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A Look Into Serge Aurier: Who Is Villarreal’s Latest Signing

An in-depth look at the Ivorian right back

Serge Aurier

  • Club: Villarreal CF
  • Nationality: Ivory Coast
  • Position(s): Right Back
  • Squad Number: 25
  • Date of Birth (Age): December 24, 1992 (28)
  • Dominant Foot: Right
  • Height: 1.76m, 5’9’’
  • Market Value (via Transfermarkt): €22.0M
  • Contract Expires: June 30, 2022

Club History

Born in Ouragahio in the Ivory Coast, Serge Aurier moved to France at a young age, where he joined Lens’ youth academy. During the 2009/2010 season, Aurier made his debut for Lens’ first team, and he would go on to spend about two years playing for his boyhood club, before signing for Toulouse in January of 2012. Aurier played for Toulouse for two and a half years, then signed for Paris Saint Germain on a one-year loan ahead of the 2014/2015 season. Aurier would win four trophies with PSG that season, and the French champions exercised their right to buy him after his loan ended. Aurier ended up playing three seasons with PSG, winning 11 trophies along the way. Disputes with teammates and coaching staff resulted in an undignified exit from the club in 2017, when he signed for Tottenham.

Aurier struggled for playing time throughout his time with Tottenham, due to competition (mainly with Kieran Trippier in his first two seasons), injury issues, and falling out of favor with the coaching staff. He was part of the squad that reached the Champions League Final in 2019, but he didn’t feature in the Championship match.

In 2021, Aurier was deemed to not have a future with Tottenham. He placed on the club’s transfer list over the summer, but Tottenham weren’t able to offload him. At the end of the transfer window, Aurier and Tottenham came to the mutual decision to terminate his contract, allowing him to become a free agent. As a free agent, Aurier signed for Villarreal on October 4th, 2021.

Defense

There’s a common misconception that Serge Aurier is a “pure attacking fullback,” and that he is only useful for his abilities going forward. This is for the most part untrue, as Aurier is actually a fine defender. While he is a very different type of player than Villarreal’s current starting right back, Juan Foyth (who is a pure defensive fullback), both have their own strengths that they bring to the defensive front.

As Aurier is at his most useful in the final third of the pitch, he can often be found deep in his opponents’ territory when his team is in possession. This results in him usually being high up the pitch when his team loses possession of the ball, leaving him in an unideal position on the pitch. If his side does lose the ball in their final third, Aurier is often given the option to try and win the ball back high upfield. This is why Aurier tends to register a lot of pressures in his opponent’s defensive third, and why some people may mis-classify him as a “high pressure defender.” Another reason for this is Aurier is what I call a “tunnel vision defender.” When he defends an opponent well enough to force them to recycle possession by passing to a teammate, Aurier will give it everything he has to continue pressing his opponents and he’ll chase the ball until either he wins it back or the ball leaves his general vicinity.

20/21 Heat Map for Aurier
Sofascore

Though he isn’t the fastest, Aurier possesses more than enough pace for him to be able to track back from attacking positions in a reasonable time frame (there are few occasions when his effort at tracking back drops off due to fatigue late on in matches though). His pace is also enough to keep up with most wingers, though he has trouble keeping up with the fastest players in the game.

His ability to defend the best (and/or fastest) wingers is also hindered by his defensive positioning in one versus one situations. When defending players head-on, he often gives his opponent too much space (he usually leaves a yard or two between him and the attacker), which can allow them to burst past him with pace or even shoot without much opposition when he’s defending around his own penalty area. As his positioning is usually just too far for him to hinder his opponent too much, he is usually forced to put in a late, lunging challenge to try and win the ball back when the attacker tries to make a move on him. These aggressive, high-risk challenges are a big reason for the high amount of fouls that Aurier picks up.

On a similar note, Aurier’s positioning when defending further up the pitch is suboptimal as well. When he is defending near midfield (as his side tries to stop their opposition from playing out of the back), Aurier usually gives his marker too much space, allowing them to get as wide as they like, while he stays a bit more central. This leaves him vulnerable to overhead long passes and through balls. As Villarreal aren’t the most high-pressing side, Aurier (and Villarreal supporters) probably won’t have to worry too much about this.

One thing that Aurier is very good at is defending when his opponent has their back to goal. He does very well to get his body onto the attacker, and he’s excellent at getting a foot into his opponent’s space to try and disrupt their balance and control. Situations like this, where he forces the attacker to play backwards, are often times when Aurier’s tunnel vision shows and he will continue to chase the ball further up the pitch.

