Raising Lazaro’s attacking output

How Marco Rose could resurrect the career of Valentino Lazaro

Valentino Lazaro has signed for Borussia Mönchengladbach, on loan (with a reported option to buy) from Inter. Here’s how the deal could pan out for both player and team.

The Foal Train view, in short:

The Lazaro deal poses little risk and the possibility of a great deal of reward. He gives depth across a range of positions and provides flexibility to play in different formations. However, his underlying numbers don’t obviously suggest that he should be considered an automatic starter. He seems best suited to play wing-back but should certainly not replace either full-back. If coach Marco Rose can help him to improve his attacking output, however, then maybe he can make a midfield role on the wing his own.

The Full View

Lazaro is one of the more intriguing players floating around European football at the moment. Debuting in the Austrian Bundesliga in 2012 for Red Bull Salzburg as a 16 year old, he has signed for Borussia Mönchengladbach after stints at Hertha Berlin, Inter Milan and Newcastle, and is still only 24. No-one seems to know his best position, and he seems to have lost his way a little. Even though he struggled to establish himself in the first team at Newcastle, he did appear in at least some capacity in every single game after the pandemic break, and they seem to have been keen on re-signing him before Gladbach secured his signature.

He generally plays out wide in defence or midfield, and, looking at the numbers, he seems to be best suited to a wing-back position. That’s what will have made him attractive to Antonio Conte’s Inter, and to Newcastle United in January, but while it didn’t quite work out for him last season, he is not the first player to have issues settling at those clubs.

The structure of the Lazaro deal is the most attractive thing for Gladbach. A loan with an option to buy gives Rose a risk-free chance to link Lazaro up with former RB Salzburg players like Stefan Lainer and Hannes Wolf. Like Wolf, Lazaro has tremendous potential but is not yet the finished article. Rose (a Salzburg youth coach while Lazaro was breaking into the first team) will be delighted at the chance to coach these talents once again and aim to get more out of them, and the additional squad depth is key for a strong league and European campaign. And while Lazaro has a great chance to reboot his career at Gladbach, there is little risk to the club if it doesn’t work out.

Here is a bit more detail on the statistical break-down of Lazaro’s game, and how he fits into the squad.

Statistically speaking

Let’s analyse Lazaro’s performance so far across the last two seasons at Hertha, Inter and Newcastle, using stats provided by Football Slices. The sample size is already a bit small so breaking it down further by club is inadvisable (for instance, he happened to get two assists at Inter, and two goals at Newcastle, so his propensity to get goals and assists is skewed vastly if you look at only one stint). In the graphics, Lazaro will be the colourful wedges, while established Borussia players will, appropriately, be the bold black lines and white wedges.

Football Slices lets you categorise players and compare to people of the same position, but the ambiguity over Lazaro’s starting position makes his underlying numbers hard to analyse. For instance, looking at how often he is dispossessed per 90 minutes, his number of 0.91 is stellar for a winger, but much less good compared to full-backs in Europe’s top five leagues. His xA (expected assists) per 90 of 0.18 is brilliant for a full-back, but average for a winger. He spent some of 2018/2019 playing as a full-back for Hertha, but in general, you would expect his assist stats to surpass the average full-back, given the time he spends playing wing-back.

So where should he fit in? Let’s consider whether Rose should use Lazaro as a full-back, reformat the team to play him at wing-back or use him as a winger/wide midfielder.

Drop a full-back? Indefensible

First thing to note is: the numbers suggest that he should not replace Ramy Bensebaini or Lainer at full-back. Given the options Rose has in the wide areas of attack/midfield, and the assumption he will continue to use a back four, some have suggested that Lazaro should slot in at full-back. This should not happen. It is noteworthy how both Lainer and Bensebaini have basically the same number of successful dribbles as Lazaro, and higher dribble success rates. Obviously Lazaro will be attempting riskier dribbles higher up the pitch, but that Bensebaini and Lainer can basically match him for total number of dribbles anyway in fewer attempts shows how good they are. They are also better passers and much better defensively. They should not be dropped for Lazaro.

The defensive stat which Lazaro is best at is successful pressures. That will be one Rose values highly, and is also very compatible with a role a bit higher up the pitch (especially given his weakness across other defensive metrics).

Space on the wing

Switching to a comparison to other wingers, the other stand-out stat, along with the times dispossessed mentioned above, is progressive distance. It makes sense that Lazaro does better at progressing the ball with passes or dribbles, given his average starting position is much deeper than most attacking midfielders or wingers he is being compared with. He will be under less pressure when he receives the ball, for one thing, as well as there being simply more of the pitch ahead of him. But as a strength it should not be discounted, particularly given his apparent weaknesses when it comes to passes into the box, shot-creating actions and his low xG numbers will also be influenced by that deeper starting position.

What all this reflects – in part – is the difficulty of assessing a wing-back by the criteria of full-backs or wingers. He is better defensively than your average winger, and he is a little better going forward than your average full-back. This is, almost self-evidently, good for a wing-back, and suggests his suitability for the role. Moreover, Rose has experimented with a back three and wing-backs in each of the opening pre-season games, implying he wants to be able to use that system at least on occasion. As mentioned before, Bensebaini could tuck in at LCB and Lazaro could play at LWB.

Lazaro could also play as a wide midfielder, and offer something different. On the right wing, the easiest comparison is with Patrick Herrmann, who is also right footed but provides many more goals per 90 mins that Lazaro – 0.33 non-penalty goals, compared to 0.1. But in some games, Rose may want more defensive solidity and higher pressing on the wing. And, more pertinently, if Lazaro is given a run at wing, with a full-back behind him (especially one as dynamic as Lainer) and more freedom to go forward, Rose might have identified traits in Lazaro which, with a bit of coaching, could easily mean he can improve his performance in and around the other team’s box.

It’s a shot to nothing, but thanks to the structure of the deal, Gladbach and Rose have little to lose.

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