As transfer speculation whirled around throughout the summer, Paul Pogba was one of those players linked to Real Madrid that revived hopes of a new Galáctico era. A deal never came to fruition and Zinedine Zidane was forced to settle for a limited range of midfield options in his squad, seemingly deciding that it was Pogba or nothing for him and Real Madrid.
What he was perhaps not counting on was the emergence of Federico Valverde. The 21-year-old Uruguayan was a last resort option for both Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari in 2018/19, having been on loan at Deportivo La Coruña as they were relegated in 2017/18. It is this season though that has seen Valverde flourish in a midfield role which has seen many Real Madrid fans claiming that Pogba is no longer required with Valverde available.
Beyond that, the arrival of the Frenchman could provide a damaging blow to Valverde’s development as he continues to grow in importance and influence in the side, justifying his place more with each passing game.
This scout report will provide tactical analysis of the importance of Valverde in Real Madrid’s set-up, in which he is becoming an important figure for Zidane. This analysis will see whether Valverde is the man to take up that midfield role, rather than Pogba, given how he fits into Zidane’s tactics for the La Liga side.
Zidane’s desire to give an opportunity to Valverde was evident right from the off, putting him in the team almost immediately after his appointment and starting seven of his eleven games in charge in the 2018/19 campaign. That was more than any other so-called fringe player from the squad and even before the end of the season, Valverde explained that Zidane had told him that he would have a role to play at the Bernabéu in 2019/20.
However, despite those positive signs, he was left out of the matchday squad entirely on matchday one against Celta Vigo and then played only 22 minutes across two substitute appearances in the first four matches of the season. It was not until an impressive first start against Osasuna that Valverde got his chance and he hasn’t looked back, starting nine out of the 12 La Liga fixtures to follow.
As the below chart shows in terms of the minutes that Valverde has played, Zidane’s arrival marks a real before and after in his Real Madrid career and that is likely to continue as the season goes on.
Valverde’s breakthrough goes beyond just getting minutes. It also relies in large part upon the influence that he has had within the team, as can be reflected by his received passes. When looking at the 2019 calendar year, until November, he received more than 35 passes in a single game just twice, but he has surpassed that figure in each of his last four starts in the calendar year.
As his minutes have increased and he has grown more comfortable and confident, he has become more integrated into the team and demanded respect from even the side’s veterans. Now a regular, Valverde has shown what he is capable of, which is exactly what this analysis will look to explain.
His role and flexibility
Valverde has fitted in perfectly into Zidane’s midfield three, primarily replacing Luka Modrić on the right hand side, lining up alongside Casemiro and Toni Kroos. This role sees him in a slightly more advanced position, being the central midfielder with the most freedom to roam forwards and attack.
As can be seen in his heat map, he is a real box-to-box midfielder who covers plenty of ground across a full 90 minutes. Whilst he may take up a more advanced position or start on the right, he is dynamic in his movement and covers the field between the boxes. A large part of his role lies in bringing this energy to the midfield now that the likes of Modrić and Kroos struggle to do the leg work that they once did.
This also reflects his position within the midfield three. This is where he has been fielded most regularly, though he has occasionally alternated. This role allows him greater freedom to move forward and roam in the final third, not having the defensive responsibilities of Casemiro or Kroos.
It also allows Zidane to change his system mid-match. Against Espanyol, Valverde reverted to sitting in a deeper role, alongside Casemiro, adding protection for the Brazilian who could not risk being booked with a suspension nearing. By adding this flexibility to go from a more advanced midfielder in a three to a double pivot, Zidane gains real value from Valverde’s presence.
Having played in all three midfield roles and even as a winger as part of the front three in the home Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain, his flexibility is a key part of what Valverde brings to the side. He has also stepped in for Casemiro at times and played in a more defensive role and such adaptability provides a real advantage over Pogba, who is a more one-dimensional player in his more attacking approach. In Valverde, he not only comes cheaper but Zidane can fill several gaps in his squad in one.
