Football is a game of amnesia, where the triumphs and acclaim of yesterday’s victor are the next day swiftly appropriated and wrought finely into a flogging cane by their rivals. It is a game of forgetting, in real time—ah yes, he deserved to have been sent off, but he should have been too—just as it is over longer periods.
The time we have seen dilate, pulled by the gravity of so many trophies won, is such at Real Madrid that Zinedine Zidane already seems an old head at the gaffer’s berth. It has been only 18 months, in fact, since he took the seat, though it seems longer because he has delivered seven titles in that span. It was only 18 months ago, in fact, that his Real Madrid were still the villains of the La Liga melodrama, still the corpulent and gout-riddled generalissimo to the Blaugrana’s bread-dispensing, heart-winning, republican Més que un club.
Time and a flash of silver has a habit of making football fans forget such history, for on the night of August 16th, 2017, the Santiago Bernabeu—and, if they were in a mood to offer such largesse, those cules in attendance, too—rose to salute a new prince. After flashing a positively brilliant strike into one of the home nets, the type that strands the keeper in awe, Marco Asensio ran for joy. His manager, who never knew such sustained success as the talisman of the Meringues as he does now as their Sergei Diaghilev, simply broke into one of those enigmatic smiles.
For Zidane and Asensio alike, they have each brought tidings of a new regime to the Spanish capital. The Bernabeu rose just as the 21-year-old Palma native continues his own ascent. Over the course of the two-legged Spanish Super Cup, Asensio proved himself capable of bottling lightning, a man in his team’s image. The prince conquered like Condé, and the enemy he felled? The mighty Barcelona, reduced to pondering how their former successes were being instead captured by a team in their image.
First, what Marco Asensio represents. Back when Real really worked for their corpulence, their lack of sustained success in the Spanish league owed mostly to their general indifference to synergies—both the synergies within a squad that necessarily burst at the seams when overloaded with star power, and within a wider set-up.
In contrast, the Barcelona squads of the Pep and pre-Pep eras were discreet, relying on internal promotion for fluidity and continuity, with at least as eager an appetite for youth development as for flexing their no-less-considerable financial muscle.
Now, though, roles are reversed, and it is Barcelona pursuing the all-market approach, bewildered and left floundering in the wake of other clubs’ larger pockets, just as they appear unable to appoint a manager capable of translating their team’s potential into the expected results.
Whether Zidane is a tactical genius is yet to really be assessed. His Real squads largely work in straight lines and curved balls, with handy and often heady positional interchange facilitated by their clutch, star players—but it is inarguable that he is, in stance and aura, an individual capable of presiding over his team. This aura, the seeming calm of the Real camp since his appointment, and the success they have found since he took the helms, are all mutually enriching pieces.
The blood of this method is the emerging development of a contingent of homegrown players, most of them Spanish, at Real. The club is clearly planning their succession as an attacking force, and as a result, have few needs to dip into the expensive transfer market.
While it may yet prove their alienation of Alvaro Morata was a misstep, especially given how he set about confirming all of his own considerable credentials in his blood-splattered league debut for Chelsea, helping them claw two-thirds of the way out of a hole of their own making, Real’s shelves are quite well-stocked.
After Marco Asensio comes Dani Ceballos, Nacho, Isco, Jesús Vallejo, and the still-young Dani Carvajal. Vinícius Júnior looms, too, an absurd specter on the fringes of the new yé-yé.
There is a quality about these players unlike the more pious Catalan generation that bodied Spain’s finest hours as an international force, whose personnel still litter the squad lists of world-class clubs throughout Europe. These players are still the fruit of a Spanish system that yields to technique, but they have something of the furia roja about them. They play with the confidence of their birthright; Asensio’s quality of channel movement, his tenacity, and his finishing all suggest his technique has a more imperial eye.
The exciting thing about the emergence of Asensio is not merely that he hints at the health of that prolific quality in the waning days of the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry. The truly exciting thing about Asensio is that he has about him a kind of mythic patina that is the signature of greatness, the cousin of the feeling one gets when scanning back over old World Cup programs and seeing those names—Hidetkguti, Leonidas, Meazza, Cubillas—whose achievements decorate a more remote period of footballing history. Asensio emerged completely unexpectedly, the avatar of a switch in our perceptions of Real, now amidst a stellar youth movement, and Barcelona, staid and in disrepair.
Asensio has now scored in the debut match of each of the five competitions he has played in for Real. His triumph over early growth deficiencies places him already in the lineage of Garrincha and Messi. He rounded off Madrid’s duodecima, capping a scoresheet charted by Cristiano Ronaldo, with a replica of Ronaldo’s own second goal for Real’s fourth. He scored a screamer in the first Super Cup leg against Barcelona, and then an equally stunning sister in the second. Though he did not yet exist, for all intents and purposes, to his club when they were destroyed 4-0 in Benitez’s Clasico, the night that proved the catalyst for Zidane’s ascension to the helm, his star is now in undeniable flight as he and his manager have just destroyed Barcelona in what is unlikely to be their—or, for that matter, Valverde’s—last Clasico.
We don’t often note these kinds of symmetries, but given the way Marco Asensio hoards them, we simply cannot ignore them any longer. Perhaps we hold back now from hitching ourselves to Asensio’s star, as the supernovas of Messi and Ronaldo begin their steady but not given voyage out of our galaxy, but we don’t need to hold back with Marco. He certainly isn’t.