When Marcelino was named as Villarreal’s manager back in January 2013, the club from Castellón were in a dire position for the first time in a long while. The season prior to that they’d been playing Champions League football, but a combination of injuries and all sorts of other issues during that year resulted in a shock relegation – a fate that threatened to suddenly tear apart all the good progress that had been made by them since the turn of the century.
Fortunately, though, Marcelino rescued them from potentially getting stuck in the second tier. They ended up finishing as runners-up in the Segunda División, in turn importantly getting promoted back to the top at the first time of asking. And not only did they go on to reconsolidate their position in La Liga, they thrived, recovering to impressively finish sixth, sixth and fourth respectively in the next three years. He even took them to the Europa League semi-finals last campaign.
Aside from their spell under Manuel Pellegrini, where they reached the last four of the Champions League and became runners-up in the league, both for the first and only times ever, it was the most successful period of their history. Things were going smoothly. Or at least, they looked to be from the outside, until Marcelino and the club split ways out of the blue just days before this season got underway. Uncertainty started to emerge. Once again, all the progress they’d made in recent years looked to be in danger. In another lesson of how to manage a crisis though, Villarreal haven’t let this affect them one bit.
Instead they’ve comfortably maintained their position this year: Fran Escribá coxing them into fifth and another challenge for the top four. A former assistant to Quique Sánchez Flores for several years before eventually finding his own path into management with Elche and then Getafe, the 51-year-old Escribá’s arrival has combined with a decent summer transfer window to aid their continued success.
Even if it seems quite unlikely that they’ll finish above either Real Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla or Atlético Madrid to claim fourth again, performance-wise – at least based on goals anyway – they’ve improved. Their 1.71 points per game so far is only a slight marginal gain over the 1.68 they managed over the course of last campaign, but with 39 goals scored in 28 games they look set to comfortably surpass their overall total of 44 in 2015/16. That’s mostly thanks to the arrival of the Italian duo Nicola Sansone and Roberto Soriano, from Sassuolo and Sampdoria respectively.
Historically more of a winger than a striker, Sansone’s been consistently playing upfront this season, typically alongside another forward in their 4-4-2 system that’s remained highly alike the one Marcelino deployed. Cédric Bakambu and Roberto Soldado (since returning from injury last month) are their two main options for that role alongside Sansone now, although Alexandre Pato played more often than not in the first half of the year before eventually leaving for China in the winter.
Soriano, meanwhile, has operated on the left side of the midfield. From there he’s proved to be a fine replacement for Denis Suárez since Barça exercised his buyback clause in the summer, possessing less technical ability than the Spaniard but a greater eye for goal. In a team whose top scorer, Sansone, only has seven goals in 1746 minutes of league football, the six he’s managed (in 1797 minutes) have proved to be very important.
Likewise, the talented central midfield duo of Bruno Soriano and Manu Trigueros have also weighed in with a few goals here and there. Bruno has five (although 80% of those have come from the penalty spot), while the latter has four for himself – and is perhaps the club’s most improved player this season. Trigueros has played the highest amount of league minutes of anyone in the squad, solidifying the good partnership he has with Bruno and already managing to appear more often than last year when he and Tomás Pina were regularly rotated.
As a team their attempted shots (10.9 per game, 13th highest) and possession (48.9%, 11th highest) are a little up from last term, too, having previously had those figures be right amongst the lowest in La Liga in Marcelino’s last year in charge. Even despite the notable upturns in a fair few aspects they’re still some distance away from being one of the clinical, full-of-firepower attacking sides in the league though. There are nine teams scoring more often than Villarreal.
What has once again allowed them to not score a ton and still do so well, is their defensive structure. Last season it was good, getting into the Champions League qualifiers as a result of conceding the fourth-lowest tally of goals and grinding out wins, even while scoring less than six bottom-half sides managed. But this year, they’re right up there amongst the elite. No Spanish side can better the 20 they’ve let in. And across Europe’s top five leagues, only Bayern Munich, Juventus and PSG can claim to have conceded less per game than Villarreal’s 0.71. That’s not bad company to be in.
