Alex Baena: Villarreal’s Next Homegrown Gem?

La Liga in 2023/24 thus far has been known for the fairy-tale of Girona’s title surge, but look a little lower down the table and you’ll see another story being told in Spain. Some major hitters like Sevilla, Valencia and Celta Vigo are all underperforming. To complete the Unfantastic Four, Villarreal are another club who make that disappointing cut this season after starting the season poorly, having gone through three permanent managers so far.


However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the Yellow Submarine. Their upturn in form since November has included some wins which have stabilised the sinking ship under Marcelino, and recently, they finished 1st in an Europa League group that compromised of Rennes, Maccabi Haifa and Panathinaikos, but they nevertheless sit 13th in the table after suffering back-to-back defeats to Real Madrid and Real Sociedad. As they look to enjoy a second-half resurgence in 2024, they’ll be counting on Alex Baena, a charismatic 22-year-old that is setting La Liga alight this season.


Breaking Through at Villarreal


Baena was born in Roquetas de Mar, a fishing town that is around a 15-minute car journey from Almeria in Andalusia. His footballing dream began at the age of 8 when he joined the setup at CD Roqueta. In its history, the club has been as high as the Segunda B Division – coincidentally for the duration of the time that Baena was there, which is the third tier of professional football.


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He would then move 200 miles to the eastern coast of Spain to the city of Valencia, joining the ranks of Villarreal. From then on, Baena would humbly rise through the ranks through Villarreal’s C and B teams and gradually but simultaneously through Spain’s setup too, from U16 level.


Baena spent 2021/22 on loan at Girona in Segunda Division. He played a big role in the team’s subsequent promotion to La Liga, contributing 5 goals and 7 assists in all competitions across 45 games. The Spaniard played a majority share of games in an attacking midfield role, often behind Cristian Stuani. The campaign showed off Baena’s versatility in being able to play across either wing or behind the striker.


He was given his senior debut by Aston Villa manager Unai Emery in the summer of 2022, alongside Chelsea striker Nicolas Jackson. The Submariners squad for that season would boast interchangeable players, therefore different systems would be deployed throughout the season – whether it would be 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2. A respectable 5th position in La Liga ensued, with Baena capturing 12 goals and 6 assists in all competitions whilst racking up just under 3,000 minutes of game-time.


This season, he has recently been deployed on the left side of a 4-4-2 under Marcelino. The Spaniard has featured as a starter for the season having established himself well in the team, and his productivity levels are translating well into goals and assists as he hopes to break through double digit figures for both for the first time in his career so far.


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The pinnacle of nationalism was reached when he was called up for Spain this summer, against Georgia and Cyprus in the Euro 2024 Qualifying matches. He was rewarded with 14 minutes for his first cap as he came on for Gavi, and opportunistically scored against Cyprus in a 6-0 win. It took him one minute and one touch to score from a wonderful flick assisted by Joselu. The debutant instinctively got under the ball to slot it home.


“It’s been ten spectacular days, and I will cherish them as a memory”, Baena said after the game. With the way things are going, it won’t be long before it’s a norm for him being in La Roja colours.


Playing Style and Similarities


The chart shows how well Baena has performed against other attacking midfielders and wingers in the top 5 European leagues. He is comfortably within the top 20% percentile for shots taken, assists, xAG, and progressive passes. The impressive statistics tell a story, in that Baena has an excellent passing range that allows him to excel in the middle of the pitch – thanks to his fantastic vision.


One of the reasons he is adept at playing wide too is his ability to create spaces for himself – something that is a boastful attribute in central midfield or left midfield. His pass completion is within the top 27%, but with increased game-time and switch in positions, this is something that the numbers will not necessarily reflect highly on.


Areas for improvement are telling, mainly to do with aerial duels and tackles. Per 90, the numbers for these are averaging around 0.47 interceptions per 90 and 1.11 tackles. Switching primarily to left midfield this season will have affected the drop off in defensive numbers whilst simultaneously boosting the attacking statistics.




A player whom similarities can be drawn with is Philippe Coutinho, who in his heyday was capable of playing across the frontline in as many positions as Baena can. The vision, passing range and comfortability of playing in between the lines are parallel to the player that Coutinho was at Liverpool. A number of Premier League clubs would suit the 22-year-old, especially at the age where the bigger teams can sometimes find it difficult to patiently break down low blocks against the bottom 10 sides.


Baena’s ability to shoot from long range, seep through the lines and all-round versatility would make him an asset for any European team in years to come. Should the underwhelming season at Villarreal continue, it may well be suited for him to move so as not to stagger his development as a world beater one day. If he can keep up his development, it’ll only be a matter of time before he follows in the footsteps of Samu Chukwueze, Pau Torres and Nicolas Jackson and becomes the latest player to leave the Yellow Submarine for a European heavyweight.


By: Abdullah Mamaniyat / @mxmnyt

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Pressinphoto / Icon Sport