An Opposition Analysis of Villarreal

11 min read

Villarreal have started the season with 4 points in 2 games beating Eibar 2-1 and drawing 1-1 against Huesca. The yellow submarines are an especially interesting side given that they appointed Unai Emery as their manager for the season and have reinforced their squad with some very astute signings including Dani Parejo, Pervis Estupinan, Francis Coquelin and Take Kubo (loan).

Having watched and analysed both of Villarreal’s games so far, this article aims to give an insight in what to expect from Emery’s side covering all aspects of play including build-up play, ball progression, attacking 3rd patterns, key players, pressing, set pieces and strengths and weaknesses that Barça should be aware of.

Villarreal vs Huesca
Villarreal vs Huesca
Villarreal vs Eibar
Villarreal vs Eibar

Villarreal lined up both games in a very similar formation a 4-4-1-1 which can also be a 4-4-2 at times. Ruben Pena’s injury means that Mario Gaspar has filled his position, the veteran right-back is more defensively inclined to Pena and offers less in attack and ball progression down the right. Pedraza alternatively offers width and verticality, he has lots of space up the left flank and is attack-minded; thus, Villarreal plays with asymmetric full-backs.

This space is afforded owing to Moi Gomez who likes to drift in central areas in between the lines and open up more space for the full-back. Chukwueze provides width on the right-hand side; he is an excellent dribbler and 1v1 player with ideal ball carrying abilities. He likes to link up with Moreno who is consistently placed in between the lines on the right-hand half-space.

Parejo is the nucleus of the team; he is the primary ball progressor and dictates play.

Let’s analyse first from front to back.


Image 1

Villarreal showed a few different ways of building up out of defence. Generally, they did not dwell on the ball for too long and looked to progress the ball quickly. Pena showed good progressing abilities, as Parejo is man-marked, the right-back breaks the line of midfield with a pass to Gerard Moreno who is in between the lines. From here, the plan would then be to release Chukwueze and launch an attack. The pass was too heavy and miscontrolled.

Notice already in Villarreal’s structure the spacing in between players all around the pitch. The backline is very far apart, and Pedraza is maintaining full width on the left-hand side. This is quite an expansive shape (4-2-4), and quick turnovers and transitions could exploit the large spaces and gaps on offer.

Image 2

In a slightly deeper position this time, again, Villarreal are spread across the full width of the pitch. This time Pena can find Parejo, the nucleus of the team. By joining up the players to Parejo, we see how central he is to build up and the triangles that are formed. He has excellent spatial awareness and crucially does not need to take many touches on the ball, he has a sixth sense of where his teammates are which allows a fast tempo of play to set the team off quickly.

Parejo, when receiving the ball plays a first-time pass to Moi Gomez who has come inside in a central pocket allowing Pedraza to hold the width. This sets Villarreal off on an attack where they looked to utilise the isolation of Chukwueze who has remained high.

Image 3

Both Pau Torres and Raul Albiol are capable with the ball at their feet. They carry the ball into any space in front of them, and when Parejo is not an option, they take it upon themselves to progress the ball.

Villarreal has the ability to be a bit more direct and skip the midfield line by advancing the ball straight to the forwards. Above, Alcacer moves inside to create a gap in between the RCB and RB, where Moi Gomez is making a 3rd man run from deep. Gomez’s run stretching the defence also gives Albiol the chance to play the ball into Alcacer’s feet as this passing lane is open.

Below is a clear example of this. Again, Gomez makes the same run and the defence start to backpedal. Alcacer comes short and plays a smart first-time pass into the path of Gerard Moreno who once again is in between the lines and a passing option himself, has made a diagonal 3rd man run.

Image 4

This is something Barça should be aware of. The more direct approach tends to be as a result of not having Parejo open as a passing option when he is man-marked aggressively. Emery’s side showed good variety in their build-up and appeared to have many solutions to progress the ball.

Image 5

This time Pau Torres, as can be seen above, comes out of the backline and can play the ball either to the feet of Moreno again in the half-space, or out wide to Chukwueze. Furthermore, a trigger for this may be the lack of passing option in front of Parejo.

Nevertheless, Eibar managed to counteract this pattern from Villarreal and caused them a few issues when trying to progress play.

