The winger conundrum at Real Madrid has been a source of debate since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure and, with arguably greater importance, since Gareth Bale’s footballing powers have waned. For those unfamiliar with the situation, Real Madrid currently have a plethora of players on their books that can fill a role either on the left or right flank of the attack. The subject of debate over the last few years is which of these players should remain as part of Real Madrid’s squad and which should depart? For example, there are many who felt Kubo and Brahim (currently on loan at Getafe and AC Milan respectively) should be in the current Real Madrid squad while Rodrygo and Vinicius JR should have been the two players out on loan.
The best part about this never ending debate? The public’s general opinions on each player seems to change from game to game. So why not supplement the eye test with the statistical data to back up each opinion. Going by the assumption that when fully fit, €100M signing Eden Hazard will be a starter, there is likely room for at least 3-4 other wingers in the squad. Madrid currently have 7 other wingers on their books. Now that Kubo, Vinicius, and Rodrygo have over a season’s worth of data to evaluate, what if we were to compare all 7 based upon their underlying numbers in shooting metrics, chance creation, passing proficiency, dribbling, and defensive attributes?
Expected Goals, Assists, & Shot Conversions
As a method to maintain a fair scale (as fair as possible) all of the data collected on each winger was filtered on a per 90 basis. When filtering on a per 90 basis, you are simply averaging out the data from all of the games played by an individual player down to what they average in a single game. It’s still not a perfect science as someone like Brahim Diaz has only played in 32 top-flight games in his whole professional career vs someone like Lucas Vazquez who has played in 253.
Two statistical measures that provides their best value over a longer period of time, are expected goals and expected assists. Non-penalty xG and xA is among the favorites of the analytics community when comparing the potential offensive production of similar players. It’s important to look at the underlying numbers produced and decipher whether a player is over-performing or under-preforming those metrics. It’s important to note what a regression or progression to the mean might look like.
Vinicius JR stands out with his table topping npxG+xA of 0.49. The Brazilian’s numbers are in alignment with what is seen watching him on the field. Vinicius can be an x-factor, an anomaly that defenders simply cannot figure out how to stop, but his finishing still leaves a lot to be desired, under performing his xG by 12%. Though, as many coaches have alluded to over the years, the important thing for strikers and attacking players is that they get themselves into the right positions to score goals. Vinicius may not be hitting the numbers expected of him, but his npxG is the highest of any other winger and his 0.29 actual goals per 90 minutes is only behind Brahim Diaz. Vini is getting to the right spots, more often than any other of Madrid’s wingers, if he can maintain his composure then the goals will start to flow.
Evaluating the chart line by line, you can glean a certain amount of information from each player. Much like Vinicius, Marco Asensio’s finishing needs to improve. Rodrygo, in terms of actual per 90 numbers, is the most well rounded attacker in his output of goals and assists. Although Rodrygo’s assist numbers suggest he is under performing, in the current campaign, he has produced an xA of 0.46, outperforming his average from last season by 72%. The numbers suggest that Brahim has backed up the notion that he has “goal-scoring instincts”. Lucas Vazquez, otherwise known as “Mr. Consistent”, is on par with both his expected goals and expected assists; in other words, Lucas Vazquez is performing just as the data expects him to — the most unsurprising narrative from the numbers. Takefusa Kubo sits bottom of the list for his npxG+xA, but is dramatically over-performing within both metrics. His numbers have been boosted since playing with Villarreal in the Europa League and his brief cameos in La Liga. Playing with a better a team has helped to enhance Kubo’s output. Again comparing Kubo’s Mallorca numbers vs Vinicius JR at Real Madrid is not an exact science nor is it truly an apples to apples comparison. But much like Ødegaard, Kubo seems to be a player that improves when surrounded by better talent.
Staying near the realm of finishing, the chart above evaluates each winger based off of their average shots taken per 90 minutes, the average shots they get on target, and the conversion rate of their shots to goals. Rodrygo and Brahim sit top of the table as the best finishers, requiring the least amount of shots to score a goal. Although Vinicius JR sits at the bottom of the table with the poorest shot conversion rate, he is far away the best winger at getting shots off. By taking so many shots, he also has the highest amount of shots on target in a game. Again providing further evidence that if the Brazilian can improve his finishing and maintain his composure his goal-scoring numbers will improve both quickly and dramatically.
We have addressed the goal-scoring and assist numbers, but wingers often provide much more than just the aforementioned production. It’s the total offensive curation that should represent their game. Which player creates the most shots for teammates? Which player produces the most key passes per game? Who is progressing the ball most? The best dribbler? The best crosser? All these elements need to be taken into consideration when evaluating a squad’s winger.
Let’s start closer to where we last left off with our metrics; evaluating player performance in the final third.
