As international call-ups go, Alex Grimaldo is long gone.
In the year Since leaving Barcelona’s B team in 2015, the 28-year-old has made 321 senior appearances – 40 of them in the Champions League – scoring 108 goals (35 goals, 73 assists) along the way. A four-time Primeira Liga winner with Benfica, only three players in Portugal’s top-flight history have assisted more goals and only five defenders have scored more goals.
But for Spain, he is always at the back of the queue.
Ironically, it was his departure from the Iberian Peninsula that finally caught his attention back home. Grimaldo’s goalscoring form cannot be ignored, with 6 goals and 4 assists in 983 minutes in the Bundesliga as Bayern Munich won the title. Spain’s first European Championship qualifier against Cyprus on Thursday was predictable, as football’s most reliable left-footed man provided the assist in a 3-1 win over Michael Oyarzabal.
This is Luis de la Fuente Spain: practical, low profile and realistic expectations.
Last season, only five players in Europe’s top 7 leagues provided expected assists (xA) with a select group of players including Grimaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Dusan Tadic, Antoine Griezmann, Kevin De Bruyne and Lionel Messi.
Overall, the full-back has created a total of 12.6 xG chances for his teammates in league football, making nine assists across the board.
So much of Grimaldo’s creative work is based on a consistent and methodical technique. He keeps a close eye on the balance and uses every spare moment to scan the sound of words.
Even as a left-back, only two players – Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka and Ajax’s Tadic (who moved to Fenerbahce in the summer) – took more touches than Grimaldo’s 1,231 in the attacking third last season. He is so used to working in sophisticated environments that he doesn’t let the blood rush to his head.
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Pictured below, in a match against Estoril in November 2022, Grimaldo hugs his side’s touchline and receives a pass from Florentino Luis to set up Benfica’s five-man defence.
There are just three seconds remaining from Luiz’s cross but Grimaldo increases the timing with a perfect first touch, meaning he can wrap his left boot around the ball.
As the ball approached, he looked up to assess his options, took five steps to settle the ruck, blocked the defender and curled a perfect shot past Petar Musa to head home.
Even at full speed, Grimaldo is careful in his presentation.
Note how early Benefica’s Champions League last 16 second leg against Club Brugge in March, below, began his forward journey in anticipation of an overlap.
Grimaldo looked up for the first time as he adjusted his pace as the ball was headed into the path by Fredrik Auresnes. He slows down, turns up, before taking four small steps to finish a low pass to Goncalo Ramos.
It may sound simple, but Grimaldo always makes sure he has strong feet and a clear plan before releasing the ball.
After starting the attack with a short pass in his own half, he could be the creator, getting into the penalty area against Maritimo in March.
David Neres knew exactly where he was when he got hold of the ball, glancing over his shoulder six times as he made a lunging run from deep, setting up a perfect backheel for the Brazilian to slot home.
Grimaldo’s quality left foot means he can hang and swing a cross wide after teasing it in, but his technical ability and attention to detail also make him dangerous in tight spaces.
Such close control and spatial awareness allow Grimaldo to play multiple roles in the team’s build-up, which has proved crucial at his new club Bayern Munich.
Starting on the left side of the back 5 alongside two tall, wide centre-backs who drop deep into midfield, the Spaniard’s versatility creates space for others to attack.
Grimaldo usually plays at left-back when the team is deep in possession, allowing Jeremy Frimpong to push forward on the opposite side, as was the case against Heidenheim in September.
When Florian Wirtz gets into space and has the opportunity to receive the ball, Leverkusen are prepared to come out if they lose the ball, with four natural defenders in good defensive positions.
Grimaldo can be an outlet himself, pushing high and wide, as he often did at Benfica, but from time to time he also jumps into midfield to make passing sequences.
Here, winger Nathan Tella is in a wide position during the Europa League group stage match against Qarbagh in November. Grimaldo moved in alongside Wirtz to provide a passing option between the lines and the ball.
Glancing back to see the cover, he continued his forward run, attacking the left half and finally getting into the penalty area and sweeping home Wirtz with the ball.
Alonso’s rotation system allows Grimaldo to work on his scoring instincts. His different nature in the central defender role gives him more chances to get into the goal himself.
This offensive switch is reflected in his early numbers this season.
Grimaldo averaged 12.2 assists per game last season – Constantly making himself available and finding space to receive the ball forward – while completing 6.3 such passes, his crosses per game dropped from 6.6 to 3.5 per game.
At the same time, there has been a significant increase in the frequency of shots this season, rising from 1.2 to 1.8 per game. His shooting map, with 11 attempts from the penalty area, is more advanced and highlights his central positioning – showing how he can slow down loose balls or the opposition’s full-back to score.
The images in the upper right corner of the graphic above show why the login was successful.
The quality of his shooting opportunities means that the average player can score eight goals and hit the ball 2.5 times as well as any other footballer in the world.
Again the secret is in technique and topspin. Just as he puts it in from deep, Grimaldo flicks the ball and brushes it up with his boot.
Take the following three examples, all from very similar positions on the pitch.
The test shows how Grimaldo uses the inside of his shoe to kick the ball, kicking directly with his left foot and quickly lifting it up to create the diving effect. He couldn’t get the height he wanted and his effort went into the keeper’s arms.
The second bowls the ball into the middle and the keeper roots and leaves it in place as he pulls the ball out. Against Union Berlin earlier this month, his effort deflected off the head of keeper Frederik Rohneau and into the far corner.
Grimaldo unsurprisingly scored two free-kicks for his new club, the other two hitting the woodwork. He created four scoring opportunities and assisted the extra goal from a corner.
The more time he has to focus on how to hit the ball, the more devilish his delivery becomes.
While the road to Euro 2024 is long and unpredictable, Grimaldo’s versatility and set-piece specialty will give him a good chance at left-back, which Spain will not be short of options.
This has already been the most successful campaign to taste defeat for club or country this season. But for all his activity and reliable batting, the goals never dry up and the question of a starting place grows stronger.
Grimaldo took his time and his technique was brilliant.
(Top photo: Daniel Roland/AFP via Getty Images)