Image 6

We see in the image above the familiar shape of Albiol on the ball, with the whole team stretched across the entirety of the pitch. Notice Eibar’s structure here, they create a rectangular box which nullifies Albiol’s passing options in the middle of the pitch where Villarreal become static in their narrow diamond formation. We can call this a middle fronting block as it is blocking all available passing options bar the right back.

Eibar’s positioning also gives them a great chance to make an interception and transition in a dangerous area which is precisely what occurred. Albiol made the pass highlighted in yellow, which was intercepted and gave them an excellent opportunity to create a chance which they wasted.

This structure was what limited progression centrally, and if you refer back to Huesca’s structure, it shows the difference and how they allowed passing lanes in the middle.

Villarreal do take some risks, and even Parejo can be prone to a misplaced pass or carelessness on the ball in dangerous areas, with the right structure, this can be exploited.

Attacking 3rd

We have established that wherever possible, Villarreal will look to progress the ball centrally. When they have achieved this, they look to use the wingers especially Chukwueze, to drive the ball into the final 3rd.

Image 7

Having progressed the ball from deep via Parejo and Gomez, Chukwueze is set off down the wing to carry the ball towards the penalty area.

Image 8

He intelligently waits for his teammates to support him in numbers and plays a brilliant reverse pass into the path of Moreno who gets a shot on goal.

Image 9

Chukwueze is already showing signs of improved decision making and control in the final 3rd. This time he is doubled up on and plays a ball into Parejo in the dangerous zone 14.

The Villarreal pass map reveals a lot to us about familiar patterns, and which players link with who. While the right-hand side of Chukwueze, Parejo, Coquelin and Moreno look to form triangles and work the ball into the box slightly more methodically, Pedraza who has been consistently highlighted as maintaining width at all times looks to link with Moi Gomez and put more traditional crosses into the box or drilled low crosses to Alcacer.

We can see in the pass maps chart the difference between Pedraza and Gaspar who has less influence and less passing connections. Besides, the pass map highlights what we have mentioned about the spacing of the centre backs who are also very deep, and the consistent formation of triangles all over the pitch which Barça must break up and prevent.

Pass map
Another point of relevance is the xGChain, which ranks Gerard Moreno as the highest. This demonstrates that Moreno has the most influence in possession and is a crucial player that Barça must prepare for.

Image 10

The Villarreal front line can rotate with each other and has fluidity in its movements and the spaces they occupy. Both Moi Gomez and Chukwueze intelligently position themselves in between the lines and half-space. Chukwueze’s positioning allows Moreno to make a blindsided run on the far side. Parejo should not be allowed this much space and time on the ball.

To illustrate Villareal’s frequency in the half-space, there is a pass map below. There are a good number of passes into the penalty area as well. These are a result of Moreno and Gomez’s positioning.

Half space plot

Villarreal are lightening in transition and the speed of which Parejo moves the ball is vital when he has to delay or take a few too many touches he can be susceptible to turnover, so this may be key for Barça.  Both himself and Coquelin played in this style at Valencia, so they are used to moving the ball quickly in attack after winning 2nd balls.

Pressing the ball.

Villarreal are currently 2nd in the PPDA stats so far this season with 6.42 (Passes played per defensive action) which shows us how frequently they press the ball.

image 11

Villarreal commit a lot of men high up in the press, here we have a 4-2 formation. The key to an effective press is to make the right movements at the right time to give you the best chance of gaining access to the ball. Above, the Huesca CDM comes to receive the ball out of the defence, which is a trigger for Parejo to press him and rob him on the blindside.

Nevertheless, his initial positioning is too far away, and thus he did not give himself the best chance to get the ball. Instead, he has now left a hole in the midfield which can be exploited. Parejo lost this battle and Huesca progressed the ball up the pitch. While it runs a risk, Barça can exploit Villarreal in this way through the use of excellent press resistant players like Frenkie De Jong.