Another area where Aurier excels is aerial duels. From the 3.65 aerial duels that he participated in last season with Tottenham, he won 65%, a very high rate for a fullback. While he isn’t the tallest at 5’9’’, he uses his body and physicality very well to jostle his opponent out of the air, allowing him to win the ball.

Going Forward

This is the area where Villarreal fans will expect big things from Serge Aurier. As current right back Juan Foyth isn’t great going forward, it will be extremely valuable to have an option who can provide a better outlet on the attacking front.

While Aurier is really known for his strengths with crossing the ball, it’s not his best asset going forward. In his last season with Tottenham, Aurier averaged 1.94 attempted crosses per match, and he only completed them 35.1% of the time. That is a very poor volume with an average efficiency. In seasons before that, he attempted more crosses (usually around four per match), but his completion rate was usually around 25%.

In my opinion, Aurier’s crossing ability matters little for Villarreal. Unai Emery’s attack is not crossing-based whatsoever (Villarreal have attempted the third-least crosses in La Liga this season), so the only times I’d expect Aurier to be given the chance to dump crosses into the penalty area is if Villarreal can’t break down a low block defense, or if they’re desperate for a goal late on in a match. Aurier also takes quite a bit of time to set up his crosses. If he has time, he’ll take a few seconds and scan the penalty area for targets before playing, which gives the opposition defense time to sort out their shape and markers.

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Instead, I believe that Aurier’s biggest strength is his ball carrying ability. Last season, Aurier attempted 2.15 dribbles per match, completing them at a 63.4% rate. Though Foyth does attempt and complete more dribbles than Aurier, he’s nowhere near as dangerous with his carries than the Ivorian. Aurier has one of the highest Shot-Creating Action rates from dribbling (meaning that he completed a dribble in the direct buildup to a shot) of all fullbacks in Europe. He’s very good at picking up the ball from deep, wide areas and making incisive runs through the opposition midfield. I’m sure Villarreal’s midfield trio will have a field day shifting around their opponents’ midfields to create space for Aurier to use his speed and control to advance the ball. Though he often takes too many touches when carrying (and sometimes dribbles right into his opponents), the few times that his carries create a chance outweighs the times that they give the ball away.

As is with his crossing, Aurier’s passing is fine. He completed his passes at an 80.6% rate, which is just above average for a fullback from Europe’s top five leagues. He’s quite good under pressure though, and does very well at passing his way out of tight situations. An interesting thing to note about Aurier; unlike most fullbacks who open up their bodies to receive the ball when out wide near the touchline, Aurier tries to receive the ball and take his first touch inside, not down the wing. This sets him up to make an incisive pass or carry, but it limit’s his side’s use of the right wing as an outlet once the ball finds Aurier.

Aurier also isn’t the most progressive passer. If he gets the ball deep in his own territory, he will occasionally launch a long pass to one of his forwards, but he usually settles for finding one of his midfielders or trying to dribble out from the back. Aurier is also completely fine with recycling possession whenever possible. He has no problem playing around the back, and never really looks to force passes if they’re not on. If Villarreal is looking for a right back who is better in distribution and will take risks to play out from the back, they’ll most likely look to Foyth as their man.

In terms of shooting, Aurier doesn’t offer much (but neither do any of Villarreal’s right backs). He’s actually a threat from corner kicks despite his size, as he wins aerial duels quite well. He scored two goals last season from 1.4 Expected Goals, so I wouldn’t expect him to be amongst the goals too much for Villarreal.

Verdict

I’m not opposed to this signing, especially given that Aurier came in for free. A one year contract feels like the right choice, and if it doesn’t work out then Villarreal don’t take much of a hit. While I don’t think Aurier will be Emery’s first choice right back, he will be good competition for Foyth, and should be an asset when Villarreal are forced to break down teams with tight defenses that don’t pose much of an offensive threat.

I completely trust Villarreal’s recruitment squad, they generally do quite well with their signings, and I really enjoy that they went with a right back with a completely different profile from their current starter. It adds versatility to the squad, and can add a new wrinkle to Emery’s tactics. While I don’t think that Aurier will be a major success in Spain, I don’t think it will be a failure either. I expect him to be a squad/rotation player, making probably 20 appearances across all competitions this season, and I expect him to do well enough that Villarreal sign him to a longer deal next summer.