The Spain international, played through on goal by Saúl from inside his own half, had just Thibaut Courtois in his eyeline. As Morata ate up the yards, Federico Valverde chomped up the ground, like Pac-Man in an all-white strip, to stop him. The ball was not there to be won, but the match was.
The 21-year-old midfielder, in just his second season as a full senior player at Real Madrid, did not care for reputations. Just before they entered the penalty area, the Uruguayan sliced Morata down. All man and no ball. A red card followed; then, as he left the field, a pat on the head by Diego Simeone.
Penalties arrived, with Real Madrid prevailing – yet so did compliments from an opposition coach who’d been thwarted. Simeone, cut from the same cloth, although with much sharper scissors as fellow South American Valverde, acknowledged the youngster’s sacrifice: “It was the most important moment of the game,” the Atlético boss claimed of the tackle on Morata. “I told him that anyone would’ve down the same thing in his place. I think giving Valverde man of the match makes all the sense in the world because Valverde won the match with this action.”
Having played alongside and coached some of Uruguay’s finest footballers, Simeone knows the Charrúa spirit more than most.
However, the lines, in that respect, are blurred as far as Valverde is concerned. Yes, he’s from Uruguay, where the fight is valued as much as the football. Yes, that challenge on Morata was brutal and brilliant in equal measure. Yes, he did bash heads with Atlético and Argentina’s Ángel Correa in its immediate aftermath, but there is something more to “Fede” than doggedness and determination.
In his first couple of campaigns as a Real Madrid player, he’s proved to more than one coach that he has what it takes to rub shoulders with the very best and, one day in the future, that he himself will be the best. Or maybe that day is now.
What can you do to follow in the footsteps of Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos? Not much, to be honest. It’s hard to top. It might just be better, though, to reverse roles. Valverde, who has morphed the very shape and system that led Zidane and Real Madrid to so much success, has jumped the queue. At times in his first two seasons in the first-team squad, the Montevideo native has led the way, with Modrić and Kroos trailing behind. And it’s hard to catch up with this Uruguayan when he gets going.
Valverde has something not many possess in great quantities at Real Madrid: speed. It’s what immediately sets him apart from his midfielder competitors. So when he entered the fray still with a few spots of acne on his face, under Julen Lopetegui’s flailing Cristiano Ronaldo-less European champions, he hit the spot for many Madridistas. He brought energy and hunger where, after three successive Champions League titles, there was very little in an ageing squad.
Just a few months before his Real Madrid debut, one of his former coaches hadn’t expected him to go very far at all. “He’s not going to play,” said a frank Clarence Seedorf, who had taken Valverde under his wing during a loan spell at Deportivo. “If you’re lucky, you’ll go to a team like Porto to mature. And if you don’t do well, others will take your place.”
Seedorf certainly had a point. In the two-and-a-half years of Zidane’s first spell as Real Madrid boss, only three academy players made their LaLiga debuts for the club. One of them was his son, Luca. Achraf Hakimi was the only one of the three to make more than one league appearance in that time, too. The order, therefore, was a tall one for Valverde but, fortunately for him, he had a knack of getting noticed.
“When I saw him arrive in the team, he had something different to the rest,” lauded Sergio Reguilón. “The way he walked and his personality showed very good things. I told him that, for me, he was going to be the next Toni Kroos.”
Perhaps it wasn’t the obsession with possession and precise passing that Reguilón was likening his teammate to, but more the German’s longevity and consistency in one of the most pressurised environments in world football. The evidence of that spotlight of scrutiny was in the dugout.
Lopetegui, who had handed Valverde his first-team debut at Real Madrid in October 2018, was sacked by the end of the month; a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Barcelona proving to be the final straw after a couple of months of struggle.
In his place arrived Santiago Solari, a man Valverde knew well. Just days after his 18th birthday, he made the move from Peñarol in Uruguay to the Bernabéu. Well, not quite. Valverde would have to tour the Estadio Alfredo Di Stéfano within Valdebebas beforehand, thrown into the B team, Castilla, from the start of his career in Spain. It was there that he encountered coach Solari.
Over the course of the 2016/17 season with Castilla, Valverde shared a dressing room with Reguilón, Achraf and Martin Ødegaard. The Uruguayan’s form for Castilla was translated to the Under-20 FIFA World Cup in South Korea the following summer, where he collected the Silver Ball for being the second-best player at the tournament. The Golden Ball went home with World Cup-winning captain, Dominic Solanke, in case you were wondering.
While the door to the Real Madrid first team was still barred under Zidane, there was no way Valverde could stay in the Castilla team for another season. A year in A Coruña with Deportivo did the youngster much good. Resilience was one of the lessons taught, as three coaches came and went over the course of the campaign and the great club fell through the trapdoor of relegation.
Not even a month into the 2017/18 season at Riazor and not even a Deportivo debut on his record, Valverde was called up to play for Uruguay’s senior team. Wearing the number 4 in Celeste colours, the 19-year-old rifled Óscar Tabárez’s side in front from 25 yards out in a crucial World Cup qualifier against Paraguay. “Those who said he wasn’t ready don’t know him,” Tabárez smugly told the press afterwards. “Valverde is a phenomenon,” added Luis Suárez.
