Better than Bale?
The eye-catching performances of Jese Rodriguez have been a feature of Real Madrid matches in recent months. Adam Bate examines the stats and discusses the youngster's vast potential with Sky Sports' resident Spanish football expert Guillem Balague. Could Jese eclipse Gareth Bale?
By Adam Bate & Guillem Balague
Last Updated: 25/02/14 11:45pm
Coliseum Alfonso Pérez. February 16th. Fifth minute. Taking the ball in his stride down the left channel, the control is instant. He shifts the ball to his right foot and curls expertly past the Getafe goalkeeper to open the scoring. It's the fifth consecutive start in which the Real Madrid man has found the net so there is an air of inevitability to the goal. The only surprise is that this isn't Cristiano Ronaldo but the pretender to his Bernabeu crown. And that's not world record buy Gareth Bale. Jese Rodriguez is the talk of Madrid now.
The 20-year-old Spaniard has long been identified as an exciting talent. After finishing as the second highest goalscorer in Spain's second division with 22 goals for Real Madrid Castilla last term, he captured a wider audience with his displays at the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey in the summer. Five goals in his first four appearances there led to the following description in FIFA's technical report on the tournament: "Dangerous attacker, quick off the mark, good technique, excels in one-on-one situations." Succinct but accurate.
While Barcelona's La Masia is customarily heralded as the premier youth set-up in Spain, Real's La Fabrica also has an impressive record of producing top-flight players - it's just that they rarely progress within the first team. In the past five years, €91 million has been raised from the sales of La Fabrica talent. Full internationals such as Roberto Soldado, Alvaro Negredo and Javi Garcia have passed through its doors without making much of an impression with the senior side. Under Jose Mourinho, there was the potential risk of Jese's career at the Bernabeu going the same way.
Speaking to Sky Sports' Spanish football expert Guillem Balague, it is clear that Jese's subsequent emergence is not a surprise to some. "I saw him in the Real Madrid B team and he was their best player last season and the season before," Balague told Sky Sports. "I was surprised Jose Mourinho didn't fancy him because he's very much a Mourinho type of player. But Mourinho seems to be very wary of young players coming through, which is a shame because people can then accuse him of buying players rather than developing them. This is a clear case of someone who was overlooked."
Time is of the essence for youngsters at Real. "Ask any coach that Real Madrid has ever had," Balague told Revista de La Liga viewers. "If you want to be a young player breaking into the first team then make sure you are breaking the door down. I think he's done that." Of that there can be no doubt. Firstly, there was the late consolation goal after coming on as a substitute in El Clasico. Following his first introduction to a game before the hour mark, he responded with two assists against Almeria. Then came a late winner in a 3-2 victory against Valencia in the Mestalla.
Finally, coach Carlo Ancelotti gave Jese the chance of a start against Osasuna in the Copa del Rey and the player delivered with a goal. Opportunities are now coming in La Liga and -typically - they are being seized in spectacular fashion. No teething problems and no cautious play when thrown in alongside the big names. There is not even any sign of the hot and cold streaks one might expect to be a feature of the early appearances of a young winger. In fact, Jese scored in six of his first seven starts for Real Madrid. The other? He provided the assist for Angel Di Maria's strike.
So far this season Jese has had to make do with cameo appearances and has only completed the full 90 minutes on three occasions, scoring each time. But if his current form can be reproduced over a longer period, the statistics are exciting. His goals per 90 minutes record is superior to Bale's with only seven players in the entire country boasting a better record - and that includes the likes of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Then there are assists. In this regard, Jese's 'per 90' record is actually superior to Ronaldo and Messi. And Neymar. And Xavi. In fact, among players with four assists or more, only Bale is setting up a team-mate with such regularity. Madridistas are becoming accustomed to such interventions. "Jese isn't a surprise anymore," Ancelotti recently told reporters. "He is already an important player for us and he is playing well."
Such is the excitement surrounding Jese's performances that comparisons with the greats are inevitable. It has been pointed out that Real Madrid's all-time top goalscorer Raul netted 10 in his debut season - Jese already has eight. But it is the comparison with current Real heroes that is particularly intriguing. That confidence and panache cutting in from the left, brings to mind the swaggering brilliance that Ronaldo has exhibited to the world time and again over the past decade.
"He's a little bit like Cristiano Ronaldo," Balague admits. "He's very quick in the first five to 10 metres but he can also maintain his speed for long runs which is lethal for defenders. He's also a great finisher and that's something that he can obviously develop too. It helps to have a good technique - which he has - but there is also that instinct that you're born with.
"In any case, he's a player who can only grow. He's very confident, bordering on arrogance - hence the comparison with Ronaldo. I think in small spaces his technique is better than Ronaldo. Obviously, Ronaldo is much superior in his physique and his goalscoring with both feet and his head, but Jese can certainly get to a very high level.
"I don't know whether he can get to the Ronaldo level eventually, as Jese himself has suggested when he said he wanted to be in the top three in the Ballon d'Or within four years. It's a good attitude but I'm not sure he's got it in him because what takes Ronaldo there is a hunger to continuously improve and a physique that helps him with the brand of football that Real Madrid plays. Jese is not that big but he's got a lot of other attributes."
Against Schalke on Wednesday, Ronaldo's returns from the three-match suspension that helped Jese enjoy an extended run in the team. As a result, the youngster returns to the bench. But is there not a case for his inclusion ahead of Bale? "The Real Madrid team is a little bit political at times," adds Balague. "Bale has produced similar stats to Jese and that has pushed some to say that Jese should be in the line-up. But the president will want Bale in the line-up and if Bale's stats are similar to Jese then he's not doing too badly.
"Jese is better than Bale at the same age. Progression is what takes you to where Bale is at the moment. The stats are similar but the difference is that Jese knows the club well and did not have a difficult pre-season. Let's see what happens next year. I think Bale will still be superior to Jese both in the eyes of the coach and the stats. But in two or three years, I envisage a progression that could equal Bale."
Equalling Bale effectively means that Real Madrid had a potential €100 million man lurking in their reserves all along. Even if he is on the sidelines in Gelsenkirchen this week, with Real competing on three fronts, he will have a significant part to play this season and beyond. Ballon d'Or glory might seem a way off, but... Better technique than Ronaldo? Better than Bale at the same age? All the indications so far suggest that the goal is not unattainable.