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The return of Dani Carvajal: How Real Madrid’s defender bounced back in 2022/23

Spain international is back to his best

Real Madrid CF v Girona FC - LaLiga Santander Photo by Apo Caballero/DAX Images/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Rotation has been a hot topic throughout the first part of the 2022/23 campaign leading up to the World Cup. The likes of Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos have found themselves on the bench, while even Karim Benzema saw his minutes sliced to give him some rest before injury hit and disrupted his campaign. Yet one man has remained an almost constant: Dani Carvajal.

That may come as a surprise given his injury record in recent times which has seen him be a far from reliable option. 42 games missed by injury across the past two seasons before this one show as much. Yet this season, he has avoided any injuries at all.

This year, he doesn’t have much cover. Lucas Vázquez is the most reliable alternative from a lack of options. Carlo Ancelotti made it clear as early as pre-season that he did not rate Álvaro Odriozola, leaving him out of the club’s tour almost entirely, while the alternative is Vinícius Tobías, the young Brazilian who was only registered with the first team after his namesake, Vinícius Júnior, gained his Spanish nationality after the campaign had already kicked off.

Consequentially, Carvajal has featured in 18 of 21 fixtures this season, starting in 15 of those and playing 70% of minutes available to date this campaign. In 2021/22, that figure was 52% and in 2020/21 it was just 24%. It’s been a significant step up.

Looking at the graph below, Carvajal is playing the highest percentage of minutes since 2019/20, and a higher percentage than he played even years back in 2018/19 or 2017/18. It has been a problem position for some time, as reflected by the distribution of minutes across 10 different players in the last six seasons.

Carvajal has played more minutes than anyone else in all but one of these seasons, when Lucas Vázquez played 45% of minutes in 2020/21. This year is on track to be the first time that one player has played more than 50% of minutes in the position since Carvajal in 2019/20.

As we look out further across the campaign, that could prove to be detrimental. Antonio Rüdiger has previously played on the right and at times even Fede Valverde has dropped back into a right-back role, but it’s evident that Ancelotti does not have an option that he trusts. It’s Carvajal or bust.

With that in mind, it’s a good job that Carvajal is thriving. The Spanish international has been in extraordinary form in the opening first half of the campaign.

That has been fundamental to the strong start that Carlo Ancelotti’s team have had in LaLiga and in the Champions League. Now, it could prove differential for Spain in the World Cup too

Defensive stats

Dani Carvajal has long stood out at Real Madrid for his offensive contribution more than for his defensive contribution. Yet, he continues to more than hold his own with regards to his defensive stats across Spain and Europe.

2022/23 has helped him to further establish himself as one of Europe’s most reliable defenders. That is shown by the fact that he is only dribbled past on average once every 146 minutes, one of the lowest rates in LaLiga. That run extends beyond just the start of this season, but also into the tale end of 2021/22.

During that 12-month time period, Carvajal has only conceded ONE shot on target from a lost duel down the right flank (the area between the edge of the penalty area and the touchline).

What’s more, he has not picked up a card of any colour from his defensive duels in his own third. Carvajal is no saint, with four yellow cards already this campaign, but they are not coming from defensive duels.

He is intelligent in this regard, and has stepped up as one of those players who can help his team to manage refereeing of the side. Much like Casemiro was guilty of treading a fine line in the past, but would get on the good side of referees to ensure he knew how far he could go, Carvajal has done similar. That explains why his number of fouls per 90 is down to 1.1, his lowest season average since 2016/17.

His challenge on Robert Lewandowski in El Clásico against FC Barcelona showed as much, giving him enough of a nudge to send him off balance but without making sufficient contact for there to be a foul. It’s a trick which can only be perfected with the experience of a player like Carvajal and shows huge improvements from an element of recklessness in his defending when he was younger.

Carvajal’s signs are promising as he is not only becoming more consistent, but also wiser on the field. His intelligence is improving alongside his leadership skills and he is truly stepping up to the highest of levels for Real Madrid. That is where his future must lie as he regains the consistency and availability to make him a key player.

Offensive contribution

Where Carvajal really does make a difference for Real Madrid is in attack. Los Blancos’ game primarily comes down the left flank, where Vinícius Júnior operates as a a traditional winger, linking up with Ferland Mendy, and it means that a disproportionate amount of Real Madrid attacks come down that side. To be specific, 67% of Real Madrid fixtures this season have seen more positional attacks come down the left flank than the right.

That creates an opportunity for Carvajal. The likes of Rodrygo Goes, Fede Valverde and even Marco Asensio, tend to drift in and cut inside to central positions far more than Vini on the left. That gives Carvajal more license himself to bomb down the flank.

We have also witnessed the return of some elements of his game that we had feared we had seen the back of. His attacking movement continues to be remarkably intelligent, and he has deployed it more often. The lack of an out-and-out right winger down the flank, and the invention of Vinícius and Benzema as a front two, has given him greater freedom to roam down the wing.

One of the best examples came away at Celtic. Eden Hazard drifted into a central role and indicated to Carvajal to continue his burst down the flank, and a long ball over the top fell to him unmarked to cut the ball back across to the Belgian to score his first Champions League goal in open play for the club. Without Carvajal’s run, it simply wouldn’t have happened.

With 0.33 non-penalty xG and xA per 90 in the Champions League this season, he ranks among the top 8% of all full-backs, but what is particularly intriguing with Carvajal is his xGChain. This is a stat which is used to effectively show how much xG per 90 a player is involved in the build-up with, which could be making the initial recovery starting a move or the final ball itself. Carvajal ranks here at 0.6 xGC per 90, ranking him in the top 25% of all LaLiga players.

A key part of his role offensively also comes from his pressing high up the pitch. As can be seen above, recoveries from Carvajal in the final third have led to three goals over the past year, and numerous attacking chances.

That energy and work rate is part of what sets him apart from his rivals in the right-back position. Lucas Vázquez lacks his defensive strength, and the others lack the rounded efforts that make him clinical both in the offensive third and the defensive third. He’s a player who can influence the game all over the pitch, putting him in a truly elite group of full-backs which contains the likes of Dani Alves at his peak at FC Barcelona among few others.

What’s next?

Carvajal is one of the few remaining stanchions of the club’s golden era, and perhaps the one with the most life left in him. The only remaining presence at the back in Carvajal, who is only 30 years of age. He looks to be in better shape physically than Toni Kroos and has the benefit of youth when compared to others like Luka Modrić and even Karim Benzema.

The season is long and Carvajal, perhaps as well as anyone, knows the perils that the intensity of such a campaign can bring with it, but he’s lining himself up for what could be an unforgettable campaign.

He now seems to have reclaimed the right-back role with the national team ahead of the World Cup in Qatar, making him the only Real Madrid player to be a regular in Luis Enrique’s side in a squad full of players from FC Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, and so on. Donning the number 20 for Spain, he is one of the national team’s experienced veterans alongside Sergio Busquets, Koke and César Azpilicueta.

Portugal v Spain - UEFA Nations League - League Path Group 2 Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

Beyond that, he has stepped up into a leadership role left by the void of Casemiro. While other experienced figures are seeing themselves gradually faded out for the next generation of Fede Valverde, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga, Carvajal remains ever-present.

The Spaniard is a big-game player who always shows up for the major occasions, and the Champions League final against Liverpool was arguably one of his finest displays in many years as he silenced Luis Díaz. As the business end of the season nears after the World Cup, we’ll see him given more of a chance to shine.

Carvajal’s presence in this team not only brings vast experience, but as he’s proving so far this season, it brings Real Madrid one of the best right-backs in Europe.

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