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Behind Enemy Lines: Villarreal CF

Unai Emery’s Villarreal are fighting at the very top of the league table. How did they get there and how do they match up against Real Madrid?

Villarreal CF v SD Huesca - La Liga Santander Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Background, Transfers, and Expectations

After the debacle of the Valencia project, Villarreal are once again the top dogs in the Valencian Community. Despite the occasional hiccup, the club have shown exemplary management since they were acquired by billionaire businessman Fernando Roig in 1997. Back then, Villarreal had never set a foot in the Spanish first division. Now, 15 of the last 20 seasons in La Liga have seen Villarreal finish in the top 8 spots.

Villarreal have a strong academy system, consistently make good moves on the transfer market, and usually choose coaches that fit the squad and overall club philosophy. They have built an effective organization that is now one of the mainstays of La Liga’s top half. Based on their budget and squad talent, club management and fans now expect qualification to European competition every year, and with good reason.

In the summer of 2020, the market presented opportunities for Villarreal to go even further. Pragmatist coach Unai Emery seems like a good fit for Villarreal’s squad and club aspirations. Despite their consistency in the league table, Villarreal have yet to crown their efforts with some silverware. Emery—despite his previous struggles at PSG and Arsenal—could be the right person to take a squad of Villarreal’s talent into a successful Copa del Rey or Europa League run.

Valencia CF v Villarreal CF - Pre-season La Liga Photo by Jose Miguel Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The squad was also strengthened. Villarreal took advantage of the disaster in neighboring Valencia and acquired midfielders Francis Coquelin and Dani Parejo for peanuts. They also acquired Pervis Estupiñán, one of the best left backs in La Liga last year. And then there’s the loan deal for Tafekusa Kubo, one of the big talents in Real Madrid’s youth army. These reinforcements mean that 4th place and a Champions League spot are now a feasible goal for the Yellow Submarine.

Lineup and Game Plan

Emery is a flexible manager, and as he famously said when he coached Sevilla, someone who’s “not going to die with his ideas”. Emery started the season playing with a 4-2-3-1 shape, but the early 0-4 defeat against Barcelona made him shift tactics. Right now Villarreal takes on a 4-3-3 shape with the ball and defends in a 4-4-2 mid-block without the ball. The passmap below shows Emery’s preferred starting XI, which he used against Getafe, as well as the typical passing circuit for Villarreal.

Source: Between The Posts

Unai Emery had a fantastic interview this week with El Pais where he provides the reasoning behind his current possession-based game plan and shape.

I have found again a specific idiosyncrasy in the club, a philosophy with players for possession. Being competitive means adapting to the specific circumstances and from there developing the football idea. That’s why I want to build the team, on the ball, from a single holding midfielder who provides balance....Because when [Real Sociedad] lose the ball, you see a 4-4-2. We do the same.

We want to make the team grow by positioning them to make passes and break lines. We insist a lot on identifying the spaces where each player is and how to win and move into new spaces. Sometimes we have space to make a lot of passes, and sometimes we have to be more vertical and make fewer passes. We are trying to improve the player’s reading of what each situation requires.

In this first part of La Liga, Villarreal are the team with the 4th highest possession percentage (57%). Especially after the switch to a 4-3-3, the team have gotten significantly stronger in their buildup phase. They have improved their ability to keep the ball against opponents and create quick passing combinations.

And looking at their squad, it makes complete sense that Emery chose such a more expansive and possession-based approach. The combination of Raúl Albiol and Pau Torres at center back provides both youth and experience, and most importantly, a good ability to play out of the back and find the line-breaking pass.

They have one of the most offensive fullback rosters in the league with Mario Gaspar, Alfonso Pedraza, Pervis Estupiñán, and Ruben Peña. Pedraza, the starting left back, has usually played as a wingback or winger throughout his career. Estupiñán and Peña have displayed excellent offensive numbers when they played for Osasuna and Eibar, respectively. Meanwhile, captain Mario Gaspar is experiencing a renaissance of sorts with Emery and has become one of his side’s most prolific chance creators this season, with extremely aggressive runs behind opposition defenses.

In midfield, Emery seems to have settled for a trio of Vicente Iborra in holding midfield, with Manu Trigueros and Dani Parejo—the best passers in the team—as the interior midfielders. We already knew about the passing capabilities of Trigueros and Parejo, so the most surprising part of this trio has been Iborra thriving as a lone number six. In the interview, Emery summarizes very well how much Iborra has grown in this role.

He is very intelligent. He has learned to move in that [holding midfield] zone giving the team what it needs: easy passes, supporting the attackers, knowing how to look for superiorities in buildup with the goalkeeper and center backs when the rival presses, impose himself in the air, clearing crosses when he gets between the center backs... He worked on his deficiencies: positioning, knowing how to position himself to make forward passes, when he has his back to goal he knows how to move to the side or avoid participating in the play so that the more advanced players get the ball because another teammate comes in to help with the pressure... He is learning!

