Who Are Villarreal? Scouting Arsenal’s Europa League Semi-Final Opponent
I thought of hundreds of different ways to start this report, but no introduction seems to stick more than just jumping headfirst into the most obvious. We’re facing Unai Emery. The guy that lost the dressing room. The ‘Good Ebening’ guy. The coach that was too bad to keep Arsenal afloat.
I would love to say that Unai Emery has managed to turn Villarreal into a worse side than before. But I would have lied. The fact is we’re going up against a team that has lost a total of 7 games through all competitions this season. 6 of them have been in La Liga.
When we meet Villarreal on Thursday the 29th of April, we won’t meet a tactically inept team. We’re going to meet a side that looks to either beat us or level with us.
Now that I’ve prepped a wordmeal I can eat later, let’s get going.
Just who are Villarreal:
Unai Emery once said he wanted Arsenal to be a chameleon team, and looking at Villarreal, you’d understand what his point is. During their European (not so super) League campaign, they’ve used two very different formations for an equal amount of time. Against Dinamo Zagreb, as an example, Villarreal set up a 433 in the first match, to then move into a 442 for the second match.
Even though these two formations look alike, most usually a 442 puts a much bigger focus on the midfield duo, as well as the striker partnership, while the 433 relies on the wingers bringing width and helping the lone striker in making infield runs.
As always, let’s begin this tactical piece with the boring stats.
Villarreal, like any team under Unai Emery, are meticulous. This season, they’ve managed to score 1.55 goals per game, while conceding 1.10 goals per game. Of those 1.55 they are sitting close to their actual xG, respectively averaging out to 1.49 xG per game and 1.20 xGA per game. Hopefully, looking at those stats, it shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that they very rarely manage to keep out the opponents, only having 23% clean sheets this season (13% at home).
This all also suggests Villarreal tend to take more chances when playing at home, having to chase games more often than not.
Possession wise, there’s not a lot to report. Likes to share the possession with the opponents, averaging out to 56% possession, which leads me to believe they feel secure in their defensive actions enough to allow possession to be lost.
Looking at their passing stats, they almost mirror Arsenal’s stats down to single digit passing differences.
Pass completion, for Europa League, averages out to 85% with the bulk of the passes being short to medium length. Main touches in the midfield 3rd, getting regularly into the attacking 3rd and penalty area.
Looking at Villarreal in possession, you’d expect them to play similarly to Arsenal, which would make some sense. Even their shot creation is similar to Arsenal, their passes leading to shot creating chances, their goal creation chances and even their passes leading to goal creation is similar
As we’re getting further into the stats here, I want to address the issue with statistics, as we’re beginning to muddle into that. Stats mainly show a trend, and, as we saw with Slavia and OSFP, stats alone only gives you an idea.
If I mistakenly showed Arsenal’s stats instead of Villarreal here, I don’t think anyone would be wise enough to spot it. Because they are very similar: Villarreal press through the whole field, though majorly press in the midfield 3rd. Out of 1364 pressures in 11 matches, 638 has come through the midfield 3rd and 380 through the attacking 3rd.
Arsenal pressed, out of 1293 pressures in 12 matches, 560 times through the midfield 3rd and 429 times through the attacking 3rd.
The only noticeable difference is Villarreal is missing a game from their group stages that wasn’t recorded. Because of that, I’d expect them to press that much more than Arsenal has done, trying to win the midfield duel and force Arsenal to make mistakes playing out from the defense
Everybody remembers Arsenal’s xG vs xGA under Emery. And thus I’m amazed to say that, once again, Unai Emery has a guy fighting for the golden boot. Gerard Moreno, their ultimate dangerman, has 20 goals in La Liga, putting him just 3 goals shy of Messi. On top of that, Moreno has bagged 6 goals in 12 matches in the Europa League.
With his 11 MotM trophies, I’d expect Arsenal has to do a lot of homework on how to defend against him. And that homework is going to extend to Daniel Parejo as well. Parejo is the key playmaker for Villarreal, averaging 1.2 key passes per game, attempting 76 and completing 90% of them. At the heart of the action, Parejo is Villarreal’s equivalent of Xhaka. Hopefully when Xhaka is 32, he can dish out as amazing passing stats as Parejo is doing.
Diving a bit deeper into the Parejo vs Xhaka comparison, there is one major difference. Though not as major as one might hope for, Parejo seems to be an easier target for pressure than Xhaka. Parejo has a 0.58 miscontrol per game and is dispossessed 0.78 per game, though not huge, this is the one place where Xhaka excels. Data also suggest Parejo plays further forward, receiving 1.62 progressive passes per 90, compared to Xhakas 0.89 received progressive passes per 90.
