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Who should Unai Emery start at left back for Villarreal?

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Unai Emery has two wonderful players to choose from.

Osasuna v Villarreal - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

I wrote an article with almost the exact same headline as this last year. I mention that because I want to begin this conversation with some context about how the nature of this question has changed in a year. In early 2020, the starting left back at Villarreal was a discussion between Xavi Quintilla and Alberto Moreno, two left backs who were fine but neither was anything to get excited about. Basically we were decided which mediocre option was preferable.

Not so, any longer. Villarreal has two splendid left backs in Pervis Estupinan and Alfonso Pedraza, and when you account for time missed to injuries, Emery has really played them similar numbers of minutes this season. So, as we go into the business end of this season, who should be starting in Villarreal’s most important matches?

Over the weekend, I had a surprise drop into my inbox. Someone from a Manchester City blog had messaged me asking about Alfonso Pedraza and whether he could play for a ‘top 6 club’. Well now look, I know this will be a shock to English football fans out there, but Villarreal would be in the chase for top four in England every bit as much as they are here in Spain. If he’s good enough to play for us, he’s good enough for top teams in a league where Southampton is currently in 6th.

Nevertheless, the fact that I even got that message says a lot about how far Pedraza has come. Last season he struggled to consistently start for a Betis team that wound up 5th in the league and his offensive creation numbers weren’t nearly as good as they’ve been so far this season. He has certainly been an Unai Emery reclamation projection of great success.

That said, he’s not as talented as Pervis Estupinan. The 22 year old Ecuadorian has every physical tool imaginable, and as good as Pedraza has been going forward this season, by the metrics Estupinan has been even better.

Emery has elected at times this season to play both of his talented left backs together, with one or the other stepping up into the left wing. This strategy has been met with mixed results, and overall I think the biggest impact it has is that it changes the profile of our left side of the field. Where Moi Gomez drifts inside and plays almost as a central attacking mid, Pedraza and Pervis overlap out wide and pull defenders away from the middle. Which situation is preferable really depends on the opponent.

Since both our left backs are very good going forward, which of them you would rather play really boils down to their defensive issues. Both men have them, but they have different sorts of issues. For Pedraza, his weakness defensively is that he’s just not very good in one on one situations. He’s only completed 35% of his tackles this season (Pervis has completed 61%) and he gets a yellow almost every other match while committing significantly more fouls than Estupinan does. Pervis wins a higher rate of his tackles, more tackles overall, and more interceptions, but he’s not as good in the air and frankly his positioning in transition is downright bad at times. Too often this season we’ve seen Estupinan lackadaisical in getting back on defense only for an opportunity to be created by our opponents. Pervis might be the more skilled defender, but he’s also the lazier one.

At this particular point in the season Unai Emery seems to prefer Pedraza’s willingness to track back and at least be in the right position. I can respect that, it’s very consistent with how he has handled other areas of the pitch and why players like Samu Chukwueze and the now departed Take Kubo have had such a hard time finding a regular place in the rotation. The pure data metrics show Estupinan to be the significantly better player, and as he is two years younger than Pedraza he is still undoubtedly the long-term future at the position, but Pedraza’s ability to be coachable and to work hard defensively, along with his own considerable offensive prowess, probably makes him the safer bet at left back until Pervis changes his mindset a little bit.

I’ll include a chart below of what I consider to be the most relevant statistical points between the two. For a full comparison of the player’s numbers follow this link to fbref.

All data via fbref.com