I told Fede Valverde that if he was not able to score more than 10 goals this season, I’d have to tear up my coaching licence.Carlo Ancelotti back in September 2022
And a brave claim it was. Valverde had failed to score a single league goal in 2021-22, and had managed only six across 148 previous appearances for Real Madrid. Yet the Uruguayan has quickly ensured that his manager would not be having any sleepless nights, racking up 12 goals in all competitions this term.
Goalscoring excluded, the 24-year-old has emerged as one of Los Blancos’ most influential figures. Only Eduardo Camavinga (54) has made more appearances than the Uruguayan in all competitions (52), while only Vinícius Júnior (4486) has played more minutes than him (4191).
Valverde has become Ancelotti’s safe bet.
The 24-year-old has been a permanent fixture in the Madrid side over the last 12 months, and played a key role in last term’s Champions League run – culminating in an assist for Vinícius’ winning goal in the final.
Valverde’s versatility has been one of the team’s greatest assets this season. The Uruguayan has mostly operated as a ‘false right winger’, alongside Karim Benzema and Vinícius in the front three. This enables him to offer support in the final third, though he also provides disciplined defensive cover – particularly compared to Vinícius on the opposite flank.
Valverde regularly tracks back to double up as an emergency right-back, so his presence gives Madrid additional defensive security. He willingly drops in to cover for right-back Dani Carvajal when he makes marauding runs down the line, and averages an impressive 4.9 recoveries per 90 in La Liga this season. Additionally, his tactical flexibility allows Ancelotti to alternate between systems mid-game, as he can operate out wide or in his more natural position as a right-sided number 8 in central midfield.
The 24-year-old has been described as a ‘three-lunged midfielder’ due to his tireless running and eagerness to cover every blade of grass, which has proved a good way to earn the love of the fans at the Bernabéu. That said, he had arguably already earned that adoration in the Spanish Super Cup final in 2020 against city rivals Atlético Madrid. With the game tied at 0-0 in the dying embers of extra time, Valverde was sent off for his cynical foul on Álvaro Morata as the striker went through on the Madrid goal. Real went on to win 4-1 on penalties, while Valverde was named as the MVP of the tournament despite (or perhaps, in the eyes of Real’s fans, because of) his dismissal.
The Uruguayan possesses an innate ability to read the game, and almost always seems to be in the right place at the right time. So far in La Liga this season, Valverde has broken up an opposition attack and launched one for his own side that’s led to a shot on 30 separate occasions. Only Dani Parejo (40), team-mates Toni Kroos (39) and Vinícius (32), and Gonzalo Plata (32) have managed that more often in the league.
Valverde is also having a much greater impact on the attacking aspects of Madrid’s play. His 12 goals across all competitions this season is twice as many as he managed in his previous four campaigns at the club (six). His improvement this season is particularly impressive considering that in 2021-22 he attempted the fourth-most shots of any player not to record a single goal (34). A staggering 27 of those efforts came from outside the box, with Valverde posting an expected goals tally of just 0.94 across the entire season. That was the second lowest of players to have had 25+ total shots (only ahead of Rayo Vallecano’s Fran García, on 0.91).
But Valverde’s troubles in front of goal did not discourage Ancelotti. He saw beyond the numbers and spotted the potential in his midfielder. He was so sure he went as far as making the aforementioned wager on a potential retirement if Valverde was not to hit 10 goals this season.
The Uruguayan got off the mark in the second game of the season as Real thrashed Celta Vigo 4-1, and the goals just kept on coming. Only Benzema (29), Vinícius (23) and Rodrygo (16) have scored more for Los Blancos in 2022-23 than Valverde.
The 24-year-old has had 104 shots on goal in all competitions – the sixth-most of any La Liga player, while no player has taken more shots from outside the box than Valverde (65), who clearly still has an eye for the spectacular. It appears he has worked on his long-range shooting, with his seven league goals across 2022-23 coming from an xG total of just 4.03. The difference of 2.97 is the third highest overperformance compared to expected goals in La Liga this season, behind only Real team-mate Marco Asensio (3.52) and Celta Vigo’s Gabri Veiga (3.39).
Valverde has also provided six assists in all competitions this season, including one in the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Chelsea. The Uruguayan tip-toed through the Blues’ defence, before teeing up Rodrygo to tap home. It rounded off a stunning performance from Valverde and saw him receive the Player of the Match award.
The midfielder has posted an expected assists tally of 8.8 across all competitions this season, which is the fourth most of all La Liga players in 2022-23. He has also created 74 chances from open play, with only three players from La Liga providing more.
Valverde is calm and composed on the ball, and can help his team play their way out of trouble against a press, and he is equally happy receiving between the lines. He is also integral to his team’s deadly counter-attacks, looking to pick out swift, progressive passes in transition, averaging 12 forward passes per 90 across all competitions this term.
He stands out more, however, for his ability to moving play up-field with powerful on-the-ball runs. He has made 150 entries into the penalty area in all competitions this season, the fourth-most of any Real Madrid player. His lung-busting runs with the ball at his feet have become customary viewing, sometimes even starting inside his own half. This is perhaps most typified by his goal against Mallorca earlier this season, when he collected the ball in his own half, before breezing past three Mallorca players and unleashing an emphatic strike into the top corner with his weaker foot.
Valverde has played most of his recent football in midfield, with Rodrygo operating on the right of the front three. This switch has given Ancelotti’s side greater protection in the central areas – something which came to good use in their Champions League semi-final first leg draw with Manchester City. The Uruguayan gave the Madrid midfield some much-needed legs, and he played an important role in keeping City out as they built up long periods of pressure.
“I’ve always said that where I feel most comfortable is (on the) inside,” said Valverde. “However, when I’ve played as a winger I’ve also enjoyed playing there and scored a lot of goals. I try to do my best in any position, the priority is to play a lot and contribute with goals and assists.”
There is no doubt that the 24-year-old is developing into one of Madrid’s most important players, and with such a selfless attitude, it is clear to see why.
Carlo Ancelotti’s bet on Fede Valverde has more than paid off.