The opening match of Group B in this seasons Euro U21 Championship was a huge event for the Maceodonia U21 side as they reached a major international tournament for the first time in their history.
This was made all the more impressive by the fact that the Macedonian side was made up in the most part by domestic based players. The experience that these young players will gain from playing against top level players will stand them in good stead as part of their development cycle.
Expectations for the young Macedonian side will be relatively low having been drawn in a group including heavyweights such as Spain and Portugal as well as the always competitive Serbia.
Even with lowered expectations there was still a sense of excitement in the Macedonian camp prior to their opening match against Spain. The players selected of the match will have performed their own individual and collective warm up routines and had their tactical instructions reiterated by the coaching team. The national anthems were played and adrenaline would have been running through their bodies. They took their initial positions on the field…..and then they looked across halfway to the Spanish players arrayed before them, Spanish players that were already first team ready and who had been indoctrinated in the now famous Spanish style of play.
The match went as expected with the Spanish running out 5-0 winners but the 90 minutes were dominated by a single name, Marco Asensio the Dutch/Spanish midfielder of Real Madrid. Three goals for Asensio tell part of the story but more than just the goal scoring prowess Asensio controlled the game and dictated the tempo in a manner which evoked memories of Thiago at this tournament 4 years previously.
It is somewhat fitting given the nature of his finishing that Asensio was named after the Dutch forward Marco Van Basten. Unlike his namesake however Asensio operates from a deeper position, comfortable across the central or attacking midfield strata, both centrally and wide.
The performance from the young Spaniard in this match set the standard for the rest of the tournament and was impressive enough to warrant a closer look.
In all honesty it would be remiss to not start with the three goals that Asensio scored in this match. Such was the diversity in his strikes and the quality of the finishes.
At club level he is not renowned as a goal scorer although in truth his exposure to the first team has been somewhat limited since he joined Real Madrid from Real Mallorca in 2014. Loan spells back at Mallorca and then at Espanyol cemented his place as a hot prospect in the Spanish system but breaking in to the first team picture at Real Madrid is a whole other challenge.
Whilst he may not be an out and out goalscorer he does display fantastic technique when striking a football either when passing or crossing the ball and this is something that can be translated in to finishing as he gains more experience and settles in a position of his own.
For this match we saw Asensio initially play in the left half space where he would link in with the forwards. As the match progressed in to the second half Asensio would switch over to play in a similar role on the right hand side of the field showing his tactical versatility.
Here we see the moment that the initial attacking movement breaks down for Spain. Instead of pushing straight on to try and score the Spanish side are tactically intelligent enough to reset their structure. As the ball is played back in to the central area of the field it comes to Asensio in space.
The technique with which the young midfielder strikes the ball is superb as he cuts across the ball with the outside of his right foot and arrows the ball across the goalkeeper in the top corner.
The speed of thought and execution in this movement was superb and speaks to the quality of Marco Asensio as an attacking threat.
This goal comes from a high press from the Spanish team as they harass the man in possession for Macedonia and eventually force a mistake.
That the mistake was made in such a dangerous area may speak to the inexperience of the Macedonian defence but the manner in which that mistake was exploited by the Spanish was still extremely impressive.
The ball is worked out to Asensio who has found a pocked of space in the far corner of the penalty area. As the defender moves to engage him and teammates work to provide passing angles we see the quality of Asensio in one on one situations.
He simply faces up the defender and pauses in possession waiting for the defender to make a mistake. When Asensio then shifts the ball to the left he has created the separation and the space in order to blast a finish across the goalkeeper and in to the goal.
This time Spain counter quickly from a rare Macedonian attack and take advantage of the lack or organisation in the Macedonian defence.
Asensio picks the ball up in his own half in acres of space on the right hand side and immediately drives with the ball towards the heart of the Macedonian defence. As he carries the ball forward Spain quickly develop an overload against a poorly organised Macedonian defensive structure.
Instead of looking to pass the ball in to the overload however Asensio instead carries the ball to the edge of the penalty area before finishing with his left foot in to the top corner.
As impressive and disparate as the three goals scored by Asensio were in this match they paled in comparison to the quality of his combination play in the centre of the field. The young Real Madrid player was everywhere all at once dictating the tempo and direction of play and continually offering passing options and angles to his teammates to allow Spain to retain possession and penetrate through the oppositions defensive structure.
He appeared to have freedom to operate on any of the three lines in the midfield structure (defensive, central, attacking) and would prove to be exceptionally difficult to mark for the Macedonian defenders.
This clip encapsulates the importance of Marco Asensio to the Spanish build up as over the 24 second period he gives short accurate passes several times, the key however is that he is always open to take a pass back to support his teammates and allow Spain to retain comfortable possession.
This was not however possession for possession’s sake. Instead Asensio was probing for a gap in the defensive structure. Spain retain the ball in this area hoping that their opponents will over commit themselves and break their defensive structure,
This form of build up play is at times misconstrued as ‘tiki-taka’ but in truth there is a very good reason for the passing patterns.
This time we have Asensio linking the play higher up the field against an already stretched Macedonian defence and the difference is tangible.
Instead of maintaining possession and looking at the safe option he immediately identifies that there is an opportunity in the wide area for the fullback to be isolated one on one against his defensive counterpart. Asensio immediately turns the ball out in to the wide area so that his side have an increased opportunity of penetrating in to the opposition penalty are.
The third example shows another aspect of Asensio’s passing range as he takes possession out in the wide left area of the field.
Once again the Macedonian defensive structure was stretched and there were attacking runners attacking space ahead of the ball. As with the previous example Asensio took little time in making a decision when he identified an opportunity to penetrate behind the lines of the oppositions defensive structure.
The angled through ball from the left hand side is perfectly weighted for the onrushing attacker to take in his stride. This move eventually breaks down and play is reset, from that reset Asensio is able to score his first goal of the match.
A very strong performance from the Spanish as a whole showed that they deserved their billing as early favourites for the competition, as well as highlighting the lack of top class experience for the majority of Macedonian players.
Marco Asensio stood out in a team that included the likes of Hector Bellerin and Saul and his performance was a credit to his ability and work rate. With a wand of a left foot and tactical flexibility and intelligence in abundance Asensio will prove to be a difficult proposition for any defence in this tournament.
It remains to be seen whether he will be given first team minutes next season by Real Madrid or whether he will again go out on loan, if the latter option is taking however expect a long line of potential suitors to form.