On Sunday, Real Madrid play a very tough away match to Villarreal at the Madrigal (I will forever refuse to call it the Ceramic Stadium); where they attempt to break down Fran Escriba’s barricade — which is, no joke. Villarreal have conceded just 15 goals, easily the best mark in Spain, and have a better defensive record than anyone across these major leagues: Italy, Germany, England, France. Only Porto (11), and Benfica (13), have conceded less. In a podcast back in January, I had predicted Villarreal would finish with the best defensive record in all major leagues. At that time they had conceded 14 goals. Since then, they’ve conceded just one!
Those are just the bare bones, though. Last week they conceded four goals at home to Roma in the Europa League; and of late, they’ve struggled to put the ball in the back of the net (though Soldado has just returned, which should help them with their goalscoring woes). As good as Escriba’s defensive scheme is, it has holes to exploit. Zidane’s men should have the majority of the ball against a team that ranks in the lower half of the possession figures of La Liga — an important point to note when trying to keep a struggling offensive team off the scoresheet.
To help us preview Sunday’s match, we reached out to Allen Dodson of SB Nation’s Villarreal USA. This is our 2nd chat with Allen this season. The first one can be found here.
Kiyan: Welcome back to Q&A with the enemy, Allen! What's changed since your last visit?
Allen: When we played earlier this season, our goal-scoring woes weren’t quite so clear, and we were looking forward to progressing far in the Europa League, at least. Now, we just have la Liga to focus on. That may not be all bad.
Kiyan: Tough loss to Roma at home before valiantly picking up a consolation win in the 2nd leg. Where is this team's morale right now?
Allen: Hard to know. I think reasonably good, though the game on Thursday was in many ways typical of how we’ve done against teams that put 8-9 men behind the ball and want to let us control possession.
Kiyan: How much did Pato's mid-season departure impact your goal scoring woes? This question is only half serious.
Allen: I do feel sorry for any Villarreal fans who bought Pato shirts this summer! Oh, he might have scored a goal in the second leg against Roma I guess. But basically when the going got tough, he didn’t offer much. If we can get a decent striker this summer with the money we got from his sale, that’ll be a great legacy!
Kiyan: Back in December, I predicted Villarreal would finish with the best defensive record across all major leagues. Yay or nay? You're sitting ‘pretty’ right now in terms of goals allowed.
Allen: Yes, we are. Sergio Asenjo has had an excellent year in goal for us, which has been a good part of our defensive success. It would be great for him to be the “Zamora” this season, I suspect he has a good chance to do that. I think Bayern will probably end up allowing fewer goals than us though. It’s worth noting that (Roma aside) our defensive solidity has been less about keeping clean sheets than not giving up multiple goals.
Kiyan: Grade the Escriba era so far
Allen: This is a toughie. No question that at this point—out of Europe and the Copa, and 6th in the league and almost losing contact with 4th—it’s been a disappointment on the pitch. And Escriba is a quiet, colorless fellow (especially compared to Marcelino) and the fanbase hasn’t really taken to him that much. I do feel for him in that he took over just before the season started, with players he didn’t know or approve buying. So it’s maybe no surprise that a lot of our acquisitions this summer--Roberto Soriano being a prime example—have not settled in. The question is whether some of the acquisitions are really good enough, or has Escriba not gotten enough out of them?
At the same time, Alvaro Gonzalez has been a much better defender, so too José Angel, while young Rodrigo has been impressing in midfield alongside Bruno Soriano (who has been having an excellent season).
My overall grade is a C. Could be worse, certainly could be better.
Kiyan: How's our boy Cheryshev doing? (obligatory check-in)
Allen: He’s had his injuries in the first part of the season. Now he seems to be returning to form. The problem is his style suited Marcelino’s counterattacking play more than Escriba’s, so we really haven’t seen him contribute as we’d like (see my previous answer).
Kiyan: Will Villarreal change their approach against Real Madrid since the draw at the Bernabeu?
Allen: Well, I hope we don’t give up 17 corners again!! Had Sansone been available (he’s out with a muscle strain),I suspect we would have lined up in a 4-4-2 with him as a second striker. Since he is not available, we may again play a 4-2-3-1 with Bakambu as a lone striker. My guess is the approach will be broadly similar, because we have to be concerned about Madrid’s counterattacks at speed.
Kiyan: Give us your prediction.
Alen: If one side scores two goals, they should win. I’ll go for another 1-1 draw.