The war dragged on all summer, the fighting waged on many fronts. Zinedine Zidane found himself in the trenches against his own club, Real Madrid, insisting he needed an energetic midfielder that could play a box-to-box role. Up north, Paul Pogba was drawing battle lines at Manchester United in search of a way out, dropping hints with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Mino Raiola, Pogba’s agent, fought with his words: “Everyone within the club from the manager to the owner knows Paul’s wishes,” he said. But for the first time in a long time, Real Madrid didn’t get what they wanted. The pressure on United wasn’t enough, and Pogba stayed put.
Meanwhile in Madrid, Fede Valverde toiled under the baking summer sun, just waiting for a chance. The season didn’t start as planned and they found themselves humiliated against Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League and overrun on a number of occasions — Madrid’s defence and midfield was likened to a sieve. Zidane’s second coming at the club looked like it was going to be short as José Mourinho readied his own return speech and the eulogies were written for the Frenchman. Desperation, however, is the mother of all innovation. Zidane was forced into giving the Uruguayan the chance he was seeking.
“I just feel like another player in the squad,” Valverde said after the Eibar game at the weekend when asked if he felt like he was Real Madrid’s best signing of the summer. “They have given me confidence and I feel like I did when I arrived . . . like Fede Valverde.” He might feel like just another player, but he has been a revelation this season, the solution to Madrid’s midfield malaise.
One of the first things Zidane noticed when he returned to the club at the tail end of last season was that the engine room, which had driven much of the team’s success during his first spell, was stale and tired. Modrić had come back from the World Cup after dragging Croatia to the final and was a shadow of the player who had been directing things in midfield for the club for years. His midfield partner, Toni Kroos, was once referred to as a “diesel tractor” by his former manager Bernd Schuster. The German is essentially useless without a line breaker beside him and Casemiro, behind them, could only carry so much water. And so Zidane decided to try Valverde in the box-to-box role. The 21-year-old has been phenomenal ever since. Of the last seven games, Valverde didn’t start against Mallorca, where Real Madrid lost, or Real Betis, a game which Real Madrid drew.
Since Valverde has come in, the only other player with at least 300 minutes who has more pressures is Lucas Vázquez, who has carved out a specialty for himself and a steady supply of minutes in the team as the hard-tackling winger.
Before Zidane slotted Valverde in, Real Madrid simply weren’t exerting any pressure. This made life more difficult on the midfield and attack and almost impossible for Thibaut Courtois. He came under criticism for conceding eight goals in his first four league games of the season. Real Madrid were still picking up results but their form was unsustainable. With the chance he’s been given, Valverde has 24.76 aggressive actions per 90 minutes, ensuring teams are once again on the back-foot when they face Real Madrid.
Their game truly started to change against Osasuna, Valverde’s first start of the season. Real Madrid dominated throughout. During that game, Valverde had 17 pressures, which was third behind Casemiro and Lucas Vázquez.
His midfield radar shows not only his pressures, but his PAdj Tackles is far higher than the league average too. He’s also involved in the team’s build-up play.
“The best thing I have is my vision and the rhythm to play the ball,” he told Real Madrid TV recently. “And always with the desire to run and arrive in both areas in order to defend and attack. You could say I am a little hot-blooded on the field.” So, basically he offers everything. Everything that Zidane needed.
There’s no doubt that Zidane knew he would be good, but he wasn’t sure if he could be the player he desperately needed. The Real Madrid manager wasn’t going to put his future on the line for an untested youngster. But when Donny Van Der Beek became available, Zidane held firm; it was either Pogba or nobody. In the end, nobody may have been the best thing to happen to the team.
Real Madrid have been trying to find replacements for their ageing players for a couple of years now. The signings of Marco Asensio from Mallorca, Dani Ceballos from Real Betis, Vinicius from Flamengo and Rodrygo from Santos respectively have certainly been welcome additions to the squad. But, as is normal for a highly successful team, breaking into the starting XI has proven difficult for the newcomers.
None of their bright young stars had done so until Valverde came along, followed quickly by Rodrygo, who continues to impress. Yet the Brazilian doesn’t necessarily change the way the team play, but is simply a replacement for Gareth Bale. Dani Ceballos couldn’t find a role for himself and left for Arsenal, Alvaro Odriozola hasn’t been able to supplant Dani Carvajal at right-back or even compete for minutes at the position. Vinicius’ decent run last year looks to be finished as a loan deal in January becomes a possibility. Sergio Reguilon is on loan to Sevilla and Eder Militao is still finding his feet. Meanwhile, Brahim is linked again with a loan deal as he fails to make an impact and Luka Jović has scored just once all season. Aside from Eden Hazard replacing Cristiano Ronaldo and Rodrygo just now taking Bale’s place, the back four and midfield for Real Madrid have looked too familiar for too long.
Valverde, on the other hand, nicknamed “El Pajarito” or ‘The Little Bird’ because he used to fly around the field when he was younger, changes everything. He creates spaces in the opposition penalty area with his driving runs and puts pressure on defenders with his leggy pressing. He helps out at the back and frees up Casemiro at the base of midfield, where previously he was swamped time and time again. Valverde’s emergence also means the need for Casemiro to be a box-to-box midfielder with attacking intent as well as a defensive, holding midfielder is gone.
“Every time I pick him, he plays well,” said Zidane after another excellent performance against Eibar, possibly Valverde’s best yet. “He was just missing the goal and he got that so I’m delighted for him and for Madrid.” If he keeps up his current form and can add a consistent threat in front of goal, the Little Bird will continue to soar.