In March of 2007, then-19-year-old Gonzalo Castro earned his first cap for the Germany senior national team. Joachim Loew’s squad for that match was experimental, and Roberto Hilbert and Alexander Madlung also made their debuts as Denmark beat the Mannschaft 1-0 in Duisburg.
Castro would make just four more appearances for Loew’s side, all in 2007, before joining the ranks of forgotten men in German football. Since then, he’s had his ups and downs, but on average, he’s played quite well.
The trouble is: Castro has never exactly had any defined position.
In his early years, Castro played almost exclusively at right-back and occasionally in defensive midfield. In 2009, he became a utility man, playing primarily on the left, but occasionally on the right of defense.
In 2010-11, Castro added a new position to his repertoire: left wing in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He played there more often than any other position, but continued to feature on either side of defense. And in 2011-12, he split his duties on the right of defense and midfield.
This season, Castro has taken on yet another new role: wide forward in a 4-3-3. And there, even with Andre Schuerrle, Karim Bellarabi and Sidney Sam giving him competition for one of the two spots alongside main striker Stefan Kiessling, Castro has thrived. Thrived, that is, at least when he hasn’t been deputizing for an injured midfielder.
Less than halfway through his ninth season as a professional, Castro has already produced more goals (directly or by assist) than in any previous Bundesliga season. But productivity in front of goal is only the very beginning: He has taken on the roles of multiple players in what is a unique interpretation of his position and led Leverkusen to an improbable second-placed standing as the winter break approaches.
It first should be noted that for a full-back to succeed in a classic wide midfield position is common, but the 4-3-3 formation typically features wingers who will cut inside and play as pseudo-strikers.
Such a role is typically out of the scope of most converted full-backs, and indeed, Castro does not play as the typical 4-3-3 winger.
At Leverkusen, Castro plays deeper and more centrally than his position formally suggests. Operating ahead of three holding midfielders, he is the main source of creativity in the buildup, and calling him a “false 10” is hardly a stretch. Indeed, Castro has assisted more shots on goal than Schuerrle, and more than twice as many as any of the midfielders behind him.
However, it should be noted that the Wuppertal native not only plays in the final third. To the contrary, he is one of the most active passers in the Leverkusen team: Only Stefan Reinartz and Lars Bender have attempted more passes than Castro, and they play in the most active area of the pitch.
For a comparison of like terms, consider that Castro has completed nearly 50 percent more passes than Schuerrle.
When he has been deployed formally in midfield, Castro’s positioning has hardly changed. On average, he stands a little wide of center, ahead of the two other midfielders, but behind Kiessling and Schuerrle. The only difference is that when the 25-year-old plays in the second band, one of the midfielders is swapped for a third forward.
The fact that Castro’s deployment hardly affects his positioning is further evidence of the importance he plays in the Leverkusen team. He isn’t a 10, he isn’t a seven, he isn’t an eight; he’s an 8.33, a blend of playmaker, winger and box-to-box midfielder.
And now that he isn’t confined to a full-back’s role, he’s beginning to show the full range of his skill set.
Joachim Loew has long sought a reliable fullback to play across from Philipp Lahm, preferably on the left wing. Dennis Aogo has fallen out of the running, leaving no real competition for Marcel Schmelzer, who, despite his impressive form at Dortmund, still has not proved himself on the international stage.
Castro would not have the same influence on the left of defense as he has on the wing at Leverkusen, but Germany don’t need his class in midfield and attack—that’s what Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus and Co. are for.
Castro is better on the ball than any full-back Germany have apart from Lahm, can play in almost any position, and at the very least is a new face worth giving a chance.
In a Leverkusen team that includes two Germany squad regulars and at least two or three more on Loew’s radar, he has been B04’s best and most influential player. If he keeps up his level of performance, come spring, the time will be ripe for Loew to give him another look.