Though historically one of Spanish football’s smaller teams, with their Primera División debut only coming in 1998, Villarreal have had an incredible last decade or so. After establishing themselves as a top tier regular the club have pushed on, becoming a force not only in their own country but on the continent. They reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2005/06, where they were only a missed Juan Román Riquelme penalty away from taking Arsenal into extra-time, and then got to the same stage of the Europa League five years later. Now, another five years further down the line, they’re in the last four of a European competition once again.
It’s been one hell of a run to get there, too. They disappointingly finished second in a relatively easy group, however going on to beat Napoli and then Bayer Leverkusen in the two knockout rounds that followed is an achievement which really shouldn’t be understated. Sparta Prague were then comfortably dispatched in the quarter-finals, and now Liverpool are the only obstacle that stand between them and a trip to Basel for the final in Switzerland next month.
Whether through possibly winning that competition or by finishing fourth in La Liga (they’re four points clear of fifth-placed Celta Vigo after 35 games), Villarreal look very likely to be playing Champions League football next season. Marcelino’s team should be incredibly disappointed if they aren’t, actually, and although Liverpool are regarded as the favourites to progress in the Europa League they have a real chance to secure a trophy in the meantime on top of that. Doing so would certainly be a great tangible return on the excellent job that the Spaniard has done since taking over at El Madrigal in 2013.
The comparisons that have slowly begun to surface between this Villarreal side and Atlético Madrid are a real testament to what Marcelino’s achieved, in addition to being quite reflective of the stylistic similarities which they hold with Los Rojiblancos. Both sides set-up in most phases in what is predominantly a 4-4-2 shape, and both set themselves apart with what they do out of possession – controlling games through their use of space, rather than with the ball.
They aren’t quite as effective defensively as Diego Simeone’s team (let’s face it, who is?), but only Atleti (16) and Barcelona (29) have conceded less goals in La Liga than their 31. Just as notably as that they’ve also let in a staggeringly low 7.3% of the shots which they face; for context, 11.5% of the shots in the league usually turn into goals. And, as you can probably guess, Atleti are the one and only side with a lower conversion rate against them.
Having a solid structure is the predominant reason behind Villarreal’s strong defensive record, and as previously mentioned they typically hold the ever-popular 4-4-2 shape without possession. They’re one of the best at doing it, showing lots of compactness in a vertical sense to limit space between their lines while simultaneously being very good at keeping a narrow, horizontal figure. Marcelino’s team are also better than most at funnelling opposition attacks out to the wing and then orientating themselves towards the side that the ball’s on, using the touchline as an extra defender, something which keeps the other team from getting into the more dangerous central zones.
Though they do press a bit more at times during transitions, their closing down in defensive phases is mostly limited to when the ball gets shifted wide. Shape is prioritised over rushing to win the ball back, maybe due to the inherent risk of pressing and the gaps it can leave, and that’s shown in that they don’t make a particularly high number of defensive actions per game despite having the third-lowest average possession figure in the league. Their main reference point is space, rather than the opponent.
From a more specific personnel point of view, the contributions of their two wide midfielders (the pair most commonly used are Jonathan Dos Santos and Denis Suárez) and the two strikers (usually Cédric Bakambu and Roberto Soldado) are important when it comes to showing play out towards the flanks. The wide players tuck tightly inside, while the strikers – Soldado is particularly good at this – help to cover passing lanes and show play in the direction that Villarreal want it to go. Then, when the ball does go out wide, the full-back and midfielder on that side can isolate the opposing attacker(s) and press.
The rest of their players’ roles off the ball are fairly standard; Bruno Soriano, their best player, deserves a special mention for his defensive capabilities from the centre of midfield though. A bit more attention should be given to the main centre-back pairing that’s been used as well, which consists of Eric Bailly and Víctor Ruiz. They’ve got a good balance about them: where Bailly’s a very mobile, front-footed defender who can occasionally be prone to position-based mistakes (think Nicolás Otamendi but not quite as good), Ruiz is a more secure, calming presence of a central defender who can read the game a little better.
Bailly’s perhaps been exposed to more first-team football than Marcelino might’ve wanted as a result of the repeated absence of the excellent Mateo Musacchio, but good vertical compactness within their structure does help to keep the 22-year-old’s tendencies to step forward from becoming too damaging. And experience for the talented young defender should certainly be regarded as a good thing for his development overall. Especially when he’s getting that playing time in such a well organised system.
