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Preview Bits: Villarreal CF (Away)

Emery and Villarreal will face Real Madrid with an eye on the Europa League final.

Real Valladolid CF v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Starting with this piece, I’ll try a shorter style of tactical previews with just 4-5 points about the opposition team and their matchup with Real Madrid. Any feedback is welcome!

Who will Villarreal rest in their starting XI?

Predicting Villarreal’s starting XI for this game will be a tough task since they are likely more focused on the Europa League final against Manchester United, the first European tournament final in their history. Even our friends at Villarreal USA have little clue what will be the lineup will be and who will Emery choose to rotate, although the coach did state they will play against Real Madrid “with an eye on the Manchester United game“. So even if Emery chooses to start all his big names, there’s a chance they will be substituted earlier into the second half to rest them.

My prediction is that Emery might rotate a few players in positions where he has good substitutes like fullbacks and midfield, but he will still start the backbone of Pau Torres - Parejo - Gerard Moreno. So I expected a 4-4-2 lineup that’s pretty close to their full strength XI and looks like this:

  • GK: Sergio Asenjo
  • Center backs: Ramiro Funes Mori, Pau Torres
  • Fullbacks: Pervis Estupiñán on the left, Mario Gaspar on the right
  • Double pivot: Dani Parejo, Etienne Capoué
  • Wide midfielders: Moi Gómez on the left, Yeremi Pino on the right
  • Strikers: Gerard Moreno and Carlos Bacca

Will Marcelo, Varane, and Ramos start?

Varane and Ramos have recovered from their injuries and returned to team training sessions this Thursday. However, Zidane will likely have no urgency to include them in the starting lineup given how reliable Nacho and Eder Militao have performed in their absence. When it comes to Marcelo, one could argue that Miguel Gutiérrez is currently performing better than him and would deserve to start. In the game against Athletic, Miguel excelled at passing and moving quickly under opposition pressing, with dynamism and energy that the more veteran Marcelo doesn’t have anymore.

Given these circumstances, it wouldn’t be surprising if the lineup for the Villarreal game features Miguel, Nacho, Militao, and Odriozola as the defensive line. With Kroos’ absence due to COVID, the midfield line is set with Modric - Casemiro - Valverde. So the final doubt in the lineup will be whether Rodrygo or Asensio will start on the right wing, with both of them struggling a bit to produce consistently and fully earn the trust of Zidane to start.

The threat of Bacca and Gerard

Villarreal v Dynamo Kyiv - UEFA Europa League Round Of 16 Leg Two Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Apart from Messi and Benzema, Gerard Moreno has been the most impactful player in La Liga this season. He scores, he assists, he dribbles, and he helps the team move the ball forward through midfield areas by receiving with his back to goal or carrying the ball himself. Emery has built a good team, but Gerard’s contributions are what really raised the ceiling of what Villarreal can do.

During the first half of the season, Gerard’s best partner in the forward line was Paco Alcácer, who produced 11 goals and assist in his first 11 games of the season. However, his end product has dried up in the second half of the season, with only 3 goals and assists in the last 15 games. This has given Colombian striker Carlos Bacca an unexpected chance to shine during this final month of the season, with increasingly positive performances leading up to a hat-trick against Sevilla last weekend. His interplay with Gerard worked wonders, with Gerard delivering a slick through-ball to assist Bacca in his second goal.

Since Bacca hasn’t been so consistent this season, Emery might want to further test Bacca against a high-level opponent like Real Madrid. For Real’s defense, the key matchup lies in the duel between the center backs—likely Militão and Nacho—against this striker pair. Gerard likes to drop deep to help move the ball forward and assist teammates, and it will be interesting to see if Nacho or Militão track him when he drops deep or if they let Casemiro deal with it.

If Casemiro deals with it, his zone could be overloaded if Trigueros or Yeremi Pino start and occupy zones close to Casemiro. However, if Nacho or Militão decide to step up and mark Gerard, they must watch their back for potential Bacca runs in behind.

Pressing Parejo and Pau Torres

Villarreal CF v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Pau Torres and Dani Parejo are key in Villarreal’s passing circuit, as they usually take charge of breaking the first line of opposition pressing through their passing. Disrupting Villarreal’s possession game requires making life hard for these two and limiting the time and space they can have with the ball. Pressing from Modrić and Valverde will be vital to achieving this, with Zidane often instructing one of these midfielders to press all the way to the opposition center backs.

An important bit here is that whenever Valverde and Modrić move out to press, Casemiro should still stay back and track Gerard Moreno, who will likely be moving behind Real’s pressing line to receive passes from Parejo and Torres.

Punching Through the Villarreal High Line

Real Madrid v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Emery understands that his squad is better suited for pressing than defending deep, so he has opted for a more aggressive pressing approach during his Villarreal tenure. This decision entails some risk, however, and Villarreal leaves some space behind their defensive line that can be exploited by opponents that have good creative passers and fast runners. Even Kroos or Sergio Ramos—Real’s best long passers—don’t start, Real can still damage Villarreal’s pressing setup through longer passes from Militão, Miguel, and Modrić and runs from Valverde, Odriozola, and Vinicius. with the creative passing. Another way to breach the Villarreal pressing would through short but quick passing combinations from Miguel, Modrić and Benzema.

Real has been consistently good this season at breaking down opponents that go out to press them. Knowing this, it wouldn’t be surprising if Emery chooses a more passive defensive approach to concede less space behind his defensive line.