Match Preview: Villarreal vs. Real Sociedad

After a heavy defeat of 4-0 against FC Barcelona on match week three, Unai Emery’s side has put together an 11 match undefeated streak in all competition including respectable draws against Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. However, the third placed Yellow Submarine perhaps face their toughest test yet on Sunday when they take on league leaders Real Sociedad. La Real must expect a tough game as they welcome Villarreal to the Reale Arena, as shown in this analysis.

In Possession


Build Up: Villarreal form a first line of 3 including Pau Torres, Raúl Albiol and Sergio Asenjo. Vicente Iborra plays as a pivot between the back line of 3 and the midfield line of 4 – which contains the fullbacks and interiors. Moi Gómez inverts into a central position, between the previous line of four and the next line of two (containing Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcácer).



Villarreal’s first three lines contain eight players. This means that if the opposition press, they will have to commit a lot of players high up the pitch to avoid being numerically inferior to such an extent. Iborra’s presence as a pivot is crucial. He provides superiority at a height that the opposition’s first line is unable to block, forcing an opposition midfielder to step out of the 2nd line.


This jump is in an attempt to deteriorate the superiority that Villarreal creates in the first two lines; however, it reduces the opposition’s third line of pressure to three players, leaving them outnumbered in comparison to the four players that Villarreal have at the same height. Dani Parejo will often move deeper to create a 2v1 with Iborra on the opposition’s advanced midfielder, whilst Gómez moves into his previous position in the line of 4.



The 2v1 is created at a contrasting height, permitting for not only retention of the ball, but also progression past Atlético’s first two lines of pressure.



Parejo’s reception leaves Atlético’s midfield heavily outnumbered, allowing Villarreal to progress into the second phase.


Second Phase


Villarreal set up in a 1-3-2-3-2 in possession. They attempt to overload the midfield by deploying a pivot and two interiors in addition to filling the central space. The intention is to create numerical superiority at different vertical levels in order to facilitate progression. The layers that this structure provides gives Villarreal the optimal opportunity to do just that.



Many interchanges of positions happen within this structure in an attempt to create superiorities around the ball that are able to be progressed into higher areas as the ball is advanced up the pitch.


“One plays based on position, not in it.” ~Juanma Lillo.


An example of this principle can be seen with the excellent understanding Parejo has with Iborra. In the second phase, Parejo many times drops deep from the left half space in an attempt to lure out an opposition midfielder, maximizing the space for Gómez in the half space.


As Parejo drops deep, Iborra understands when to move up the pitch in order to avoid being in a horizontal line with Parejo. Torres shifts wide to avoid being in a vertical line with Parejo, as well as give protection for the LB to advance forward.



It is essential to avoid a horizontal line between Iborra and Parejo as it prohibits vertical progression. In the picture below, since Iborra and Parejo are staggered, Villarreal create a 2v1 at different heights to enable Parejo to bypass pressure through Iborra, who can then find Gómez to achieve progression past Getafe’s second line.


Parejo also drops deep into a false fullback role in the second phase. This positioning offers both an option to circulate the ball to the opposite side as well as cover for the left back to advance further up the pitch.



Manu Trigueros has become a key player for Unai Emery in recent weeks. Because of his intelligence that is gained by his preparation (scanning to assess, body shape open to the whole field), he is incredible at identifying and finding the space vacated by opposition midfielders.


In order to give Trigueros this freedom, Emery has Moreno occupy the same vertical channel as Trigueros’ starting position: the right half space. This permits for Trigueros to move into the spaces off the backs of the opposition midfield without the occupation of zones being infringed.



Because Villarreal overload the centre, it obligates the rival to tighten their wide players centrally – because of this, Villarreal are left with space at heights on the sides of the opposition.



These spaces can be used to arrive behind the rival’s block, which is the most dangerous area of the pitch to create from. In order to prevent Villarreal from accessing this area, the rival must drop. This not only moves the opposition further away from their goal, but it also leads to extended periods that Villarreal are attacking in the final third without letting the opposition break out.