As a point of comparison, observe Naby Keita’s positioning here, he has a much higher chance of gaining access to the ball and his blindsided press managed to secure Liverpool a goal.

image 12

image 13

Above, Villarreal press the Huesca build up aggressively, committing six men up the pitch. The press is not led with another intensity and speed, there is a lack of urgency, which is allowing the defenders time on the ball, and there are still passing lanes open. Huesca moves the ball to the right-back, and there is no intensity at all to prevent progression of the ball. At this point as well, the space between midfield and defence is very large, and there is a free man in the pocket of space in behind them. If Villarreal uses this same press on Sunday, then Ter Stegen should look to take advantage of this opportunity like he has many times before.

image 14

The resulting action of the image above was this. As mentioned, no pressure was put on the ball or player, and thus Pablo Maffeo was allowed to carry the ball all the way up the pitch. Again, notice the areas of space that Villarreal have permitted in the middle of the pitch. With such low intensity in the press and wide-open areas to exploit, this is a situation that must be capitalised on.

image 15

By overloading the Villarreal right-hand side of the pitch and with Ruben Pena pressing high, the backline had to shift over to plug the gaps. This left an imbalance and resulted in the far side Huesca winger having acres of space to exploit on the underloaded side. Barça must maintain the width and look to take advantage of these structural deficiencies.

Set pieces

image 16

This is how Villarreal lined up for defending corners; interestingly, they had all ten men back to defend, leaving no one up the pitch to target in a potential transition.

Attacking corners.

image 17

Villarreal typically lines up for corners like this. There is usually a man who comes short (Moi Gómez), and Parejo takes the corner.

image 18

An interesting ploy used against Huesca was highlighted above. One of the three men clustered on the penalty spot made a run forward dragging a defender towards the ball; meanwhile, Chukwueze on the outside of the area made a darting run back post which no one picked up. The ball did not reach him, though this pattern could be used again against Barça.

Against Huesca, Chukwueze also moved from the middle cluster to the outside of the area which was not picked up on, had the ball reached him he would have had an unopposed shot.

image 19

Moi Gomez has an excellent left foot and in-swinging cross, above, Alcacer makes a front post movement to get away from his marker emblematic of his header against Bremen for Borussia Dortmund, as seen below.

image 20 2

Key players
Gerard Moreno
  • Half spaces in between the lines
  • Excellent close control
  • Very left-footed
image 21
Dani Parejo
  • The central hub of the team
  • Key to build-up
  • Quick use of the ball in transition
  • Presses high, but weak in the tackle
image 22
Samuel Chukwueze
  • Excellent 1v1 dribbler. Must be doubled upon and not allowed to dribble into the area.
  • Maintains width and stays high.

image 23

Pau Torres
  • An excellent passer of the ball, long balls and switches. Capable of breaking the lines and has lots of passing angles.
  • Good at covering for Pedraza in wide areas.
  • The passive defender does not jump into tackles outside of the line.
  • Weak in the air
  • Slow
image 24
Pervis Estupiñan
  • Aggressive and quick
  • May get caught out positionally but is excellent at recovering.
  • High volume crosserimage 25
Takefusa Kubo
  • Excellent close dribbling and technique
  • Plays well in half spaces
  • Can be a creative outlet
image 26 1

Villarreal is a tough first test for Barça; the yellow submarines have a new coach with a wealth of LaLiga experience and a re-invigorated squad. I would expect Pervis Estupinan to start his first game and there is the possibility that Takefusa Kubo will play. However, there is no obvious replacement given the good performances of Gerard Moreno and Samu Chukwueze. Raul Albiol has also picked up an injury and could be replaced by Funes Mori or Sofiane Chakla.

Villarreal showed glimpses of what they are capable of, with Pau Torres they have an elite ball-playing defender who can create, manipulate and pick out players in between the lines.

Likewise, Dani Parejo is another very progressive player who has an excellent distribution of the ball at speed. Barça could use a similar tactic as Huesca and block the passing lanes, or look to man-mark press Parejo before he has the time to act.

Barça must also be wary of Moreno in the half-spaces and Chukwueze out wide; both are excellent creators and can do a lot of damage. It is imperative not to allow Chukwueze the space and time to gain a yard on the defence; if he does an action must be committed outside the penalty area.

To avoid this, Barça should look to double up on him and run him into dead ends; the Nigerian lacked control and decision making in the final 3rd but, from the two games already, he appears to have improved.

Barça can crucially destroy Villarreal when they are under their aggressive press. By using press baits, utilising Ter Stegen’s passing and chipped balls into space.

To give an idea of how Koeman’s system may work, here is a link to an article already published on Barça Times.

We look forward to Sunday’s game, and hopefully, Barça get off to a winning start!


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