Yan Couto: Girona’s Mercurial Wing Back

In Europe’s top five leagues, only one defender has managed at least 8 assists, 45 successful dribble take-ons, and 145 progressive carries in a single campaign in the past three seasons: Girona’s (City Football Group’s) Yan Couto. If that seems like an arbitrary cut-off for a grouping of statistics, that is because it is. But, it highlights the Brazilian’s playstyle and contribution to both Girona’s attacking end product and build-up.


If you loosen the criteria to 7 assists, it adds one player who has done it the past two seasons: Bayer Leverkusen’s Jeremie Frimpong. Yan Couto is not without limits to his game, but his contributions going forward are up there with the best full backs in the world.


Couto’s career has certainly been a nontraditional one. He started his youth career with Coritiba, his local club. While still in the academy, he was named to The Guardian’s “Next Generation 2019”, which is a list of the sixty best youth talents in world football. He was featured alongside names such as Ansu Fati, Jeremy Doku, Josko Gvardiol, Eduardo Camavinga, Ryan Gravenberch, and Pedri, so it was a very prestigious honor at a young age. He made his first team debut in 2020, where he made a substitute appearance for Patrick Vieira (no, not THAT Patrick Vieira).



Couto was able to parlay the hype in his youth to a move to European football very quickly. Despite links to Barcelona, he ended up signing a five-year contract in 2020 with Manchester City. He immediately went out on loan the subsequent season to Girona, who at the time, was in Spain’s second division.


Upon his return to City, he featured on the bench of the FA Community Shield against Leicester City, where he wore the number 98 shirt and did not make an appearance in the match. He was subsequently loaned to Portuguese side Braga, then back again to Girona the following season, then back AGAIN to Girona, which is where we currently reside. 


It must have been difficult having such high expectations at a young age in Brazil, only to sign for a club for which you have never made a senior appearance. However, that has not stymied Couto’s progression, as he has developed into one of the best young attacking full backs not just in La Liga, but in the entire world. 


To understand a bit more about the player and his profile (as well as any player I analyze), I have developed a model that rates players based on a number of characteristics, while doing my best to adjust for team environment factors such as possession disparities. Below is Yan Couto’s development from ‘22/23 to ‘23/24 in the full back template.



Couto has improved in the aggregate, but there have been some key downturns in his underlying numbers this season that are important to being a successful fullback. Namely, Couto has seen his challenge success rate (a duel with an opposition player that is the result of the opponent performing a dribble take-on) fall off a cliff, as well as his overall chance creation volume declining slightly.


He has made big strides in his passing accuracy, which has likely led to the improved assist figures this season (up from 2 last season to 8 this season). Otherwise, he is largely the same player: a very attack-minded full back that creates a lot of chances and loves a marauding run down the right side, but still has deficiencies in his overall defensive abilities.


Let’s get a bit more granular on some of his strengths and weaknesses, which will eventually lead into a recommendation for a transfer move that is not at all rumored, but that I believe would make tremendous tactical sense for all parties. Given the statistics I laid out to begin this article, it should be no surprise that Yan Couto leads all La Liga full backs in both progressive carries and dribble take-ons. 



One of the flaws to looking at progressive carries as an isolated statistic is that not all occurrences are of equal value, but are still counted with a binary yes/no. Opta defines a progressive carry as “carries that move the ball towards the opponent’s goal line at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the last six passes, or any carry into the penalty area, excluding carries that end in the defending half of the pitch.”


This allows for a progressive carry of 10 yards to be counted the same as a carry of 30 yards, when in reality, the latter likely has a larger impact on the game. An alternative way to measure a player’s effectiveness in carrying forward is progressive carry distance per touch. This is simply how far forward a player carries the ball in the aggregate, but adjusts for players that see more of the ball than others.


The flaw with this is that the further up the pitch a player takes possession determines how many yards are actually available to carry, so comparing a winger’s PrgC Dist/Touch to a center backs is not a reasonable thing to do. In the instance below, where I plot PrgC Dist/Touch and Take Ons/90 minutes, this is a moot point, as the sample group are all La Liga full backs, so their positioning is generally the same.




Within the sample group of all La Liga full backs to register 900 minutes in an individual campaign in the past three seasons, Couto has improved from an elite level to literally the best marks in both categories this season. His improvement and impact on the way Girona progresses the ball in possession cannot be understated.


