Having been called up to the Spain squad for the first time, this international break has marked the meteoric rise of Mario Gaspar quite well. Danny Owen writes about Villareal’s excellent young full back.
For Villarreal, standing atop the La Liga summit for the first time in their history, 2015/16 represents a culmination of an extraordinary rejuvenation. European semi-finalists three times since 2003, domestic runners-up in ’08, yet relegated in 2011; they are perennial overachievers beset by an implausible penchant for self-destruction. Never the bride, yet their presence on the guestlist is achievement enough.
However, rising through the ranks, not to mention the divisions, combative right-back Mario Gaspar epitomises the modern-day Villarreal; consistent, positive and brimming with exuberant potential. After all, he, alongside fellow academy graduates Manu Trigueros and Matias Nahuel, not to mention inspired signings Samu Castillejo, Alphonse Areola and Leo Baptistao, have formed the bedrock of Villarreal’s finest domestic start since 2008. International recognition, therefore, was more than warranted.
In truth, however, Mario’s maiden call-up for Spain’s double header against Ukraine and Luxembourg owes as much to the injury-enforced absence of Dani Carvajal as his own impressive form. And, barring the ageing, albeit impressive Juanfran, Spain are suffering something of a full-back famine while Real Madrid and Barcelona’s increasing drive for prestige foreigners over budding alumni further pollutes a shrinking talent pool. Thus, with Spain’s latest 23 boasting just six players from either side of the Classico divide, Celta Vigo talisman Nolito and Bilbao duo Mikel San Jose and Xabier Etxeita flank Mario in an oddly unfamiliar, increasingly diverse La Roja selection.
However, while the names are less than household, invitations to Del Bosque’s most exclusive of parties are not easily obtained. Mario, after all, has cultivated an impressive career under La Liga’s glass ceiling, developing into the finest full-back outside the La Liga’s undisputed big three.
Marcelino and Mario; a match made in heaven
While mirroring his club’s perpetual rise, Mario remains something pillar of consistency set against a backdrop of near-constant flux. After all, since his 2009 debut, he has experienced both extremes of the sporting spectrum, from shock relegation to European qualification, via six different coaches and eternal rebuilding.
However, the inspired appointment of Marcelino Garcia Toral in January 2013, with the Yellow Submarine plumbing the Segunda depths, kick-started an extensive reinvention of a stagnant club. Gone were the expensive underachievers, the Nilmars, the Borja Valeros, replaced by prodigious, budding potential and rejuvenated talent. Though Mario, despite the headline-hogging of first Giovani Dos Santos, then Luciano Vietto and now Roberto Soldado, epitomises Villarreal rise from rock-bottom to a historic high.
Marcelino, heavily steeped in tika-taka traditions, introduced a high-octane passing philosophy, headlined by incisive, intricate possession football. Mario, however, offers a heavy-metal alternative, a power-packed plan B to the playmaking choir. He was also our number one manager across Europe in our Power Rankings, for the previous month.
With Villarreal’s right winger, usually Nahuel or Samu Garcia, drifting innately infield, Mario seizes ownership of the outside, his direct, purposeful runs offering a constant, lateral threat. Blending explosive attacking intent with a reliable defensive resilience, Mario idyllically executes the extreme physical and technical demands forced upon the modern-day full back. Whether instigating attacks via lung-busting bursts, snuffing out fires with well-timed interceptions, or thumping thunderpunch 25 yarders into the top corner, as seen against Athletic last month, Villarreal’s right flank remains reliably fortified.
Meanwhile, his impressive versatility, displayed throughout a striking performance at centre-half in September’s narrow win at Malaga, offers an unexpected alternative to the injury prone Mateo Mussacchio and haphazard Eric Bailly. Averaging 2.9 successful tackles per game, Mario is a key cog in an interlocking back four breached just five times this season. Clearly, he is something of a welcome antithesis to the legion of wannabe wingers beset by positional insecurity and an insatiable urge for all-out attack. A la Matteo Darmian or Jonas Hector, substance overrides style.
However, boasting just five assists in 114 La Liga approaches, stats underline an obvious flaw completely at odds with Mario’s attacking intent. His final ball, poor pass completion rate (67%) and cross per game tally (0.1), cast doubt practicality on the higher plane of international football. Spain, almost reinventing a full-back’s function, demand reliable end-product, epitomised by first-choice flankers Jordi Alba and Carvajal. A case in point; in March’s international break, the conservative Cesar Azpilicueta, then enjoying the finest form of his career, was omitted in favour of the buccaneering Juan Bernat. Del Bosque’s preference for flitting playmakers over traditional widemen places a full-back’s attacking output of far higher value than their defensive stability. Mario, something of an old school exponent, must improve his efficiency if he is to step into the footsteps of Juanfran.
The next step
Embarking upon only the sixth season of his professional career, the 24-year-old remains an untapped prophecy, far from the finished article though bursting with promise. However, the departure of Vietto, Gabriel Paulista before him, cast doubt on his long-term future on the Castellon coast. Reports linking Liverpool, even Barcelona, refuse to abate, while an inevitable national debut will hardly quell the queries. Marcelino’s Midas Touch, in terms of results and individual development, may have hauled Villarreal and their reliable right-back onto a higher plane than either could have anticipated, though there’s a growing sense that Mario has outgrown the El Madrigal pond.
Written by Daniel Owen