Final Third


Villarreal often enter the final third by means of their fullbacks due to the heavy occupation of central spaces that forces the opposition to pinch inside to avoid quantitative inferiority. Pervis Estupiñán can create plenty of danger after arriving into these advanced wide areas. Not only does he have the capacity to beat a player 1v1 at speed, but also a mental tranquility to pick out a player inside the box.


The central overload that Villarreal implements can transfer into a high number of players arriving into the opposition’s penalty area for the likes of Estupiñán to pick out. In order to make it possible for the fullbacks to maintain the width and arrive into the depth as the ball circulates, it is essential that Parejo and Iborra are positioned correctly.



In-to-Out of Possession Transition


Since Emery took over Villarreal, in-to-out of possession transition has been their weakest phase of play. They concede control of the match due to a deficient pressure after losing the ball. Because of the in-possession set up of Villarreal in the 2nd phase, if the ball is lost in the centre of the pitch, they outnumber the opposition.


As such, if they apply pressure to the ball right after they concede it, they have a high chance of regaining possession. The closest player in terms of time applies pressure onto the ball while his other teammates cut off the short passing lanes to prohibit the opposition from breaking out of the pressing zone. By reducing the space the opposition has in addition to having a numerical advantage, Villarreal create the optimal opportunities to win the ball back instantly.



If Villarreal lose possession on the flanks, they struggle to control the opposition’s transition. The forward momentum of their fullback combined with the amount of numbers placed centrally do not create an effective structure to counter press. Despite this, Villarreal still attempt to counter press in these areas. Because the distances between the Villarreal players in the wide spaces are long, the opposition has time to play out of the pressing zone.


In the final third, Villarreal normally lose possession due to the inability to beat a player 1v1 in the wide space or the inability to control a cross that is put into the area. Parejo’s withdrawn position creates a natural jump in the counter pressure from a LCB area to a LCM.


Because the ball is in the opposition’s territory, Torres is provided the adequate amount of time to shift over to cover the space behind Parejo as he steps forward. However, Parejo’s pressure can oftentimes be overcome by the opposition due to his lack of agility. This leaves lots of space for the opposition to progress into, dismantling the control that Villarreal look to enforce on the match.



Out of Possession


Villarreal execute their aggressive, high press in a 1-4-3-1-2 shape. Moreno and Alcácer take account of the opposition’s CBs, whilst the LCM (Parejo) is tasked with applying central pressure onto an opposition pivot or goalkeeper. The outside players of the line of 3 step out to the fullbacks should the ball be played wide. They attempt to force the opposition fullback to play up the line by cutting off central passing lanes.



Once the ball is successfully forced wide to the opposition’s fullback, Villarreal’s fullback starts to close the distance between him and the opposition winger. As the pass is played, the fullback arrives onto the winger. This reception is incredibly difficult for the winger as he receives with pressure on his back as well as being tight on the sideline, meaning that the 1v1 is heavily in favor of the Villarreal defender.


The winger also must release quickly in an attempt to play out of the pressure zone before Villarreal’s winger can collapse back on top of him to win the ball. Villarreal’s CBs are willing to step to a forward between the lines should a player drop deep to receive the ball.




Villarreal most commonly set up in a 1-4-4-2 mid-block in the second phase. The first line of pressure looks to cut off the opposition’s ability to circulate. The ball far striker moves to take away the opposite CB, while the near striker starts from a deeper position and intends to block the entry to the opposition’s pivot. He presses at an angle which forces the ball to the sideline.



Once the near side striker jumps to press the opposition CB, the LCM steps out from the second line to the opposition’s pivot. This jump is also in unison with a pinch from the 2nd line, attempting to tighten the gap that the LCM’s jump leaves.


