Miguel Gutierrez: Girona’s Underlapping Fullback

Girona’s rise up the La Liga table has not gone unnoticed. Players like Savio, Artem Dovbyk and Aleix Garcia have received attention from across Europe. Miguel Gutierrez is another player that has played a key part in this success.


A product of Real Madrid’s La Fabrica, in August 2022 Girona signed Miguel for a reported €4 million for 50% of his playing rights with Madrid retaining 50% and a sell on clause. The left back consolidated his position in the team during the 22/23 season but, like the rest of the Girona team, it’s been this season that he’s really shown his talent.


Inverted Fullback Role


In the defensive phase Miguel plays as a left back as part of Girona’s 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 shape. However, in possession, he inverts into central areas often taking on the role of a central midfielder in the build-up phase. This has become an in-demand skill amongst Europe’s top teams with fullbacks increasingly asked to take on extra responsibility in the build-up beyond overlapping the winger or firing crosses into the box.



Once Girona progress the ball, what Girona manager Michel has his fullbacks do is interesting. Miguel and, on the opposite side, Yan Couto are often tasked with underlapping the attack. That means making runs beyond the wingers into the opposition penalty area. This makes them an extra target for through passes and opens space for the Girona wide players. This article has an in-depth overview of Girona’s build-up play.




Miguel has several skills that make him especially suited for this role. He is calm in possession and can wriggle out of opposition presses like a central midfield player. The Spaniard’s passing is very accurate. He completes 86% of his passes, well within the top 10% of fullbacks in the top 5 leagues.


His pass choice is good, and he executes well. He has a good passing range, but his role is restrictive on what he can do in possession. He’s typically tasked with playing safe passes as opposed to attempting to consistently break the opposition’s lines with passes or ball-carrying.


Girona: The Great Leap Forward


The 22-year-old has shown good aptitude with crossing from the half-spaces which does make him a threat if he’s not closed down in these areas. This skill is one he has shown enough prowess in to still contribute to attacks if he is functioning in a more traditional fullback position.


The success he has with his underlapping runs is shown in the statistics. This season, Miguel has produced 0.21 expected goals assisted per 90 minutes played, again in the top 10% of fullbacks. He’s created the fourth-most big chances of all players in Europe’s top five leagues this season.



He’s a powerful runner from deep and times his runs well, often making the kind of runs you would expect an advanced 8 or box-to-box midfielder. It’s an unusual way for a fullback to attack and Girona use Miguel effectively.


When he receives the ball, he’s usually in a dangerous position for a cutback to an arriving Girona shirt. When he doesn’t, the opposition has often been stretched out of position providing space for one of his teammates to exploit. Viktor Tsygankov’s opening goal for Girona against Rayo Vallecano was the result of typical underlap from Miguel.



Once the fullback gets into advanced positions, he’s also got quick feet and makes good decisions to make the most of the chaos he creates. His brilliant back-heeled assist against Cadiz was a glimpse at what he can offer around the opponent’s box.



He ranks highly for deep completions, a stat that measures passes played to teammates within 20 meters of the opposition goal. When he gets into advanced positions, he’s an active participant in the build-up, finding his teammates frequently, and a threat in his own right.


Potential Weaknesses


Not unlike many young fullbacks Miguel’s defensive play could use some work. He ranks in the bottom quarter of fullbacks for the % of defensive duels won. He also loses far more aerial duels than you would expect for a fullback standing at nearly 6 foot tall. He’s got the athleticism and footballing intelligence to improve in this area but could be found out in one-on-ones at the highest level unless he can show significant improvement.


The other potential issue is that he’s perfect for the role he’s currently playing in at Girona. A role that carries quite a unique set of responsibilities. He offers both threat around the box and in behind the opponent’s defence, as shown by his assist threat and deep completions, and is excellent at retaining possession in the build-up.



However, he does not really get the opportunity to show a full range of ball progression skills. The passing work from defence is typically done by left centre back Daley Blind, who is one of the most progressive centre backs in Europe this season in both passing and dribbling stats. 


The dribbling and ball-carrying in attacking areas on Girona’s left is often taken care of by Savio, who is one ball of the most prolific dribblers in Europe. Whilst this isn’t necessarily indicative of any shortcomings from Miguel, he is playing his role in the team perfectly to facilitate Savio and Blind, it does mean there are question marks about what he could offer an elite team not built around his current specific role. Compare his output with that of Joao Cancelo at Barcelona as an example:



It’s perhaps unfair to compare a 22-year-old in his second season as a starter to 29-year-old Cancelo, who is one of the best fullbacks in world football. However, it’s this kind of output top teams will look for from Miguel in the future if they are to make him an inverted fullback with heavy influence on the team’s play.


Inverted Fullback of the Future or Thriving in a Specialist Role?


Whilst there are some shortcomings and question marks still to be answered about Miguel, it’s clear he possesses many of the most important skills to thrive in the modern fullback position. Intelligent movement into midfield, calmness on the ball and press resistance are all more difficult skills to teach than one one-on-one defending, which should improve with age and maturity.


Artem Dovbyk’s Breakout Season at Girona



It may be that we don’t see his full potential outside his current position until after he leaves Girona. This is likely to happen this summer as Real Madrid have a rumoured €8 million buyback option on the young fullback, a bargain for such a promising player in this market. Whether they loan him out, sell him on or incorporate him into the squad may depend on how he adapts in preseason.


His academy performances for Real, crossing ability and athleticism suggest he does have the skills required to play as a more traditional fullback, should that be his new role in Madrid or elsewhere. That may not make the most of the skills that make him such an interesting prospect though.


Whether he can adapt and show the kind of quality a rare truly complete inverted fullback like Cancelo has will define his ceiling as a player. There is the potential for Miguel to become a team-defining player if he can develop these skills. They may even exist already, hidden by the restrictions of his current role. 



If not, he may only really play at his full capacity in the kind of role Girona offer him now. More of a specialist in the right system or a cog in a less favourable one than a player of the quality to carve out a key role in an elite team. Is the system hiding some of Miguel’s skills to benefit the team, or is it simply getting the best out of Miguel’s talents? We will likely find out at his next club. 


He has shown some very promising signs but his ability to adapt to a new system will be key. To get the most from him, potential suitors will need to either bear in mind the kind of system he needs to thrive or be confident in his ability to grow into a different setup.


By: Luke Petty / @petty_luke

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Alex Caparros / Getty Images