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Who should start at right back for Villarreal?

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Is it time for Mario to take a seat?

Villarreal CF v Levante UD - La Liga Photo by Pablo Morano/MB Media/Getty Images

A recurring theme in the comment sections here at the site has been complaints about Mario Gaspar’s contribution going forward from the right back position. The scope of the situation has been painted as saying that Mario is not a ‘modern’ fullback and should not be going forward trying to be one. However, I think the root issue is more fundamental than that, I just do not think he’s a starting caliber right back anymore given the aspirations of the club, and I think it is time Rubén Peña became the full time starter in the position.

We’ll start with what we already know intuitiviely. Of our RB options, Peña is the going forward. In fact, of our four primary fullbacks, Quintillà, Moreno, Peña, and Gaspar, the one with the worst attacking output is Mario. You can see a comparison between Peña and Gaspar going forward below:

understat.com

As you can see, Gaspar is bang average most attacking categories. Peña, on the other hand, gives us above average contribution in the two buildup metrics xGBuildup and xGChain. Basically, he’s a lot more involved in progressing the ball up the pitch. One other concerning aspect of Gaspar’s radar is his well above average shots per 90. For someone who has’t scored all year, why does he keep heaving it about once a game at the goal? (I don’t pay much attention to Peña’s G90 number, it’s only one goal and it only looks good because it’s being compared to a 0.)

Against Levante, Peña started in the left back role and in my opinion did rather well. With Moreno hurt long term, I basically am making the case that our best fullback pairing is Quintillà and Peña. Xavier’s attacking radar is of similar quality to Peña’s except he has much better key pass and assist numbers. With Rubén having played across from Mario in our last match, it gives me the opportunity to compare their heat maps from Levante in a single graphic:

whoscored.com

Gaspars activity is the bottom half of the image, Rubén’s is the top. Of the 128 touches you see there, 81 of them came from Peña. He had far more involvement and also had a much greater portion of his involvement right there at midfield. Even playing out of position he had a greater impact on the match.

Defensively is where Gaspar is supposed to shine in this comparison. Remember, the narrative is that he’s the old school defensive fullback. The numbers themselves, however, are less conclusive on this front. While Mario does complete a higher percentage of his attempted tackles it’s Peña who attempts more of them. The two players get the same number of interceptions per 90 minutes and their clearances numbers are very similar. Gaspar blocks more shots while Rubén just edges him in passes blocked and Mario blocks slightly more crosses though the numbers are similar. (I do want to point out as an aside that when healthy Alberto Moreno is our best statistical fullback both offensively and defensively. Just seemed worth noting.)

While Gaspar is doing some nice things defensively, if he is going to continue trying (and failing) to go forward, I would rather have Rubén Peña on the pitch. He is a better defender than Mario is an attacker, and he and Quintillà make a solid pair of attacking fullbacks. I know Mario has been with the club in one form or fashion since he was a child, but we still need to play our best available option and right now that’s just not him.