The ball side fullback stays tight to the winger. This is due to the belief that if the winger were to receive, he would be unable to turn due to the pressure on his back, meaning a Villarreal midfielder could collapse back to steal the ball off of him due to the compactness of lines in Villareal’s block.


Likewise with the fullbacks, Villarreal’s wingers are incredibly disciplined in tracking the opposition’s fullbacks. If an overlap occurs, the wingers are instructed to track the fullback.


Deep Block


Villarreal also use a 1-4-4-2 shape in their defensive third. It is very similar to their mid-block, although their deep block is even more compact centrally. During extensive periods in their deep-block, Villarreal’s first line occasionally drop very deep, looking to be able to apply immediate pressure should an opposition midfielder receive.


The wingers are still responsible for the tracking of the opposition’s fullbacks – however, due to the narrowness of the block, it takes the wingers longer to apply pressure to a wide player as they must cover more ground. This gives the opposition time to receive and pick a cross out into the area.



Villarreal’s narrowness means that they have lots of bodies inside the area, making it hard for the opposition to find space in the box to connect with a cross. In addition to this, Torres, Albiol, and Iborra are all skilled at reducing the space that a forward could arrive into as well as clearing inserted crosses, making it even more difficult for the opposition.

Out-to-In Possession Transition


Villarreal look to break out of their defensive blocks quickly but always with the first thought being to maintain possession of the ball.



After regaining possession in their defensive third, Villarreal immediately look to play into the feet of Alcácer or Moreno. Because the opposition are forced to maintain depth with their CB’s to build a productive attack, the forward is able to receive without a defender stepping in front of the pass. Once the pressure arrives, the two strikers are dealt a great task: they must retain the ball until a midfielder from the midfield line can arrive underneath them.



The transition in the second phase is similar to the deep block except that Alcácer and Moreno are more likely to have to fight to receive the penetrative pass due to their higher starting positions (because they are pressing the opposition’s CBs). That said, Moreno is one of the best in the world at eluding this pressure with his tight control and a drop of the shoulder.


When Alcácer receives, he is adept at retaining the ball and finding a runner beneath him when he arrives. Because Alcácer and Moreno are set to pressure the opposition’s CBs, if Villarreal win the ball, their two most clinical players can instantly be played in on goal inside of the CBs.


Starting XI Possibilities


I expect Emery to pick his strongest and most comfortable eleven, including Torres and Albiol as centrebacks. Torres and Albiol are both well equipped to construct attacks, especially the former. Club captain Mario Gaspar seems to have won the confidence of Emery after a shaky start, and should theoretically be a nailed on starter at the right back position.


Estupiñán will likely be reintroduced into the side after a superb 30 minute showing against Real Madrid in the last match week. He will provide the width and arrive into height, allowing Gómez to act as an interior between the lines.



Parejo, Iborra, and Trigueros have been the 3 midfielders regularly selected and for good reason: Iborra has a great ability to know when to penetrate the opposition’s lines and when to circulate the ball. Parejo’s understanding of his position may make him the most important player to Villarreal throughout the phases. Trigueros’s clever ability to find the jumped space has been evident since his insertion in recent weeks and it is clear that Emery trusts heavily on the player.


Paco Alcácer and Gerard Moreno have scored a combined 10 goals already this season. Despite their potent threat, they have formed a great positional relationship over recent match weeks that creates constant threats to the opposition’s back line. If Alcácer is deemed unfit, then I expect Carlos Bacca to take his place as so against Real Madrid last weekend.


La Real Game Plan


My line up in order to optimize La Real’s chances of winning would include: Remiro; Zaldua, Elustondo, Zubeldía, Monreal; Guevarra, Merino, Zubimendi; Portu, Isak, Oyarzabal.



Against Villarreal’s high pressure, Mikel Merino should drop from his starting position to move alongside Ander Guevara. This will force Villarreal to decide if they want to jump another midfielder out of their line of 3 to prevent La Real to play past their first two lines with ease. If they do, it will be the left interior (Trigueros).