Last season for Real Mallorca, Kubo began to pop up on a lot of data graphs with almost Messi-like figures in terms of his goal created actions. What exactly constitutes a “goal-created action”. FBref defines it as such, “The two offensive actions directly leading to a goal, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls.” Unai Emery, Kubo’s former manager at Villarreal, has been critical of the player’s final ball, but given his over-performance vs his expected assists and the Messi-like goal-created action numbers, that critique may not be entirely fair.
The chart below provides the leaders in shot-created actions. A similar metric to GCA with the lone difference that it evaluates the two offensive actions directly leading to a shot rather than a goal. Some may argue this metric is a better measure of a player’s actual creation because GCA only accounts for when a player scores, but if a player is given a golden opportunity and misses, that measurement is not accounted for within the GCA metric. On the flip side, if a team continually takes low probability shots, then SCA is not as strong a metric. Brahim tops the charts for SCA per 90 and his ability to create shots off the dribble is a stand-out vs the other wingers.
After a match finishes, analyst — espcially those focusing on chance creation — are quick to look at the key pass figures and progressive passes per individual on a given team. When it comes to advanced passing metrics Lucas Vazquez is blowing the competition out of the water. He leads in key passes per game, passes into the penalty area, crosses into the penalty area, and progressive passes — which can be defined as completed passes that move the ball towards the opponents goal with 10 yards or more (excludes any passes made in the defensive third). To summarize the data, the Gallaecian has earned his spot and the numbers back him up.
Dribbles, Carries, Dispossessions
The four youngest players categorized in the winger group, each are considered “Regators” - dribblers, players able to unbalance a defender with their 1v1 take-on ability. But of those dribblers, who attempts the most dribbles? Who has the best success percentage? who gets disposed the most and who actually carries the ball forward?
The certain stand-out on this chart, as to be expected, is Vinicius JR. The Brazilian completes the most dribbles per 90 minutes, attempts the most dribbles, carries the ball towards goal more than any other player, and has the most touches in the opposition’s penalty box. Marco Asensio has the highest success rate with his dribbles and is only behind Vinicius JR in the progressive distance covered when he carries the ball. Although, it should be noted, Asensio only completes about ~2 dribbles per game vs Vinicius’s ~4 attempts . Asensio also tops the chart with touches in the final third, but again may not be a fair comparison when judging vs the likes of Kubo who saw less of the ball in the opposition third with Mallorca then Asensio has done with Real Madrid.
Some more interesting sub-plots from the data include Brahim. The on loan AC Milan winger is willing to take risks with his dribbling, but gets dispossessed more than any of the other of the players he is comapred agaisnt. Another variable to consider amongst the data is Rodrygo’s dribble attempts. Rodyrgo has played the majority of his games on the right rather than the left where he would arguably produce better dribbling numbers having the ability to cut in from the flank.
A well rounded evaluation of Madrid wingers would have to include defensive numbers. Zidane has continually tried to implement a system of two-way wingers with a high pressing scheme.
Unsurprisingly, Lucas Vazquez tops the chart in every defensive metric. He completes the most tackles (in every third of the pitch), he presses the most of any player in every third of the pitch bar the attacking third where Vinicius JR just edges him. In what does come as a surprise is the defensive numbers shown by Brahim Diaz. The Spaniard completes the 2nd most tackles on a per 90 basis, he tracks all the way back to his defensive third - on par with Lucas Vazquez - and he has the best successful ball-winning percentage from pressures of any other player. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Marco Asensio’s defensive frailties have been highlighted in the past and his pressure numbers vs the rest of the group leave him in a disappointing position.
Rather than drawing conclusions on each of these players futures with Madrid, the data has instead illuminated the potential of each and the different value or characteristics of each player. The numbers should always be used as supplements to the overall context of each player’s situation and team. The numbers are there to support, rather than act as the definitive guide.
It would be fair to say that Madrid fans can re-ignite their excitement with Vinicius JR’s potential when factoring in his underlying numbers. His pressing, dribbling, ball carrying, and npxG+xA all stand out. If the Brazilian can truly develop his finishing and settle his nerves in front of goal, he can go on to be a great player. Another stand out is Lucas Vazquez, who has rightfully earned his starting spot when comparing the eye test with his numbers. He leads nearly every passing metric and every defensive metric. The data has also confirmed initial characterizations of Brahim and Rodrygo as efficient and clinical finishers as well as solid chance creators. Kubo, who Emery has consistently asked to improve his final ball, is better in the final third than he is given credit. His goal-created action numbers are far and away the best of the group.
Decisions will eventually have to be made regarding each of these wingers futures at Real Madrid, and it will be vital to see the progress of these underlying metrics in the next 6-18 months. Given the average age of the youngest four players is 20-years-old, these metrics should improve with some taking the expected leap and others falling behind. Time will tell on who should stay and who should go, but the data has given us more insight on the value of each player.