That was the combination that led seventh-placed Málaga to a critical home win against fourth-placed Valencia on Monday night. Former Chelsea youth product Samuel García Sánchez linked up with fellow Andalusian Samu Castillejo inside 30 minutes for the game’s only goal. It was a terrific cross, and an even better header that floated past a helpless Diego Alves. The match proved a tense affair from that point–Málaga could have scored more, Valencia were wasteful and reckless (suffering yet another red card). But it turned out to be a massive result for the Rosaleda club, which now sits within three points of sixth-placed Villarreal in the European spots.
But the match served more than that one purpose. Not only did it keep Javi Gracia’s men in the hunt for the shock European bid, but it also revealed more to us about a potential star in the making. That would be the game’s goal-scorer, Castillejo.
A winger by trade, Castillejo turned 20 less than three weeks ago. He spent seven years with Malaga’s youth squad, and later, its B team, which is in Spanish football’s fourth division. He made 75 appearances and scored 22 goals for Málaga B, and his Liga debut this past August served as ample reward for his efforts in the Tercera División. It also helped that he put in a cracking preseason display against Newcastle, in which he netted a brace.
The lanky youngster has played nearly 1,300 minutes over 19 league games this season and made four substitute appearances in the Copa del Rey. He can be pretty fun to watch, even in his relative youth. Deployed primarily on the left wing in Gracia’s 4-2-3-1, he stands 5′ 10” and has shown that he is already quite well-versed in the art of drawing fouls–thanks to his ability to control the ball and whirl around defenders.
Thrown into a defense-first team that lacks a true finisher (or three, or five), Castillejo has quickly discovered the value inherent in tracking back. He’s tackled at a nearly 50% success rate, with just over two per 90 minutes. He’s also averaged close to two interceptions per 90 thus far as well–both very, very good for a 20 year-old. He even flashed some aerial ability with that delicious looping header from Monday.
However, Castillejo’s attacking prowess is…still a work in progress, which is nothing unusual for someone his age, mind you. Let’s take a look at his radar:
First things first: can I just say that this looks a bit like Ickis from “Aaahh!! Real Monsters” flipped upside-down? Radars can have some pretty fun designs.
Anywho, seeing as the Valencia goal counted for his very first league goal, it’s no surprise that his NPG per 90 is pretty low. He hasn’t shot a lot, and even less on target. His passing needs work, although he did play in this cross to now-former teammate Roque Santa Cruz to get his club on the board against Atleti in November. Castillejo is also unfortunately wont to lose the ball. But the radar also highlights his biggest strengths: his dribbling and his defensive contribution, both of which have been sterling for a winger his age.
Samu Castillejo will only get better from here. Málaga’s style has allowed them to churn out good results this term, but it’s not exactly conducive to Castillejo’s development as an attacker. His inexperience in a very tough league also works against him. But he has shown in the past that he can bag goals, and in the meantime, he does great work for the team, his ball control and pace trouble defenders who get to mark him–and he’s been 20 for only three weeks. Look for this guy to become a major player for Málaga in the next year or two; he may well spearhead the revival of a club that has been through the wringer and left for dead.