfield would give a lot of options when it comes to packing the midfield to dominate certain opponents. The midfield overload can allow room for a lot of dynamic play with constant in-game adjustments, as Valverde can either join Modric or Kroos in their pressing, drift out to the wing to create more width, or sit back in central midfield and allow Modric and Kroos the freedom to advance further forward in attacking positions.

It’s worth noting that while Valverde needed to be saved as a backup for Modric and Kroos last season, this season the team has Camavinga, Ceballos has recently been re-introduced with some game time, and even Isco has been provided with some minutes in matches lately as well.

Of course, the implementation of a free role is a double-edged sword. While giving a creative player like Asensio the ability to roam makes the offensive structure more difficult for opposing defenses to read and thus allows for more opportunities in front of goal, that same structural deviation creates problems defensively, with a lack of coverage left to be exploited on counterattacks. This led to the demise of the free role in the Real Madrid lineup following Zidane’s resignation in 2018.

Something that helps shield the defensive holes left by a deviation in structure though is the element of unpredictability that a player with a free role can add to the team. Another catalyst in the removal of the free role from Real Madrid’s system was that opposing teams began to be able to predict the previously unpredictable actions of Isco. If Asensio or Hazard are to be given a chance to play in a free role and initially thrive, there is a good chance of them eventually having a similar fate and falling out of form due to becoming more predictable.

Valverde provides a lot of things that Asensio doesn’t, making him a much better option for a free-role

For this reason, it is perhaps Valverde who is the most appealing option to be used in a free role. Simply put, as the player who is more versatile, he has the ability to stay unpredictable for a longer period of time. His range of abilities is ever-evolving, and as mentioned earlier, his versatility allows for the most dynamism for the team through in-game adjustments, as he is able to shift into many different roles, which can allow him to give the free role new dimensions and evolve it to a role that is an asset both offensively and defensively, rather than Isco’s free role which eventually became a defensive liability.

Valverde’s recent second-half cameo against Granada was a clear display of his ability to single-handedly turn around the performance of the team with the energy he provides.

Next. Real Madrid must come up with a plan to help Rodrygo Goes rebound. dark

Regardless of who Ancelotti decides to implement as the 11th man in the Real Madrid starting lineup, there is one thing that should become clear to him: He has numerous options to be flexible with his system rather than rigorously sticking to the 4-3-3 formation.