Villarreal had plenty to be proud of last season, as the club’s hierarchy recognised an early problem and resolved it quickly. Manager Fran Escribá had to cope with a multitude of injuries early on, and poor results piled up. Things hit rock-bottom with a 4-0 loss against Getafe in September, and Escribá was sacked.
Reserves coach Javier Calleja took over, and was able to get the Yellow Submarine headed in the right direction once again. Villarreal finished fifth in La Liga last term, while also topping their group in the UEFA Europa League. They completed the league season winning four of their last six games, and there were several reasons for positivity ahead of 2018-19.
The summer was a busy time for the club, and reinforcements were a top priority in the transfer market. The attack received quite a bit of attention, as the board looked to ensure that scoring goals would not be an issue in the new campaign. Karl Toko Ekambi (Angers) and Gerard Moreno (Espanyol) were both added to boost the front-line, while Carlos Bacca’s loan from AC Milan was made permanent.
Other areas were improved for Villarreal also, with the likes of Miguel Layún, Santiago Cáseres and free agent Santi Cazorla giving Calleja’s squad even more depth. With talent already present in the midfield with Manu Trigueros and Pablo Fornals, there was a feeling at El Madrigal that something special was on the horizon. Instead, it has been the exact opposite.
Through 11 La Liga matches, Villarreal sit 16th in the table with only two victories. They are only a point away from the relegation zone, and have not won a game since late September at Athletic Club (who are enduring their own struggles). Perhaps most alarming of all is their goalscoring record, considering the significant summer spending. Villarreal spent more than €45 million on their attacking reinforcements, yet have netted only nine goals in their first 11 league fixtures.
Even with all the goodwill that was built during last season, Calleja finds himself in a potentially dangerous scenario regarding his future as manager. Other competitions have produced some less than desired results, most recently in a 0-0 stalemate at Rapid Wien (Europa League) and a 3-3 draw in the Copa del Rey at second-tier Almería. So what exactly is going wrong? Well, we should start with what is going right, and that is Villarreal’s defensive work at the back.
Goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo has been outstanding, with four clean sheets in 11 starts. He positions himself well for critical stops and communicates effectively with team-mates. The back-line has performed well also, particularly Álvaro and Mario Gaspar. Villarreal have allowed only 11 goals through as many games, and can often keep the match in front of them. Their production in the final third is letting them down though, and Calleja must find a way to score more goals. The best (and quickest) way for him to do so may be within the 40-year-old’s tactical approach.
Calleja normally utilises a classic 4-4-2 formation, relying on two strikers to make the difference in the opposing half. In theory, he has the desired forwards to complete that type of task. Ekambi, Gerard and Bacca are all capable of creating chances all on their own, and in various ways. Whether in their hold-up play to involve team-mates or with their own skill on the ball, Villarreal can carve out opportunities in front of goal. However, when that is not taking place as required, Calleja should look for his midfielders to assist.
Pushing Trigueros or Cáseres into a more attacking role behind the strikers may allow for more space, and can open up passing lanes in critical areas. Villarreal have a strong defence, and that should let Calleja gamble more late in matches. With strong work from the back-line and goalkeeper, sending players forward more in search of goals is not as risky as it might be for other sides. At this point in time, their coach needs to earn points and needs to earn them quickly. A visit to Rayo Vallecano on Sunday could be a great setting to use a different philosophy.
A club such as Villarreal are used to competing for Champions League qualification each year in La Liga, and a relegation battle is not normally something to be worried about. However, that is the reality facing Javier Calleja, and discovering the best line-up to get the most from his players must happen sooner rather than later.
By: Roy Emanuel
Photo: EFE-EPA/Domenech Castello