The Barcelona striker scored twice on Deportivo’s visit to the Camp Nou in December, with Valverde coming off the bench for the final half-hour. After a strong start in Galicia, the midfielder fell away in the second half of the campaign, hampered by injury and irregularity. The role of coach Seedorf, though, cannot be underestimated. “Since he arrived, he’s treated me very well,” Valverde said of his boss. “He’s helped me in everything and, when I was injured, he came to give me advice every morning.”
Maybe the Dutchman could’ve offered tips on how to deal with World Cup omission. Like Seedorf was cut from Marco van Basten’s Netherlands squad for the 2006 World Cup, Valverde was omitted from Tabárez’s final Uruguay selection to go to Russia that summer. “I feel a lot of sadness but I’m very proud of my teammates who are going there to defend the Celeste,” the youngster wrote on social media at the time.
Having played a key role in getting them there, Valverde wouldn’t be on the plane. As fate would have it, Uruguay missed a bit of energy in their timid quarter-final exit at the hands of France. Just saying.
There was also a lack of impetus at club level for Valverde to resolve. Ballon d’Or winner Modrić was, like most of his Real Madrid teammates, suffering at the start of 2018/19. He was being – wrongly now as it turns out – written off.
In-late October, Solari took the reins with whispers of a revolution, and while youngsters like Valverde and Reguilón enjoyed more opportunities than they otherwise might’ve, the former Argentina midfielder was, like Lopetegui, a dead man walking after defeats to Barcelona and Ajax. Valverde did not take the break-up too well: “Thank you for the lessons you taught, the experience you relayed to me and the possibilities you gave me,” he wrote in a farewell message on social media.
In what many were touting as bad news for Real Madrid’s promising starlets, Zidane returned. This was indeed true for Reguilón who, after an impressive debut term in all white, was shipped out to Sevilla on loan in the summer. Another left-back, Ferland Mendy, was part of a €300m shopping spree, though no midfielders were brought in. Zidane, it seemed, was happy with his current crop, including Valverde. “He tells me that he enjoys seeing me play,” the Uruguayan blushed. Zidane, then, was in a growing majority.
Valverde didn’t return from the Copa América in time for Real Madrid’s league openers against Celta Vigo and Real Valladolid but, after that, he was virtually an ever-present. In fact, as with all great players, his absence was noted more than his presence. A 2-2 draw against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League group stages effectively cemented the youngster’s place in the team going forward. Zidane, who is a real sucker for squad rotation, substituted Valverde with the hosts 2-0 up at the Bernabéu.
In the weeks before, the 21-year-old had scored his first two Real Madrid goals, both from the edge of the penalty area. Goals were not his game, though. Valverde’s running power was what was getting his name on the teamsheet week in, week out. It was also what earned him the dainty nickname El Pajarito – “The Little Bird” – as a kid.
At times during the 2019/20 season, Zidane was persuaded, in part by the Uruguayan’s performances, to adopt a midfield four, rather than the usual trio of Casemiro, Modrić and Kroos. Playing on the right of this 4-4-2 system, Valverde really thrived, with bums coming off the Bernabéu seats every time he set off into space with the ball. Credit, very much from the player’s side, landed at the coach’s feet: “It’s not easy to play an inexperienced 21-year-old kid in tough games,” Valverde admitted.
In just his second season in the first team, he would start both Clásicos, both Madrid derbies and the Supercopa final. He didn’t start any of Real Madrid’s three league defeats, nor the second leg of their Champions League tie with Manchester City. In a chock-a-block schedule after lockdown, he started seven of Los Blancos’ final 11 league fixtures as they, unlike Barcelona, held their nerve in the LaLiga title race. “He is one of the great players of this season,” Florentino Pérez gushed.
Alongside the protection of Casemiro, the metronome that is Kroos and the craft and guile of Modrić, Valverde provides the extra ingredient to what can be considered the perfect midfield balance. “My job is to run until I can’t run anymore, until my legs give way,” he said after a win over Real Betis, where he’d opened his goal-scoring account for the 2020/21 season.
Since Cristiano Ronaldo departed for Turin and Gareth Bale shrank into his shell, Real Madrid have, at times, been starved of goals. As the Spanish press regularly point out, the team doesn’t have a goal threat.
“The boss is always telling me to get into the box when I win possession,” Valverde continued in Seville. “He speaks well about the job we do to press the opponent. He asks me to liven up, to attack because I have the physical capability to do it, to break through the lines and get forward. It’s not just down to the strikers to score goals. We have to help from midfield, just the defenders, in order for Real Madrid to win. That’s our job.”
Valverde, then, did his job to a tee in the first Clásico of the campaign, breaking through the lines and smacking the ball past Neto in a 3-1 win at the Camp Nou. “Valverde is as essential as Casemiro,” Zidane stated in November 2020 which, considering there have been only a handful of players as important as the Brazilian within the squad in recent times, is quite the compliment.
In his few seasons as a starter at Real Madrid, Valverde has done quite the growing up. Off the pitch, he became a father aged 21. On it, he’s rubbing shoulders with some of the iconic figures of his childhood and showing a clean pair of heels to opponents in Spain and across Europe.
Diego Forlán, who very matched acted as a father figure to the young midfielder during their spell together at Peñarol, has rather lofty expectations: “I’ll risk saying that he can become in midfield what Sergio Ramos has been as a defender.” Take it from him, if not from me, that this career is worth following. And, like many a defender, you’ve got quite a bit of catching up to do already.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08