Being able to sit in that deeper, holding midfield role, is one of the main ways in which Valverde sets himself apart from Pogba. It is also replicated in his defensive work, where his role means that he is often the first man to engage in defensive duels from the Real Madrid midfield, immediately looking to put his side on the front foot. Against the likes of PSG, as shown below, this is of vital importance as his energy and workrate held off the PSG attack and prevented them from gaining territory. Even when Real Madrid sat into a lower block, Valverde would prevent PSG being able to bombard the box by looking to disrupt their midfield and prevent them from enjoying possession without any pressure.
Valverde boasts 5.21 defensive duels per game with a success ratio of 58.2%. Whilst it is not quite as frequent as the likes of Casemiro in the holding role, who averages 11.08 duels per game, it is similar in terms of success, with the Brazilian reaching 61% and surpasses Modrić’s 54.8% with a slightly higher 5.42 duels per game. It is also more or less in line with Pogba’s return at Manchester United, where he averages 6.04 duels per 90 minutes with a slightly lower 56.5% success ratio.
Despite this, Valverde’s defensive composure is evident. He concedes just 0.91 fouls per match, half of Pogba’s figure which is at 1.81. Compared to Casemiro’s 2.07, it is a clear improvement. When reflected alongside Kroos and Modrić’s figures of 0.85 and 0.82 respectively, it is clear that this is one area where Valverde is a far more natural fit into the Real Madrid system than Pogba would be
That also means that he is a perfect fit to drop into the back three, much like Casemiro does in his holding midfield role. This provides crucial cover in Zidane’s system as the likes of Dani Carvajal and Marcelo bomb forwards down the flanks. The defensive vulnerabilities visible in 2018/19 have been cut out, largely due to this approach with Casemiro and Valverde dropping into more defensive roles under Zidane this season.
This is also shown in that Valverde is far more careful in possession. Whilst Pogba loses possession 12.02 times per 90 minutes, Valverde’s figure is almost half that at 6.92. It must be considered that Valverde takes fewer risks, perhaps for less attacking reward as can be seen in this analysis in his passing, but it also means that he is a more stable and consistent option.
Possession is not the be-all and end-all in Zidane’s tactical approach, but it is crucial to secure strong build-up play through the Real Madrid midfield. Being akin to Modrić and Kroos will make Valverde the more logical option going forwards, producing a more similar like-for-like option without being required to make one of them play a more disciplined role in the midfield three.
In this role, much of Valverde’s advantage over Pogba depends upon his pressing and energy in a defensive way. His energy is essential in a tiring and ageing Real Madrid midfield and he continually looks to turn possession over, with almost half of his ball recoveries coming in the opposition half.
One of these ways is with his work rate as Valverde is one of the first players to track back. Often, he is found getting the wrong side of opponents and surprising them with his burst of pace to get past them and intercept a pass, as was the case in this example where he surpassed Frenkie de Jong to get to a knock-down before the Barcelona man.
He is also one of the first players to look to kill off attacking moves at their root by looking to engage early and press players back into their own halves. As can be seen here against Galatasaray, he forces his opponents backwards, drawing an error or leaving them with no choice but to play the ball back to their own defence and start the attack all over again.
This energy and pressing is essential, particularly given the attacking nature of Real Madrid’s full-backs, as it enables them to have more time to get back into position and hold off a rival attack. Valverde has the stamina to do this in a way that Modrić and Kroos no longer can.
The Uruguayan’s work rate is substantially different from that of Pogba, who shirks such responsibilities at Manchester United. At the Bernabéu, no player is afforded such luxuries and it seems unlikely that Zidane would be keen to change that, even for his desired signing. Valverde brings a more rounded player who can provide value both in defence and attack.
Valverde is exactly the kind of midfield option that Zidane needs to keep his midfield ticking over and that is reflected in his passing style. Despite not being anything out of this world in terms of either precision or range, it is true that he has helped the side to up their tempo and play at a faster speed with more energy in their build-up play. The turgid build-up and transition play seen under Lopetegui in particular has been consigned to the past under Zidane and that has largely been down to the role of Valverde.