Up front, Emery has built his offense on the goal-scoring power of Paco Álcacer and Gerard Moreno, who have become one of the best striker partnerships in La Liga. Alcácer is a more traditional striker, with especially good movements in the box towards the near post to strike crosses and cutbacks. Moreno, on the other hand, is a more complete forward who not only scores but is also key in Villarreal’s buildup phases when he drops in between lines. In the interview, Emery describes what he does to play both strikers in a 4-3-3:

Gerard and Paco Alcácer are our reference points on the front. Gerard is neither an all-out winger nor an all-out striker, but he moves very well between the wing and the striker positions. So we try to play with him in that role, but when we lose the ball we form a 4-4-2.

ESP: Getafe CF-Villarreal CF. La Liga Santander. Photo by Ruben Albarran/Pressinphoto/Icon Sport via Getty Images

This has worked wonders for Emery and Villarreal, and the Gerard - Álcacer duo has scored 9 goals in 9 games. Gerard playing from the right wing comes at the expense of talented young wingers like Takefusa Kubo and Samu Chukwueze. For now, these two youngsters are seen more as plan B or rotation options than as the starters, and it’s hard to argue against this given how productive their competition has been. Meanwhile, on the left wing of Villarreal’s forward trio we usually have Moi Gomez, who Emery appreciates for his workrate, box-to-box efforts, and tactical intelligence. He complements Gerard and Alcácer’s movements well.

Current Form


Villarreal have been on fire since the Barcelona loss. They have won 4 out of their last 6 games, only drawing against the tough defensive structures of Atlético and Cádiz. In both of these games, Villarreal’s buildup phase worked well and managed to get the team into the final third, but the problem came when trying break down the opposition defense in the final third. These two games highlight what is perhaps the big deficit of the Alcacer - Gerard - Gomez forward trio: none of them are great dribblers. That lack of dribbling often makes it harder to break down really good opposition deep blocks and create good chances against them. It is against these kinds of opponents when the dribbling ability of Chukwueze and Kubo would add the most value to Villarreal’s offense.

The last two games against Valladolid and Getafe have been interesting for different reasons. In both of them, Villarreal did not produce more shots than their opponents, but their chances were of much higher quality and danger thanks to the effectiveness of Gerard, Alcácer and Moi Gómez . The Getafe game in particular was a great demonstration of their interplay.

All of these games have highlighted weakness in Villarreal’s defensive transition. To dominate with the ball, Emery has chosen more creative midfielders and aggressive fullbacks and that leads to a defensive trade-off. Villarreal are not a BAD defense, but it hasn’t been so difficult for opponents to pick them off on the counter. They don’t have physical and explosive defenders who are good at tracking back and aborting counterattacks, and their counterpressing after losing the ball is still a work in progress. Despite these issues, there’s no denying that Villarreal are heading into this Real Madrid game as one of the best teams in La Liga.

Real Madrid Matchup

This match is heavily conditioned by the absences on Real’s side due to injuries and corona: Ramos, Militão, Casemiro, Valverde, Benzema, Jović. Most of the team’s tactical backbone (Ramos - Casemiro - Valverde - Benzema) is unavailable, and that means Real will be completely different from their usual selves. Without Ramos and Benzema the team struggles a lot more to keep the ball, and without Casemiro and Valverde it struggles a lot more in pressing and winning back the ball.

On the other hand, Villarreal goes into this game with their strongest lineup except for the key absence of Paco Alcácer, who did not participate in the last pre-game training session and will likely not play today.

A lot will depend on how Zidane chooses to approach this game. Without so many key players, a more proactive “press-and-possess” plan might not be as effective as usual. The team will be less compact when pressing. Villarreal are built to break opposition pressing lines through passing and in the absence of Casemiro and Valverde, Real will struggle to react and win back the ball when this happens. Given these absences and Villarreal’s weakness against counterattacks, Zidane opting to go for a deeper block and counterattacking approach might not be a bad move.

Keep an eye on the wings. Villarreal likes to break down opponents by having their fullback, midfielder, and forward form triangles and quickly exchange passes with each other to open up spaces in the opposition block. If Real’s wingers don’t track back to defend (looking at Hazard and Asensio in particular), there’s potential for Villarreal to overload the wings and create good chances.

Villarreal CF v Deportivo Alavés - La Liga Santander Photo by Manuel Queimadelos/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

The duel on Real’s left side of Mendy and Nacho vs Mario Gaspar and Gerard will be very important. With Gerard being more striker than right winger, Gaspar is the true right winger in Villarreal’s system. Gerard will often come short and ask for the ball in between the lines. He will try to pull Mendy and Nacho towards him while Gaspar tries to run behind them. This will put Real’s defenders in a decisional crisis: do they move forward to stop Gerard but risk Gaspar’s runs? Or do they stay back and let Gerard operate freely in between the lines, with no Casemiro to stop him? It’s not an easy problem to solve, and the outcome of this battle might decide the game.

Real Madrid v Real Sociedad - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

On Real’s offense, big responsibilities will fall on Modrić and Hazard. Without Ramos, Modrić must become Kroos’ support during the buildup phase. Without Benzema, Hazard must become the center of Real’s attacking plays. It will be important that these two try to accelerate Real’s attacks so as to take advantage of Villarreal’s weaker defensive transition phase. Also, even if his form in this beginning of the season has not been the best, Vinicius should have a role at some point in the game, even if it is only as an impact sub. He will be particularly hard for Villarreal’s defense to deal with.

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