Game of Numbers #17 – Valentín Castellanos – Scanning to score four against Real Madrid

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Even in his early 20’s, Valentín Castellanos was firmly one of the supreme players in the MLS, and it always seemed inevitable that he would secure a move to pastures new. Girona recognized precisely that in their quest to stay in La Liga, after finishing just 6th in the Segunda Division and making the giant leap back into the top-flight via the playoffs. They needed a goal-scorer, and coming from MLS, Castellanos could have been considered a risk. So instead of splashing the cash, they secured a loan deal for the Argentinean, making him their sole number 9 up top.

28 league games on and Castellanos performed well, netting 7 goals, and playing his part on the defensive end. But certainly more was left to be desired.

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Fast forward to matchday 29, and Castellanos had one of the greatest games of his life, netting 4 goals against last season’s Champions League victors. He became the first player in the 21st century to score four against Los Blancos in a league game, and did so with just 6 shots. With that, let’s dissect how “Taty” Castellanos scanned for success in his heroic performance against one of the world’s best sides.

girona 1-0 real madrid

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The 24-year-old’s first goal was a masterclass in when to arrive early, and hold a steady position in the penalty area. We spoke in this article about the advantages of arriving late to the scene, where it makes a player more difficult to mark, since they remain away from the attention until the final moment.

In that article, we also prefaced the occasional advantages to arriving early into a great position, and then just holding that stance until the pass comes into the penalty area. This is exactly what the Argentinean did so well on his opening goal.

When Girona first escape their wide overload, Castellanos begins to peel away from the nearest marker (Toni Kroos), while keeping distance from Madrid’s defensive line and the brute strength of Antonio Rüdiger.

He doesn’t want to let a defender of Rüdiger’s quality get a hold of him, so he waits until the pass is played to the edge of the box for Ivan Martin, and then bursts into the penalty area in between the gap.

After the pass is made, Girona’s number nine bursts into the scene, but halts his run, knowing that Martin won’t be able to make a pass given the context of the ball, opposition and his teammate.

But the centre-forward’s already in a good position and remains unmarked, so he holds his spot in line and waits.

When the ball then comes back in, Castellanos is able to head the ball home completely unmarked.

It’s true that Toni Kroos gets caught ball watching for the entirety of the move, but Castellanos still brilliantly harmonizes his scanning for the ball and the space, and accurately assesses how to hold his position to score the goal.

The finish by the way, is immaculate, completely redirecting the header into the bottom corner, and giving the keeper zero chance.


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Taty Castellanos’ second goal of the night is a magnificent illustration of his range of quality. Not only does he possess the precision of movement, but also the strength to hold off defenders and make himself a nuisance. This is a key trait for any top-tier number nine to possess, but it’s still no easy feat when that defender you’re coming up against happens to be one of the best in the land.

The move starts when Arnau Martinez slams the ball away after the throw-in, recognizing the immense pressure his team finds themselves under. But it’s not just a careless clearance, but an intentional attempt to find his number nine up top.

Again, any top-tier number nine must be able to be used as a ‘Target’ for their team, whether or not their role is to be persistently used in that manner Olivier Giroud styled or not.

And boy, does Castellanos ever make his presence felt here.

We don’t get the best view of it here, but Castellanos again arrives early toward the flight of the ball, and then uses his strength to both outmuscle the defender, and get in behind them.

Now, so long as he maintains that muscle, he’ll automatically set himself up to win the battle and lose that defender for dust.

And win the battle he does.

After the ball drops and Castellanos creates space for himself to receive, he then creates even more room for himself to succeed on the next action. His chest control is into space and ahead of his body, but also away from the impending pressure of Éder Militão.

But what I absolutely love that Castellanos does here that you can’t quite see on this replay, is that he has a split-second glance over his shoulder to ensure there’s no defender barrelling down on his neck from beyond his periphery. You can see a great view of this on the final replay here:

This happens right after he takes the chest control, giving himself all the security he needs to hold off Militão again, take a touch away from the Brazilian defender, and hammer home the finish.

It’s a mix of strength, speed and determination, and the type of goal that perfectly encapsulates Castellanos’ ability.


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Just after halftime, Castellanos again makes his mark to give Girona back the two goal advantage.

As the ball is played wide, the centre-forward is already preparing himself to play in between the two centre-backs, causing what we call “diffusion of responsibility”. His winger Yan Couto does absolutely brilliantly to beat Nacho Fernandez for pace, but Castellanos’ movement is again equally impressive.

Castellanos again arrives early to the situation, switching between scans for the ball and scans for the open space, in relation to the opposition’s defense.

At the moment that Couto takes his touch around Fernandez, the Argentinean now has a decision to make. There are two gaps that he could advance into, one between the centre-backs, and the other between Carvajal and Militão. He opts to go on the blindside of the Brazilian, where he’s likely to cut off Carvajal’s ability to contest the situation, and also extremely likely to win an aerial duel.

His goal is to arrive early, but arrive away from both defenders that have the potential to cut off the chance. Now you can’t see it on the original clip since the camera zooms in on Couto right before the cross, but Castellanos has a brilliant sequence of scanning for ball, Carvajal, and back to the ball in the span of a few seconds.

From that scan, Castellanos can see that Carvajal’s nowhere near. This then gives him all the confidence he needs to halt his momentum, and finish off the chance.

In our recent article ‘Understanding BOTS & how to scan for quicker, correct decisions‘, we discussed how elite players repeatedly scan for the ball, something new, and then back to the ball to adjust their position accordingly. Castellanos showcases a brilliant example of exactly that on his third goal, and it’s why he’s able to set himself up for such an easy finish.


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With his newfound confidence in front of goal, Castellanos now wants a fourth. La Liga’s coverage of the fourth goal isn’t amazing, so we’ll do our best here to break down how Castellanos finds himself in space.

Now first, let’s go back to ‘The case for short corners‘. In that article, I illustrated how short corner routines often cause defenders to completely lose sight of the player they previously marked, as they then become more concerned about the new flight of the ball (i.e. they ball-watch).

Setting themselves up for their fourth, Girona do a routine where one player positions themselves to receive the short corner, but then immediately moves away from the situation. Smartly, this opens up space for a player in behind to deliver. We have to go to good old Microsoft Powerpoint for this one, but bear with me.

Castellanos has an eye for the ball as it’s being delivered, but he’s also quickly scanned for the gap in between Éder Militão and Toni Kroos. If you put Castellanos on a subway train, there would be no need for an announcement to “mind the gap”. Castellanos knows intuitively where the gaps are!

So then as the ball comes in and Kroos gets caught flat footed, Castellanos is able to ghost unmarked beyond Militão and slam home the header, again into the bottom corner.

All four goals could be considered easy finishes, but they only become “easier” after the hard work the Argentinean accomplishes to get himself into the right positions.

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Valentín Castellanos might not ever have a better performance than his four goal haul against Real Madrid. If European clubs are sleeping next season, he might even end up back in New York! But this will be a match to remember for the Argentinean either way, with each of his four goals perfectly summing up how to scan for the ball, opposition, teammates and space, adjust accordingly, and score four goals against one of the world’s best teams.

Thanks for reading and see you soon! 👊⚽


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