Real Madrid’s Jesus Vallejo has found the perfect home in Granada’s remarkable rise


When Jesus Vallejo departed Wolverhampton Wanderers midway through the 2019-20 season his chances of fulfilling the rich potential that had convinced Real Madrid to invest €6 million in him as an 18-year-old seemed ever bleaker.

At 23, time was still on his side, but opportunities had been hard to come by since his time with Eintracht Frankfurt in the 2016-17 campaign. The following two-and-a-half seasons brought just 12 league starts for Madrid and Wolves. His dream of representing Spain at the Olympics may have been receding into the distance had he stayed on the fringes of the Premier League club.

Vallejo would be trading in a club with ambitions of cracking the Premier League’s top six for one newly arrived in La Liga after two years in the wilderness. Granada had begun their first season back in the top flight in thrilling fashion, briefly topping the table after 10 games, but expectations were not high at a club whose salary expenditure is less than that which Barcelona pay Lionel Messi.

And yet at the early stages of the new season it is Vallejo’s club, not Messi’s, who sit in the upper echelons of the La Liga table. The momentum Granada built in the latter stages of last season, where four wins in six earned them seventh place and Europa League qualification, has not dissipated as the Andalusians compete on multiple fronts.

1

Real Sociedad

7

4

2

1

11

14

2

Real Madrid

6

4

1

1

5

13

3

Granada

6

4

1

1

0

13

4

Villarreal

7

3

3

1

0

12

5

Atletico Madrid

5

3

2

0

9

11

12

Barcelona

5

2

1

2

4

7

Sunday brought the sort of gritty 1-0 win at Getafe that is often a problem for those clubs that have been playing in continental competitions earlier in the week. Such a result was all the more impressive coming days after their first ever European match, a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over a star-studded PSV Eindhoven at the Philips Stadion.

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At the heart of each of those wins was Vallejo, little surprise when he has so swiftly become a key figure in Diego Martinez’s plans. In his 15 starts since joining in January Granada have won eight, losing just two. On only one occasion have they conceded more than two, a 6-1 loss to Atletico Madrid earlier in the season that looks to be an aberration compared to their results before and after. They are undefeated since.

Vallejo, whose peripatetic football education seemed to be making his development all the more challenging, has found a home for himself.

“I remember I talked with the manager, with Diego Martinez, [sporting director] Fran Sanchez and some of my teammates like Carlos Fernandez,” Vallejo tells CBS Sports. “They told me it was the best idea to go to Granada because the atmosphere there was fantastic. The first day I could see this.

“Here my teammates are my friends too. I can learn with them and with the coach Diego every day. I recommended this experience now for Alberto Soro, a new team-mate [and former Real Madrid player]. We are a pack here and we are a very good group. You can notice this from the first day.

“The secret of all this success is the group. Everybody here feels important when they have to play, we can achieve important things in Europa League because we are looking forward to these games.”

The way in which head coach Martinez fostered that bond was widely noted in Spain last season. His squad would develop chemistry not only on the training pitch but through barbecues at each others’ homes and hikes in the hills together. 

Spain’s coronavirus-enforced lockdown put those particular methods of team building on hiatus but Vallejo was still able to embrace his new environment.

“We did a lot of Zoom, we played Playstation tournaments: FIFA, Call of Duty. Our girlfriends, our friends too,” he noted. “This was very important, I spent more time in quarantine at home than in the dressing room last season. 

“It’s different [to other teams I have been with]. In Madrid, for example, we have a lot of games and then the players want more time at home with the family. 

“Here, it’s like a family. In Granada, if you go to the dressing room, you’re at home.”

That unity goes some way to explaining why Granada believe they can cope with the increased fixture load of the new season.

They are acutely aware that they are trailblazers for this club, one who has never played in Europe and who have never won major honors. Even without supporters in the ground there is an ever-deepening bond between club and city, a “positive energy” that Vallejo and his teammates can feed off.

“It’s a mix of joy and opportunity,” the Real Madrid loanee said of his side’s involvement in the Europa League. “This is a very important moment for Granada. We can do important things. We have a much better team this year, we can compete against everybody. We are very focused on the game. 

“We can see if we are not very focused we have problems, like the day of Atletico Madrid. If we are focused we can achieve important goals.”

For all Granada’s success over the past 14 months, Vallejo is being tutored in a very different brand of football to that which Real Madrid play. He explained that his new club focus on being solid at the back and winning games through their set plays and ability to take what chances come their way.

That was evident in their 2-1 win at PSV where despite having just 44% possession Granada limited their hosts to just seven shots to their own 12. They repeated the trick against Getafe, who turned 66% of the ball into one shot on Rui Silva’s goal.

Getafe’s approach could scarcely be more different to the defensive approach of Real Madrid and other top sides, where defenders are expected to function as deep-lying playmakers, but it is perhaps a more effective finishing school for a young centre-back such as Vallejo.

“In Madrid we train a lot with the ball, here in Granada we are very focused on the small details,” he explained.

“I think if you are a central defender in Real Madrid you have to play very far from your goalkeeper. You have to be focused all game, you have the ball but suddenly you have to sprint 40 metres and be fast, be focused. You have more space behind you, here you are defending as a group. This is easier here than in Madrid.

“Right now it’s the best club [for me]. I need to improve, I need to play a lot of games.”

In the long term, Vallejo’s ambition remains to establish himself at Real Madrid, who will eventually need to find a successor to club captain Sergio Ramos, and to earn his place in the Spain squad for next summer’s Olympics.

To achieve them, Vallejo needs the right proving ground but for the young center-back Granada is proving to be so much more than just another stop on his road to Real Madrid and La Furia Roja. In a year when community has been all the tougher to find, Vallejo has found a home for himself.





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