Marco Asensio's early PSG form suggests Real Madrid had an answer to their No.9 problem right under their nose

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Marco Asensio has been a revelation in a central role for Paris Saint-Germain, keeping big-money signing Goncalo Ramos out of the side

Marco Asensio is not a striker. At least, that's what we were told.

Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti, at various points last year, had a hole to fill through the middle. First, Karim Benzema was injured. Then, Rodrygo picked up a knock. Meanwhile Alvaro Rodriguez, despite scoring a memorable last-minute header to equalise in the Madrid derby, wasn't trusted to play 90 minutes as a pure No.9.

Asensio, for his part, never really had the chance to prove himself leading the line. Instead, Ancelotti favoured the Spaniard as an occasional right-winger, an emergency presence who has never quite reached the heights of his early, pre-knee-injury career. It made sense, then, that Asensio was allowed to leave without being handed a new deal. Ancelotti couldn't really fit him in the side, while the presumptive arrival of other key players would have made him an expensive backup.

Now, it appears, Ancelotti might have made the wrong call. Asensio, now of PSG, has been tasked with playing through the middle for Luis Enrique's side — and has done so with aplomb. The Spaniard has scored 2, set up 1, and been a constant source of chance creation in the role where Ancelotti simply would not play him. It has become clear, albeit in just a month of play, that Madrid might have let the wrong guy go.

  1. A messy summer in Madrid

    A messy summer in Madrid

    Madrid, of course, weren't to know this at the time. Their whole summer, in fact, was a bit of a mess. Things started well with the pre-arranged arrival of Jude Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund, but quickly took a turn. Karim Benzema was allured by the big money of the Saudi Pro League, while Kylian Mbappe, a potential target, elected to stay at PSG — and might even extend his stay if the Parisians enjoy a successful 2023-24 campaign.

    Los Blancos, in turn, went after a number of attacking players, but never signed a reliable striker. Joselu, brought in from Espanyol, is the kind of auxiliary option most mid-table sides would love to have. Arda Guler, snatched from under the nose of a complacent Barcelona, is more right-winger than out-and-out striker. Brahim Diaz, finally given a shot to impress after a two-year stint at AC Milan, has much the same problem.

    They reportedly made a massive bid for a yet-to-be-named top-tier striker. But no deal was ever agreed. Bellingham has been the unlikely provider in attack so far, with five in four games for Los Blancos. Still, despite his fine form, there are no guarantees that he can fill such a role long term. This is an elite, do-it-all centre-midfielder who can nick a goal, not a striker who has been used out of place for years. Madrid, then, have a problem.

  2. A poor World Cup for Spain
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    A poor World Cup for Spain

    In a sense, it's hard to criticise them for not finding a solution. Ancelotti, 24 major trophies and all, is a reasonably good manager. When he elects not to deploy a player at any given position, he probably knows what he's talking about.

    Luis Enrique is perhaps deserving of the same tactical respect. Although he is not as accomplished of a coach as Ancelotti, this is still a Champions League winning manager who set up one of the most dominant attacking sides in recent memory in trophy-laden 2014-15 Barcelona. Trebles, contrary to popular belief, are not so easily won.

    But, ironically, Luis Enrique has been here before. He was an ardent supporter of an out-of-form Asensio during the World Cup, and deployed the player as a centre-forward for three out of four of Spain's games — and brought him off the bench in another. In those contests, Asensio had 10 shots, put two on goal, and scored just once.

    He was worryingly uninvolved in play, too. Spain routinely pinged the ball around their opponents, amassing over 60 percent possession in every game. Asensio still didn't see the ball much, amassing his most touches, 53, in a 7-0 battering of Costa Rica to open the tournament. Here was a right-winger awkwardly deployed as a centre-forward, and proving remarkably ineffective in the process. Spain's lack of finishing proved costly in their round of 16 exit, and Asensio was certainly among those to blame.

  3. A turnaround for PSG

    A turnaround for PSG

    Many were puzzled, then, when Luis Enrique once again called on Asensio to start through the middle when he took the PSG job in late June. The Spaniard was deployed as a centre-forward for each of his four preseason starts, and only found the back of the net once — an inconsequential finish during the 88th minute of a 3-0 rout of Jeonbuk FC. PSG, certainly, were short of striking options, but Hugo Ekitike had impressed in brief spells for the Parisians, and seemed more deserving of a look than his Spain counterpart.

    Luis Enrique changed his mind for the Parisians' drab draw to open the season, but moved Asensio back to a central role for their third fixture. The results were impressive. This time, Asensio was immensely influential. With Mbappe on his left and Ousmane Dembele on the right, Asensio roamed and linked play expertly. He wasn't expected to score as much as facilitate, find the right spaces and allow the legs and trickery of Mbappe and Dembele to do the hard work. He scored the opener against Lens — a fine curled effort — and provided two goal contributions a week later against Lyon.

    Asensio's numbers in possession were remarkably similar to those he recorded for Spain nine months before. He amassed 45 touches against Lens, and just 38 against Lyon. But he had space to operate in, and with PSG stretching opponents on the counter, Asensio was seldom forced to play away from goal. The result was the Spaniard at his best — influential when on the ball, and clinical in the right moments. It's exactly the kind of player Real Madrid need.

  4. His long term future?

    His long term future?

    This could all change rather quickly, though. PSG spent big this summer, and signed two No.9s to round out their squad. Goncalo Ramos — who disappointed on his PSG debut — was brought in from Benfica. Meanwhile, long-term target and friend of Mbappe's, Randal Kolo Muani arrived from Frankfurt. Both are young, proven goalscorers who would start through the middle for most teams in Europe. These are not the players that Asensio should be in the squad ahead of.

    But there's little room elsewhere. Dembele, although injury prone, is probably too talented to drop on the right. Mbappe isn't losing his place any time soon. And Enrique is likely too much of a 4-3-3 loyalist to try Asensio in a deeper role — one he wouldn't be an ideal fit for, anyway.

    Instead, then, Asensio might keep almost €150 million worth of strikers out of the team. Kolo Muani is just returning to fitness, while Ramos will need time to adjust to a new league. And perhaps there's something to be said for depth, too. Kolo Muani and Ramos could be expensive backups, but with Champions League and Coupe de France football — as well as what could be a surprisingly tough Ligue 1 slate — the Parisians will need legs.

    Until then, Asensio will likely be given his chance through the middle. And what seemed an unlikely experiment might just become a long-term solution, as well as a signal to the Spanish capital that they might have let the wrong player leave.