Real Madrid are set to play one of it’s most historically tough fixtures : away to Villareal. The game which kicks off at 21:00 CEST is the last game before the international break.
In this week’s Behind the Enemy Lines column, I decided to shake things up. We’re getting the match perspective from the other side : Villareal. This week I talked to the excellent Allen Dodson, a Villareal expert who is the editor-in-chief of SB nation’s Villareal USA blog.
Q. Hello Allen, it’s a pleasure to get your thoughts on the game. Let’s begin by talking about Villareal’s defence. A major chunk of this year’s transfer budget was spent on fixing the holes in the defence of the yellow submarine. How do you rate their defensive recruits? Do you think it’s a problem that gets fixed by getting the right players or are there any systematic problems as well?
The question all Villarreal fans are asking!!
The data say there is a systemic problem inasmuch as we have given up multi-goal leads multiple times under Calleja’s coaching regardless of who has been on the back line. But the eye test says that Pau Torres (who spent last season on loan to Malaga, but is a Villarreal cantera player, and a native of the town) and Raul Albiol have looked far more calm at the back than Ruiz and Alvaro.
Q. So far, the start hasn’t been what you would have expected. You led 4-2 in the first game to draw 4-4, while Levante managed to come back from 1-0 down against you albeit from a poor decision to retake the penalty. 6 goals conceded but there is a feeling that you should’ve seen those games through when ahead. Do you think it’s a leadership issue or are the scars still fresh from last season?
Both, really. I think it is a leadership issue, for sure; we don’t seem to have that player who can really take charge on the pitch. The 4-4 Barcelona draw last year and 4-4 Granada from this year were similar—we needed someone on the pitch to take charge in dead-ball situations, especially when the opposition is playing quickly to take advantage of our momentary confusion.
I don’t know how the team is mentally. There certainly was a time last season when even when we took the lead, we were just waiting for the roof to fall in. It’s early this season so I hope that is not so. I also hope the team is not focusing on the referee issue, but we’ll see.
Q. Speaking about penalties that needed to be retaken – Gil Manzano has been chosen to referee the game on Sunday. It was his controversial decision via VAR to ask Levante to retake a penalty that was saved by Andrés Fernandez because he was adjudged to have come off his line. He was also in charge of Real Madrid’s controversial 3-2 win in the 2016-17 season where he was accused of carrying a ‘Real Madrid bag’ out of the stadium. How central will be refereeing in pre-match buildup and the game itself?
The team and fanbase have been approaching this in different ways. The fanbase is still livid about this referee assignment, seeing it as a slap in the face at Villarreal, and there may be some organized protests among the fans, though they don’t usually amount to anything.
The team’s response was more reasonable—they had a session with Mateu Lahoz (he’s a Valencian Community referee, so can’t referee our matches) where he went over a bunch of the new rules/rules interpretations.
As I mentioned on our podcast, I can’t imagine Gil Manzano was happy with this assignment either. I expect the refereeing will have some importance in the game only because when Villarreal and Real Madrid play, there usually is controversy somewhere, but I hope it is not central to the result.
Q. Santi Cazorla – his return from the injury was massive for you guys. How important is it to have a guy like him in the team?
It’s very important, because he is the player who just has that amazing understanding of the game. It seems like the ball always finds him, he sees angles no one else sees, and he slows the game down when it needs it.
Q. Real Madrid head into this game with some mixed feelings. Good game but still two points dropped. With the Los Blancos missing the likes of Isco, James, Hazard, Mendy and Asensio, how you think Javier Calleja approaches the game?
Against Levante, on the road, we featured an ultra-offensive lineup. That’s really what we’ve got. Even given our difficulties holding onto leads, I think we have to approach this with the idea we can get up a goal or two and play even from then on out. We don’t have the personnel to sit back and defend for 75 minutes and then steal a late winner.
Q. It’s a well-known fact – focus your attack down Marcelo’s flank and you have a great chance to catch Real Madrid on the break. In your opinion, how crucial is Samuel Chukwueze’s role for this game?
Samu has not been key part of our attack so far—we have been mostly attacking down the opponent’s right. We’re likely to see him more involved this time as you say, but let’s also watch how Villarreal try to deal with Marcelo defensively. That’s not Samu’s strong point, but with Ruben Peña out he may have to track Marcelo more than he would like. It does seem a game set up for Samu, though—he loves to run into space.
Q. On the flip side, what worries you about this Real Madrid team ?
Gareth Bale, of all people—he usually scores against us, and his game is reminiscent of the Real Madrid sides that would just physically bludgeon us into submission. In the last three years this fixture has been far more competitive, though.
Q. Okay give me your prediction for the game.
A lot hinges on our state of mind— whether we let the referee assignment get to us, whether we expect disaster even when things are going well, etc.
I’m going to go with 2-2. Could be 3-3, even, could be 1-3 to you guys if we get rattled and/or Manzano can’t stay away from becoming part of the narrative. But I think (hope?) he won’t, so 2-2.