Real Madrid start 2019 with just one point — a draw against Villarreal, in a stadium which they dropped two points in last season, and against a team they lost to at the Bernabeu months prior to that.
Villarreal are a walking mess this season. The inexperienced Javier Calleja couldn’t steer a talented (and well invested-in) team clear of the relegation zone before getting sacked, and the Yellow Submarine are coming off a disappointing draw away to Huesca. Gerrard Moreno has been out of form (though, he’s picked up steam as of late), and they’ve experienced a lot of defensive issues. This is on top of their lack of tactical identity, which is evident when you look at previous editions of Villarreal. They’re a team that’s been surgical with their direct passing and movement in the half-spaces in recent history. None of that has really been apparent this season, and their solid defensive record of year’s past has disappeared, as only five team in La Liga have a worse xGA.
Yet, it’s generally going to be difficult against Villarreal regardless of their form. Tonight, Luis Garcia’s men played a high-octane game from the start. Samu Chukweze (who gave Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique all kinds of problems in the Camp Nou, and did the same tonight against Marcelo and Ramos), was dangerous on the right; and both Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez struggled with Jaume Costa overloads on the far-side while Santi Cazorla also provided extra depth in attack.
Within three minutes of pressure and counter-pressing from Villarreal, they scored their first goal:
Chukweze’s turn created that goal, but Cazorla wasn’t well marked either. Samu pinned Marcelo for large stretches of this game with his attacking threat (particularly in the second half, where Bale left due to injury for Isco, and Marcelo didn’t have that help on the left flank as much, with Isco playing a more central role), while picking his pocket a couple times in dangerous areas. It wasn’t the best night on either end of the pitch for the Brazilian left-back, and Samu deserves some credit for that.
Villarreal also showed their other face, though. Just three minutes later, they conceded. Their defensive shape collapsed with a simple Lucas Vazquez run behind the lines, and Karim Benzema was completely unmarked in the box. Later in the half, Varane made it 1 - 2 for Real after he brilliantly converted a Toni Kroos set-piece:
Two headers from @Benzema and @raphaelvarane take @realmadrid 2-1 up against @Eng_Villarreal!— Strive Sport (@strivesport) January 3, 2019
Watch La Liga Live on Strive: https://t.co/uoTcQuail6#LiveOnStrive #VillarrealRealMadrid pic.twitter.com/zBSWJBgihb
At half-time, this was relatively comfortable, but Solari’s men weren’t in the clear by any means. They came out with a different structure, as Isco slotted in a more roaming role than Bale who, for the most part, was making runs down the left flank before his injury. Isco also had more touches than Bale, meaning Real Madrid slowed down the tempo a bit as they held the ball and looked to find openings in a pragmatic way.
As Villarreal pushed in search of an equalizer, Real Madrid found openings on the counter-attack, and perhaps the most jarring moment of the match came in midway through the second half, when Lucas Vazquez opted to shoot (saved by Asenjo) rather than squaring it to a wide-open Benzema, which would’ve surely made it 1 - 3.
Instead, Villarreal continued to look for openings, and Santi Cazorla scored his brace after Marcelo and Ramos completely fell asleep (and failed to communicate) at the far post:
This was yet another disappointing result and performance for Real Madrid. We’ll break this down further in the coming hours.