Between 2016 and 2018 Real Madrid did the unthinkable, winning the Champions League three years in a row.
While most of the architects of this remarkable run have received their due respect, one member of the squad’s contribution has been somewhat overlooked – right-back Dani Carvajal.
The Spaniard started every single one of Real’s three victorious finals and also played a full 120 minutes when they scooped the trophy in 2013, beating Atletico Madrid 4-1 after extra time.
Jamie Carragher once gave a scathing criticism of the full-back position, labelling all those who played the role either failed centre-backs or failed winger. “Nobody grows up wanting to be Gary Neville,” was another one of the Liverpool legends quips.
Though said in jest, Carragher’s comments were still wide of the mark at the time. Since the turn of the millennium full-backs have been very much in vogue but the offensively mobile robust Carvajal is one of the select group of player who have increased the position’s popularity even more during the 2010s.
It could have all been very different though.
Turning down the chance to chill with Super Pepino, the cucumber mascot at hometown club Leganes, Carvajal came through the the youth system at Real but found the door to first team action firmly bolted when he came of age.
Despite impressing for Los Blancos’ B team – helping them win promotion back to the Spanish second tier in 2012 – promotion to the senior ranks remained elusive. Eventually, Real opted to sell him to Bayer Leverkusen that summer for a fee of just €5m. Conscious of Carvajal’s potential they made sure to include a cut-price buy back clause if he impressed in Germany.
Boy, did he impress as well.
Despite having no experience at the highest level, 20-year-old Carvajal took next to no time adjusting to his new surroundings. In what would turn out to be a breakout season, he managed eight assists and a goal in 32 appearances – the best numbers for any defender other than the imperious Phillippe Lahm.
In a season of standout moments, setting up the winning goal in a victory over eventual treble winners Bayern Munich was the sweetest, as Leverkusen went on to finish just one point shy of Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund.
All of the classic traits that have come to define Carvajal as a player were present in the life-changing season in Germany: pinpoint crossing ability, razor sharp dribbling skills and a deceptive level of agression in the tackle. He more than earned his place in Bild’s Bundesliga’s Team of the Season.
As well as picking up lots of tricks on the pitch, his time in Leverkusen also strengthened his mentality.
“I learned a lot, especially living alone there, going to another country, another league,” he told the Bundesliga website at the end of the season.
“I matured a lot as a person, and was able to compete in elite football and European competition. Being young, you acquire a lot of experience, and the tactical and physical aspects make you a better player. Tactically, I’m more complete. Coming up against footballers from around the world makes you improve. I have reinforced my strengths, such as anticipation, speed and crossing.”
Real were so impressed with how Carvajal had progressed during his year away from the Spanish capital they pinched him back for just €1.5m more than they sold him for a year prior.
Since returning to where it all began he has been a model of consistency, rarely giving his side anything less than 7/10 each week. Exactly what you want from your full-back.
Even amid a swathes of niggling injuries, Carvajal has never featured in less than 20 games in any of his seven La Liga seasons, two of which have ended with him lifting the title. As well as those four Champions League successes we mentioned earlier, he’s also clinched multiple Copa del Rey, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup winners medals over the past decade.
A key part to the Real dynasty, his solid defending and positioning has allowed the swath of self-indulgent, if extremely talented attackers in front of him to express themselves and helped Los Merengues make history.