Just like in attacking phases, the foundations of their work off the ball in the 4-4-2 system has retained a similar theme to before. They’re not a heavy pressing side, opting instead to maintain a narrow shape and force their opponents into wider zones before then utilising the lesser amount of space out there to close down. Seeing how they react to the circulation of play and cover the necessary areas is very interesting. It’s a highly patient yet purposeful way to defend.
Being able to pick their strongest backline more consistently has been a nice help for their improvement, too. Victor Ruiz has been a constant across these two campaigns but Mateo Musacchio was out injured for vast periods of last season, and while those troubles aren’t fully behind him they’ve improved to an extent where he and Ruiz have been able to line-up alongside each other more often. With Eric Bailly (Musacchio’s successful stand-in) sold to Man Utd during the summer, it’s been important that the Argentine could get fitter and fortunately he has.
Sergio Asenjo proved to be a very welcome returnee to the side until recently too – the former Atleti man played just 360 minutes of league football last campaign but has arguably been the best goalkeeper in Spain this year since returning from injury. Stylistically, his excellent shot-stopping, handling and comfort under a high ball is a great fit for a team who invite pressure upon them as Villarreal do. Sadly though he’s since suffered yet another recurrence of his cruciate ligament issues, at the end of the February against Madrid, and will be out for the foreseeable future. At least they have a good short-term replacement in the form of loanee Andrés Fernández.
Back to other positives, either side of that central core they also have two very reliable, underrated full-backs at their disposal in Jaume Costa and Mario Gaspar. The Spanish pair fit their way of playing perfectly, both possessing a balanced and well-rounded game that enables them to comfortably adapt regardless of the phase of play. It’s a rarity that teams manage to get in behind them due to their intelligent understanding of when to hold position and when to push up.
The positive result of their combination of a strong structure and a well-balanced set of personnel is clear to see. 13 clean sheets, and the best defence in La Liga. No team has taken more attempts to score against on average, either, with 17.8 shots per goal conceded being a figure that’s way ahead of the league average of 8.2 (Atleti’s 13.3 is the next highest for an individual team). That’s a conversion rate of just 5.6%.
It’s possible that there’s an element of luck in that. A metric such as expected goals would likely provide evidence towards such a theory. But Lucien Favre’s Borussia Mönchengladbach side consistently proved that letting your opponent take a relatively high number of shots – as Villarreal do in the context of La Liga – isn’t a problem if you set yourself up properly, and Escribá’s team fit that bill neatly. Just as they did under Marcelino. Given the strong similarities in styles between them, and Atleti as well, it’s no coincidence that Villarreal have proved so successful in stopping attempts from turning into goals.
The main reason for that is their positioning around the ball. Not only do they make the most blocks per game of anyone in La Liga, but they're also second in percentage terms with regards to shots against them that they stop from flying towards goal. Naturally, Diego Simeone’s Atleti are the side just above them. Supporting that same theory is also, as referred to earlier, the patience displayed within their way of defending.
For a team who has a less than equal share of possession, their total of tackles and interceptions made is quite low. Only four sides (Barca, Las Palmas, Sevilla and Real Sociedad) make less: and again, no coincidence, they’re the four teams who have the most possession of everyone in the league. Escribá’s team don’t make a whole lot of overtly definitive actions without the ball, but they without doubt protect the goal, limit space and prevent genuinely good opportunities from appearing. It confirms the eye test. Villarreal get people back, and they get them back in very good positions.
Given the last-minute switch of manager and how much potential there was for that to end up going wrong, how similar they are to last season is quite remarkable. Limited changes to the squad’s personnel have helped too of course, but they’ve managed an incredibly smooth transition. The club deserve a lot of credit for that, for getting the appointment correct and providing a calm environment for the new coach to work in, and so does Escribá for continuing to get the best out of the squad at his disposal.
When Villarreal were promoted as runners-up of the Segunda in 2013, it was Escribá’s Elche side who finished as champions. This time around, it’s he who’s come after Marcelino instead. If he can continue to follow in his fellow Spaniard’s footsteps, as he’s done so well so far, then fans of the club are in for some more exciting years.
This article was written by Daniel Butler, the editor of The Tactics Room and the owner of the site's official Twitter account (which you can follow here).