This is what is perhaps most impressive in his passing as Valverde passes the ball around. Other than when carrying the ball forwards in the transition, as will be considered shortly, he very rarely takes more than one or two touches before making a pass. He will instead look to play the ball quickly, as can be seen in this example from the Madrid derby where a clearance from the box came unexpectedly his way, but Valverde had already read the game under pressure with five men closing him down to pick out Kroos in acres of space alongside him with a first time header.
This is an added boost to his efficiency on the ball, with a passing accuracy of 85.1%. It is efficient, rather than remarkable, given that it is below that of Kroos on 93.1%, Casemiro’s 89.5% and Modrić’s 89.1%, though it is on a par with Pogba’s 85.8%.
It is just further evidence that Valverde’s passing is not necessarily one of the aspects of his play which catches the eye. Rather than being the kind of player to produce stunning long passes or cut defences apart, he plays more of a role in the patient build-up play and has only recorded two assists in 2019/20 at the time of writing.
This is reflected in his pass map from the Champions League tie against Galatasaray at the Bernabéu, where he completed 95% of his 76 passes. Of those, only one pass was attempted into the box and was not completed, though he was very accurate in his passing in and around the midfield and looking to move the ball forwards into the final third.
However, his passing range is one area where there is a substantial difference with Pogba which works in the Frenchman’s advantage. Pogba makes 28% more passes in the final third per 90 minutes, in addition to producing more than two and a half times as many passes into the box during a match. That incision in attack may be the factor that persuades Zidane that Pogba is a requirement, providing the missing link between midfield and attack, but it is an area that Valverde continues to improve upon.
Key to the transition
Where Valverde lacks the attacking threat of Pogba in his passing, he does compensate for it with the role that he plays in transitions, bringing the ball forward more clinically than almost anybody else in the Real Madrid squad.
Like Pogba, Valverde is keen to pick the ball up from deep and carry it forward, with Valverde recording 1.27 progressive runs per 90 minutes, not far off Pogba’s 1.52 in a system that allows him far more freedom. That explains why his dribbles are far more frequent, at 5.63 dribbles per match, compared to 2.3 for Valverde, despite completing only 2.3% more dribbles.
Valverde is not afraid to run forwards and take men on, as was shown against Granada, where he burst forward, taking the midfield out of the game and drawing two Granada defenders towards him to create space for Eden Hazard who would go on to score after Valverde fed him through with a through ball after completing his run.
The same is true for his country, Uruguay, where he plays an essential role in the transition and particularly on the counter-attack, which is even more common than at club level. This is reflected in that for Uruguay he makes 1.61 progressive runs per match, a slight increase. Here, like at club level, his youth and energy in midfield are crucial and he is given an even more important role with only two men playing in attack in a front two.
There, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani will typically spread wide as Valverde comes through centrally, particularly on the counter-attack as Óscar Tabárez prefers. This splits the defenders and opens up more space for Valverde, who will then look to pick out one of the forwards at the right time to find a way through.
Valverde’s technical abilities are clear and evident through this ability, one which is key for both club and country. It is one of the ways in which he brings real value to his side and helps to speed up their build-up play, being more clinical on the counter-attack and helping to break down sides who defend with a low block.
Pogba or Valverde?
What is cear when comparing the two is that Valverde is a more rounded player, whereas Pogba does offer more incision in the final third primarily down to his passing and vision. That is exactly what Real Madrid have been lacking at times this season, so it can certainly still be argued that the World Cup winner is what Los Blancos need if they are to become a dominant continental force once again.
The challenge for Zidane would be just how he could combine Pogba and Valverde in the same side. Valverde is clearly the natural fit for his current approach and so fighting to secure the investment for Pogba would surely suggest a significant change in tactical set-up. If so, where will that leave Valverde?
A player with an abundance of talent, Valverde will form the foundations of Zidane´s new era at the club and that much has been clear almost ever since his appointment. The future of Pogba could have a lot to say in just what kind of a role he plays. If Zidane is to stick with a midfield three, Valverde’s impressive development could be the factor that Florentino Pérez uses to persuade his coach not to invest millions in the Frenchman.