In goal, Álex Remiro must bounce with the CB to engage the pressure of the Villarreal centre forward, increasing the space for Nacho Monreal. When Trigueros steps to Merino, he also will be unable to apply immediate pressure onto Monreal. This means that Monreal will be able to receive with time and space to move into. Eventually, Trigueros will recover to pressure Monreal; Alexander Isak must look to receive the ball into feet from his left back.


Martín Zubimendi as well as Mikel Oyarzabal will be able to move underneath the Swede to receive a set while Portu will be positioned to make runs in behind should the Villarreal CB step to Isak. This setup will allow La Real to progress out of Villarreal’s high press and take out at least 6 of the Yellow Submarine’s players in the process.



La Real can achieve success against Villarreal’s mid-block by exploiting Parejo’s jump. In order to force Parejo to jump out of the midfield line, Guevara should drop into the back line to create a 3v2 against Villarreal’s first line of pressure.


At the same time, Merino must drop into Guevara’s previous position (single pivot) while Oyarzabal replaces Merino’s previous position (left interior). The single pivot’s presence will force Parejo to step out of Villarreal’s second line of pressure. As mentioned before, this jump will force the midfield three to tighten.


In order to make the most of the space that Parejo vacates, Zubimendi (right interior) should move deeper into the space behind Parejo’s left shoulder. This position allows for Joseba Zaldúa to progress forward, forcing Gómez to make a decision: stay in the midfield line at a position that he could travel to Zaldúa as the ball is played or step to Zubimendi to prevent the simple pass that allows La Real to break Villarreal’s first two lines.


In addition to Zubimendi’s positioning on the left of Parejo, Isak must actively look to find a passing lane between Parejo and Iborra. Filling this space will encourage the Villarreal CB to step out of the defensive line. If the Villarreal CB does choose to step out, Portu will be able to run into the space vacated by the CB because his starting position is in the right channel. Zaldúa and Monreal must look to time their forward runs with the position of the ball; they must arrive to the highest line at the same time as the ball arrives to La Real’s forwards.


La Real should set up in their regular 1-4-1-4-1 mid-block out of possession. Isak will pressure the left CB of Villarreal (Albiol) when he is in possession at an angle that takes away Iborra while Portu jumps to the forward line, looking to limit the circulation of Villarreal. This will diminish the control that Parejo is able to impose on the match as Portu’s jump takes away the option for Villarreal to circulate.


Merino must be aware of Moreno and Trigueros’s fluid relationship, meaning that he must know when Trigueros leaves the half space in search of a passing lane concurring with a dropping movement of Moreno. Merino will only need to shield the pass into Gerard in these instances as Guevara is positioned between the lines and able to move onto Trigueros once he moves out of the half space.


La Real must look to exploit Villarreal’s weakness in transition. Portu’s presence on the right will be a great test to the left side of Villarreal’s structure due to his speed and quality in large spaces. La Real’s players should look to find the wide spaces immediately after winning the ball.


If these lanes are cut off by Villarreal, Isak is great at finding lanes to connect out of the opposition’s pressure as well as incorporating teammates after receiving the ball. If they can break the initial pressure to Isak, he will be able to secure the ball to eventually play into the wide spaces.


Potential Threats to Game Plan


With David Silva out injured with a grade one hamstring injury, La Real have lost a huge weapon in midfield. Zubimendi is a very promising player, but there is no doubt that Silva will be a big miss between the lines, especially in the final third.


If La Real do not pick the correct moments to press together, they could suffer for periods of the match due to the structure that Villarreal implement in possession. If La Real attempt to win the ball in the wrong moments, Villarreal will be able to circulate around the pressure and penetrate through the opposite side quickly. When these pressing moments appear, they must become energized and travel together to win the ball.


By: Ryan Lamping

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto