It’s not the first time Asensio has starred in a number nine role, but it was surprising. In June, Luis Enrique signed him twice as a centre-forward and deployed him in a similar role, although those two appearances only totaled 34 minutes of playing time. He also played the role with sparingly as a substitute for Real Madrid at times, most notably in the Copa del Rey loss to Athletic Club in early 2022.
In this position, he produced one of his best performances in recent memory, playing a key role in linking midfield and attack. It wasn’t easy either. Luis Enrique described Spain’s performance as ‘not inaccurate, worse than that’ in a game in which Spain’s passing accuracy was 88.35%, the fourth lowest percentage of any Spanish game since Vicente del Bosque resigned after the 2016 World Cup.
Asensio’s role was partly a false nine, but partly also a number 10. Playing almost like the forward of a diamond midfielder, as can be seen in his heatmap below, he has dropped more in the middle third of the field and tended to move through to the right.
He dominated play in those areas and was effective, not that he did Ferran Torres much service on the right flank. In these areas he looked alert and dragged the Swiss defenders everywhere. They were clearly as surprised as anyone to mark Asensio as a false nine rather than a more traditional target man like Álvaro Morata or Borja Iglesias.
There’s a lot to be said for Asensio’s pass card. As can be seen here, adding to its heatmap, its average position was very deep. In fact, he was almost next to the average position of Gavi (number nine) and Marcos Llorente (number six), the two midfielders who had the most freedom within midfield three. He was much deeper than his replacement, Borja Iglesias (number 17).
His passing relationships reflected this. He exchanged a total of 14 passes with the two wingers (10 with Ferran Torres, four with Pablo Sarabia), while he exchanged 23 passes with defenders Eric García (12) and César Azpilicueta (11).
It’s that kind of passing that would lead to his involvement in the Spain goal. He fell deep, collecting the ball from Eric García, then turned with great technique to dribble past his marker, exploiting space in the Swiss back line, then feeding in Jordi Alba to convert from the left flank.
Such a move to move into a deeper role is possible thanks to the kind of wingers Spain were deploying. In Ferran Torres and Pablo Sarabia, Luis Enrique’s strikers would tend to be the more forward players and drift into more central positions, allowing full-backs to break through in more forward positions. That’s exactly what happened with Jordi Alba’s goal.
At Real Madrid, on the other hand, wingers tend to stay in wide positions. Vinicius Junior, for example, is more of a figure close to the touchline than Karim Benzema is in the squad. While Dani Carvajal and, to a lesser extent, Ferland Mendy are moving forward, they don’t quite overlap in space in the same way. That means it’s a very different type of false nine to fit into Ancelotti’s system.
The other challenge in bringing this to the Bernabéu is that it happened in a very contrasting context. A look at the footage shows how high Switzerland’s defensive line was, allowing Asensio to find himself facing four defenders in the back after circling a man. In contrast, take a look at this example of Rodrygo collecting the ball in a similar position against Mallorca and finding himself facing eight Mallorca defenders.
The reality of the role of false nines at Real Madrid involves a lot of patience and comes up against teams that play with incredibly low blocks most of the time. Asensio’s turn and increased pace was deadly against Switzerland. Against teams like Mallorca, that could see him take a defender or two out of the equation, but he still hits a stalemate.
One of the many reasons why so many people were surprised to see Asensio deployed in this role is that Asensio’s greatest strength is his ability to cut inside and produce a goal attempt from inside. a wide stance. This deprives him of this ability.
A final area of performance to consider, and another that suggests this strong display might not translate to Real Madrid, was Asensio’s defensive contribution. In 63 minutes, Asensio failed to recover a single ball possession. He was the only player who started the game to do so.
In part, this can be attributed to its positioning. By placing himself so deep when in possession of the ball, Asensio was often too far to press on the Swiss defensive line, and that responsibility fell instead to Ferran and Sarabia, but concern came that Asensio seemed to place himself in a no man’s land. when he is no longer in possession.
By positioning himself in a deeper role, he could easily put pressure on the double pivot of Granite Xhaka and Remo Freuler, but he didn’t. Too often he drifted wide, unnecessarily given the presence of Ferran and Sarabia, and left open spaces in the middle. This in turn removed a midfielder from the Spanish trio and would open up spaces behind.
In his last seven appearances in a centre-forward role, he has only made one recovery. For context, Rodrygo made five recoveries in the game against Atlético Madrid. It reflects the difference between the two, with the Brazilian adding to the high-intensity press that killed Atlético so lethally and was deadly in a top three with Fede Valverde and Vinícius.
It was a promising performance from Asensio, who has played more minutes in a game for Spain than he has played for Real Madrid in the nine games so far this season. However, the more you dig into the details of his performance, the more it seems the biggest inspiration Madridistas can take is that a run of games like the World Cup could inflate his value to sell him in. January.
It was, in fact, the kind of performance that shows exactly why Asensio’s future lies elsewhere. There’s a good player in there, but he’s a square peg in a round hole anywhere in this Real Madrid squad. Considering Ancelotti’s preference for Eden Hazard initially and Rodrygo Goes’ impressive form since then, Asensio is unlikely to have a chance in this role. If he does, there is no indication that such an experiment would be a success.