For reference, the players with data points between his two marks: Samuel Lino (closest to Couto’s ‘23/24 campaign), Yannick Carrasco last season and Rodrigo Riquelme this season (two clustered together), and Fran Garcia last year. An interesting trend is that three of the four players are Atlético wing backs.


Couto’s impact has not just been felt in build-up; the Brazilian is making his presence felt in Girona’s final product too. His assists per 90 minutes have doubled from 0.16 to 0.33, which can be explained by two seemingly small, but quite consequential factors.


The first: his carries + passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes are up 16% from 2.48 last season to 2.87 this season. The second: his positioning is further advanced than last season. His touches in the attacking third per 90 minutes are up 27% from 20.6 to 26.1, and his touches in the opposition’s penalty area have literally doubled from 1.55 to 3.11.



However, it is not all sunshine and rainbows for Couto this season. He has generally the same profile for defensive actions as he did last season, which is not a great one. He ranks below the La Liga full back median for per 90 statistics such as tackle attempts, interceptions, blocks, and clearances. The only one he grades out above the median in is recoveries, which is more of an effort-based metric than a skill one. 



His defensive woes were prominently on display during Real Madrid’s 4-0 drubbing of Girona on February 10th. Couto conceded a penalty, was 5/13 on ground duels, and was dribbled past a staggering 6 times. He was marking his compatriot, Vinicius Jr., who had probably his best game of the season with a goal and two assists.


For Couto to take the next step in his career and become a truly elite full back, he needs to improve his defending across the board. Given his quality going forwards, he does not need to be an elite defender; becoming a median level defender would suffice.


The good news: I think I might have just the solution to take Yan Couto to the next level… a transfer to Atlético Madrid. I say this on the basis of tactical and analytical fit. I understand there are additional factors like finances to consider, but play along with me and assume this is a move that the player wants and that both clubs are amenable to. 


The first piece of evidence is the image of full backs plotted by PrgC Dist/Touch and Take Ons per 90 I presented earlier. He is in the range of three other Atlético Madrid wing backs, so tactically, his abilities going forward fit into what Diego Simeone wants. 


Samuel Lino: Atletico Madrid’s Brazilian Phenom


The other big piece of the puzzle: Couto’s defensive inability. Is that something that would really fit into Simeone’s system? There is actually a recent history of Atlético signing wide players with less than stellar defensive records and turning them into more than serviceable wing backs / wide midfielders.


In the past season, Couto’s former club teammate Rodrigo Riquelme played a season on loan at Girona, then moved back to Atlético Madrid. Moreover, Couto’s national teammate, Samuel Lino, played on loan for Valencia last season, and is now back with his mother club. Both players experienced a drastic increase in their defensive action (tackles, interceptions, blocks, clearances, and recoveries) per 90 minutes this season.


  • Rodrigo Riquelme: 6.74 to 10.52 (+56%)
  • Samuel Lino: 9.48 to 12.81 (+35%)


The part that makes this especially beneficial to both club and player: both Riquelme and Lino were considered wide midfielders or wingers that moved further down the pitch. Yan Couto already plays the position for Girona he would for Atlético, and if anything he would get even more license to prowl the flanks with Los Colchoneros.



The final bit that makes this move make sense to me: Nahuel Molina has had a poor season in the right wing back spot. Both Lino and Riquelme play on the left, which means the only cover or replacement for Molina was to have the ever-versatile Marcos Llorente play out wide on the right, which cost Atlético valuable depth in central midfield. Yan Couto would come into the side and immediately represent an improvement on the right side of the pitch.


While Yan Couto to Atlético is just a fantasy at this point, the strides he has made this season are real and concrete. He has become one of the most dangerous wide players in La Liga, and with some improvement to his defensive abilities, he could soon be one of the most well-rounded right backs in the world.


He still has another season under contract with the City Football Group, so more than likely, he will suit up for the Citizens next season. I do hope he can remain in La Liga, as his style of play suits the league. One thing I do know: there will be no shortage of entertainment down the right flank of whichever club Yan Couto plays for next season.


By: Spencer Mossman / @fc_mossman

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Pedro Salado / Getty Images