Jese Rodriguez: Real Madrid's next rising star
What a weekend it was in Spain. Atletico Madrid went top of La Liga for the first time in 18 years, one day after the tragic death of its former coach Luis Aragones, the man who set Spain's national team on the path to its current era of dominance. Barcelona lost its first league game at home since April 2012, going down 3-2 to Valencia. And Cristiano Ronaldo was sent off as Real Madrid dropped points in a draw at Athletic Bilbao.
Amid all this drama, you could be forgiven for missing the impact that a 20-year-old Spaniard had at Real Madrid. On Sunday night, Jese Rodriguez made the first La Liga start of his career and scored. One week earlier, he had netted the winner in the Copa del Rey quarterfinal win over Espanyol, whose coach, former Mexican national team manager Javier Aguirre, was impressed.
"He has an enormous, brilliant future ahead of him," Aguirre said at a press conference after the game.
Marca ran the headline: 'Make way for Jese', and wrote, "He is not afraid of facing up to the Big Guns of La Liga."
Jese has scored five goals this season and in the league, his three strikes have come at Camp Nou (Barcelona), Mestalla (Valencia, the late winner in a come-from-behind win) and San Mames (Athletic Bilbao), all seen as among the toughest away grounds in Spain. That has not fazed the first player from Real Madrid's cantera, the youth academy, who looks like becoming a first-team regular since Iker Casillas broke through 15 years ago.
Jese has taken advantage of Gareth Bale's physical condition, with the Welshman unable to string together a few games as worries grow that his back injury might be more serious than first thought.
After impressing as a substitute, Jese has also overtaken Isco as coach Carlo Ancelotti's go-to replacement for either Bale or Ronaldo, as he can play out wide on either side of Madrid's favored 4-3-3 system.
"He is fast, powerful and has a great change of pace," Julen Lopetegui, youth team coach for the national side, told So Foot.
The path to the Madrid first-team has not always been a smooth one, though. At an Under-18 tournament in Maspalomas, near his hometown, Jese was sent off for Spain in the first game and suspended for the rest of the tournament. In a derby against Atletico Madrid, he was once banned for 15 games for assaulting the referee.
But Real Madrid stuck with him: in 2011-12 he scored 10 goals for Real Madrid Castilla, the youth team that plays in Segunda, and that summer was top scorer as Spain won the Under-19 European Championship. Last season, he scored 22 goals in 38 games for Castilla and starred for Spain at the Under-20 World Cup.
Real Madrid assistant coach Zinedine Zidane has become Jese's mentor and the player was quick to acknowledge the Frenchman's input on his game after he scored at Valencia.
"Zidane is a daily support for me," he told the press after the game.
Jese's rise to prominence has coincided with Isco, signed from Malaga for €30 million last summer, falling out of favor. Isco's style of play, not to mention his mobility and athleticism, does not suit the 4-3-3 system that Ancelotti prefers. When Isco does play, often as the false No. 9 as a sub for Karim Benzema, he has looked short of confidence, and a place in Spain's World Cup squad looks further away than ever -- not least because of the form of Koke (Atletico Madrid) and Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich) in similar positions.
As for Jese, is it too early, after only one league start, to suggest he has a chance of a place in national team coach Vicente del Bosque's plans? He is certainly seen as a Spain player of the future, and given that Pedro and Jesus Navas seem to have the wide positions locked down, it might be too soon for him. But Del Bosque knows how to address weaknesses, and if there is a concern that the reigning world champion lacks directness, Jese might just be the player to solve it.
Real Madrid has been waiting a long time for a new homegrown star. Just months after smashing the transfer world record on Bale, it may have found him.