Every football club, no matter the level, needs “squad players:” players who are willing to do the running and dirty work for the team and not receive much recognition for their efforts. Players who can play multiple positions, and fill holes in the squad when necessary. Players who are comfortable with not having their name being the first on the teamsheet week in and week out, but to get minutes whenever possible and contribute to the team in any way that they can. Real Madrid is no different, and the club possesses one of the best squad players in world football: Lucas Vázquez.
Vázquez, best known for his admirable work rate and his relative “all-roundedness” (being a competent player in all phases of the game), has been an excellent servant to Real Madrid during his seven year stint at the club. While he was mostly a fringe player for his first few seasons with the first team, making most of his appearances as a substitute, he’s recently become a key member of Real Madrid’s squad. Zidane seems to value his work ethic in both defense and attack, and his crossing ability has made him an important cog in the Frenchman’s attacking scheme.
In the current season, Real Madrid have struggled mightily with issues, especially in the right back position. Dani Carvajal, Real Madrid’s first choice right back, has been hit with multiple muscle injuries which have seen him miss 26 matches this campaign. Alvaro Odriozola, who was Zidane’s second choice in the right back position, also struggled with a calf injury at the start of the campaign, which unfortunately coincided with the time of Carvajal’s MCL (Medial Collateral Ligament) injury. This forced Zidane to deputize Lucas Vázquez at right back, something that he’d had to do occasionally in the past few seasons, with some success. However, very few people could have possibly predicted how well Vázquez would perform in the right back position and that he’d end up taking the backup right back job from Odriozola. This remainder of this article will detail the factors and characteristics that led to Lucas Vázquez’ successful (and maybe permanent) position change.
The first thing that needs to be noted is that Vázquez was defensively sound even before he was played as a right back. Vázquez has always been a high-intensity player, one who could get up and down the wing for 90 minutes without much trouble. As a winger he was consistently registering one of the highest pressures/match rates in Europe each season (usually around 25 pressures per game according to FBRef.com). This was the first tell that he’d make a quality fullback; he has quite the defensive work rate.
On top of this, Vázquez is aggressive and never afraid to put in a tackle. In his last two full seasons as a winger, he averaged between two and three recoveries in his opponent’s defensive half each match and was partaking in about four 50-50 duels per 90 minutes played (which he was winning with around 30% consistency, one of the higher rates amongst all players in La Liga).
Vázquez also wins his defensive challenges (one versus one duels) at a high rate: a 50.2% rate during the 2018/2019 season and 66.3% in the 2019/2020 season. This is very important, a fullback in a squad like Real Madrid’s needs to be good defensively, not just an effective presser. He has to be able to handle himself in one versus one situations, and Vázquez has shown from his time as a winger that he can hold his own defensively. Additionally, for a player who registered about 30% of his challenges in his opponent’s final third (in a squad that typically doesn’t have the most active final-third press), Vázquez’ numbers are very high, a testament to his work ethic and overall defensive quality.
The final factor that has allowed Vázquez to perform as he has in the right back role is the squad that he plays in. Real Madrid has one of the best squads in world football, and Lucas Vázquez had many of the best players in the world supporting him when playing the right back role. They could pick up the slack for him when he made mistakes early on, and this gave him a bit of grace and time to adjust to the responsibilities of the fullback position.
Vázquez’ experiences as a winger have given him all the characteristics necessary to be a world-class attacking fullback. He’s an adept crosser, carries the ball well (the amount of dribbles that he attempts has dropped from his time as a winger, but his volume of forwards runs attempted has risen and he has completed more of his carries from the right back position), and he has experience scoring and creating goals.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Vázquez would succeed in the right back role, he’s proven to be one of the most adaptive players in Real Madrid’s squad. Multiple times in his Real Madrid career he’s broken into the squad over players who are objectively more talented and who are bigger stars than the Spaniard, mainly due to Vázquez’ ability to fit himself into just about any system that the manager may favor.
For example, a portion of Real Madrid’s offensive scheme for the past few years has been focused on delivering balls into the penalty area for Karim Benzema to use his excellent movement, ball-winning, and finishing skills to find the back of the net. In the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons, Lucas Vazquez completed the most crosses into the penalty area per match of all Real Madrid players (also ranking near the top in the 2018/19 season), and all three of his assists to Benzema this season have come from crosses.
Next, a quick look at how Lucas Vázquez has performed at the right back spot compared to Dani Carvajal’s performances. Carvajal is thought to be one of, if not the best right back in the world, and Vázquez had quite the task trying to replace him. From looking at these very general statistics we can tell that Vázquez is a far more aggressive fullback, he is much more prevalent in Real Madrid’s attacks than Carvajal is (which says quite a bit about Vázquez since Carvajal is usually very active in Real Madrid’s final third play). This is most easily exemplified by Vázquez’ far higher expected assists/match value than Carvajal, as well as taking more touches in his opposition’s penalty area and playing more key passes each match than Carvajal does.
Defensively, Carvajal is still superior. While Vázquez may attempt more tackles and defensive duels each match, he wins them at a lower rate than Carvajal does. Carvajal also recovers the ball more from the opposition than Vázquez does, which is most likely due to difference in aggression between Vázquez and Carvajal, as Vázquez prefers to defend by putting in a physical challenge on the player that he’s defending, while Carvajal tends to let his positioning do the majority of the work, only putting in a tackle when it’s absolutely necessary.
Vázquez’ style as a fullback is obviously influenced by his experiences as a winger. While he’s stylistically very different from Dani Carvajal, he’s adapted himself to fit into Carvajal’s position nearly perfectly, a testament to Vázquez talent as an athlete and knowledge of the game of football.
Unfortunately, in the recent El Clásico win Vázquez suffered a knee injury that will force him to miss the remainder of the season. This is a massive blow to Real Madrid, as they will be forced to play without their first and second choice right backs for the foreseeable future. Lucas Vázquez’ contract with Real Madrid expires this summer, and if he chooses not to re-sign with the club, the Clásico win will most likely be his last appearance for Los Blancos. Losing Vázquez would be a huge loss to Real Madrid for obvious reasons, especially on a free transfer. It’s hard to imagine that the Real Madrid board aren’t trying to get Vázquez to sign a contract extension with the club, as they know how important he is to Zidane’s current squad. Whatever happens, every Madridista will be hoping that Lucas Vázquez will choose to renew with the club and continue to sport the Real Madrid badge for seasons to come.