Despite being at their best in a defensive sense, Villarreal balance that out by being extremely efficient in attack. Quite irregularly for a team who look set to finish fourth, they’re actually the least regular shooters in the league by a fair distance – averaging just 8.9 shots per game. So with those figures it’s hardly surprising that they’ve got a pretty unspectacular 42 goals in 35 matches.
They’re good at ensuring their shots are on target however, which helps with that issue (only three teams better their 39.3% shooting accuracy). And, even more importantly, they turn them into goals too. The Yellow Submarine convert 13.5% of all attempts they take, a percentage which again is only bettered by three sides. Without looking into it deeper it’s not as if their shots consistently come from especially good zones of the pitch, but what does help them is that they have a real variety in how they can play when they’ve got the ball.
As mentioned there are only two La Liga sides who average less possession than their 46.7%, but regardless of what that suggests on first thought they certainly aren’t just a counter-attacking team. Or at least not in the same way as, say, Leicester anyway, because while not being dependent on it Villarreal are still very effective on the break. They can likewise retain the ball to a pretty high standard (they average the 11th-highest number of passes per game despite their low possession), demonstrating the flexibility and fluidity that a 4-4-2 system can offer when utilised properly.
Looking at them in their normal phases of possession seems like a good place to start, and for that there’s no better player to focus on initially than Bruno. Possibly the most underrated midfielder in European football, the club captain is the key to their recycling and circulation of the ball. His body shape when receiving passes is superb, his technique equally so, and the line-splitting passes that he’s also capable of playing are the most common source of verticality within the side. As a result of that he normally drops closer to the centre-backs (who, though decent technically, aren’t great builders of play) and operates as the deepest of the two central midfielders, on top of simply drifting around the middle of the pitch to find space.
His partner in the midfield varies depending on rotation and fitness (Manu Trigueros seems to be first-choice, saying that, then Tomás Pina) but whoever it is they usually play in a slightly more advanced area than Bruno does. Neither are particularly creative however, offering stability and ball retention more than anything else, and it’s instead down to the other members of the front six – plus the support of the full-backs – to convert their attacking play into chances.
In the positions on the flank, Dos Santos and Suárez – their most creative midfielder in the final third – can be considered more as technical wide players than out-and-out wingers. They drift inside regularly, overloading the centre of the pitch, offering options to play shorter while also being able to execute diagonal passes for their strikers to run onto. Samu Castillejo is their other main option in those positions and he’s in the opposing sort of mould, showing flashes of brilliance albeit only in between his inconsistencies and lack of end product. With those players usually drifting inside, then, Villarreal’s balanced full-backs (Mario Gaspar on the right, and either Jaume Costa or the young Adrián Marín on the left) have space to push on and provide wide outlets.
Up front, meanwhile, Bakambu and Soldado have a very good partnership. Both regularly make intelligent movements into the channels, although they’re at their best in central areas where they can make their runs off each other. Soldado drops away from goal more than he does towards it, aiming to drag defenders towards him, and that leaves Bakambu as the most forward player who can then burst beyond the defence with his electric pace and ability to time his runs to perfection.
It’s on the counter where they’re most effective nonetheless, and that Bakambu threat is certainly one of the big reasons why. Their success in that regard doesn’t just come from fast, intense players though, it’s more structured than that; very precise attacking runs into space being made as they transition out from their defensive structure. It can still be tremendously dynamic, just in a more organised way in comparison to how most teams do it.
There’s a similarly methodical element about their standard possession play (45.1 passes per shot taken is the highest figure in the league), just like there is when they don’t have the ball at all, and it’s that strive for quality output over pure quantity which Marcelino promotes that has served them so well under his tutelage.
That can be seen, once again, in their shot numbers. Even though their TSR (total shots ratio) is just 0.43, mainly as a result of their low attacking figures, when you only include shots on target (SoTR) it rises to 0.50. That positive swing of +0.07 between the two is the highest of any side in Europe’s top five leagues, bar Napoli (+0.08), and can be interpreted as a demonstration of their focus on qualitative production. There could be a little bit of conversion rate-based luck going for them there too, and creating more chances could certainly do them no harm, but for the most part the style seems to explain it.
So Marcelino has definitely worked wonders at El Madrigal, creating a very efficient yet still entertaining side whilst doing so. They were in the Segunda División when he took over, following their relegation in a calamitous 2011/12 season where just about everything went wrong, but he brought them back up and has built a team worthy of playing Champions League football. His two full seasons in the top tier have yielded two sixth place finishes thus far; now that elusive fourth spot is just an arm’s length away in the third. The Europa League trophy isn’t much further from their grasp, either.