Lastly, though not a direct dangerman in terms of attacking 3rd product, Arsenal fans would want to keep an eye on Chukwueze, who Arsenal, reportedly, has been following.
Villarreal in action:
Unai Emery’s side seems to walk between two different formations, and thus, I’d best watch two games. That being said, I’d much rather watch the first leg against Dinamo Zagreb, to which they expertly managed to disassemble, beating them solidly on xG as well.
Dinamo Zagreb 0 – 1 Villarreal
Formation and Movement
Villarreal set up in a 433, which they’ve used a variety of for almost all the first meetings with Europa League opponents. Using the 433 allows Midfielder/Winger Manu Trigueros to start more centrally, while FIFA legend Bacca starts out on the wing and has the ability to drift inwards.
While the right channel was mainly Chukwueze and Foyth, the left channel was somewhat different, instead of using Bacca, whose starting position was left wing, midfielder Trigueros drifted wide to produce the 2v1 with left back Pedraza, leaving Bacca to drift central.
This wasn’t the only thing that was confusing, as Bacca actually rarely touched the ball, usually becoming a second striker in the box, Moreno was drifting to the right to create overloads with Chukwueze, touching the ball on 80 occasions, mainly on the right channel.
Confusingly, just judging based on my gut feeling, Villarreal doesn’t look very good defensively. That was my initial thought while watching the game. I don’t know if it was the flat 4 backline, the very narrow defensive formation or the fact the midfield and attack was very slow to get back and help the back line. No matter what it was, I was constantly looking for Zagreb to exploit the space.
I’d like to say they defended in a narrow 4411, with the wings ready to drop deeper to form a 631, but usually Chukwueze’s positioning was much more forward, while Moreno has to scamper back to join a defensive line, as Trigueros drew infield to form a midfield 3, mainly making the defensive setup somewhat of a 451, with Bacca off defensive duty.
This, of course, leaves an abundance of space on wide areas. Though Villarreal managed to plug the holes as the game progressed, they kept on abandoning these wide areas, leaving the midfield and fullbacks to track wide.
Looking at Villarreal, I’m beginning to understand that strange training clip Arsenal had under Unai Emery, where he kept saying “Calma!” while pacing them.
Villarreal plays with two faces. Zagreb went pretty offensive on their high press before dropping into a low block formation – but every time Villarreal came under pressure, they usually waited very late to release the ball, usually going backwards towards the goalkeeper or, if they managed to keep possession higher up the field, they would try to hit the wide areas early.
The other face saw Villarreal use their midfield as a passing station, moving from midfield to attack in a matter of seconds. If one had the proper time, I’m sure you could spot a trigger that told the defensive unit when to go direct.
In both occasions, though, the main targets look to be either Moreno, drifting wide, or either Trigueros or Chukwueze.
As the game progressed, the front 3 would interchange, leaving their area to work in a more central position. This type of movement, though, does tell you these players still haven’t worked out each others personalities, as it created scenarios as the one beneath
How to defend against Villarreal
Villarreal slows down play at the back, trying to dictate the tempo from a back three. Their main eject button is their goalkeeper, who is tasked to hoof it long if the fish starts to smell. Keeping on the pressure on their back line, while denying an easy entry into the midfield, would force Villarreal to work further into their defensive third, which hasn’t been their best area.
Furthermore, man marking the midfield pivot and dropping a winger to deal with the wide overload, would force Villarreal to make more risky play to get into Arsenal’s area. While Moreno, with his off the ball movement and ability to drive, is the main dangerman, he is mostly dangerous in the box, so forcing him to drop deep to collect would also make him a lot less dangerous.
How to hit Villarreal
There was a thing I kept coming back to while watching the game – something that almost was exploited by Dinamo Zagreb. The distance Villarreal defended on manmarking. They simply stood off the man, covering the area more than trying to deny the player space to turn.
Arsenal, having a lot of quick and willing runners up front, would be able to turn a similar situation around, without having a player offside. Working on deep lay-off runs and transitional play would cause Villarreal a lot of trouble.
The other possibility is to use the very narrow Villarreal setup. Working the ball through central areas before releasing a wide runner in behind would force Villarreal to widen the defensive lines, allowing forwards to make runs into the half spaces.
Following a disappointing 1-0 loss against Everton, Arsenal needs to bounce back. Playing in Spain, Arsenal has the ability to use their good form on the road and close the game early. That being said, a couple of players still looks like they’re returning to form, not really having the edge they used to.
As of that, I’m looking to rest Saka as well as Smith Rowe for this leg. I’m also looking to move Xhaka further up the pitch and reinstate Cedric as an auxiliary left back, giving us the chance to field another runner from deep. On the other side, I’ve opted for Bellerin over Chambers, just to keep Chambers fresh for the next premier league match.
This lineup includes a lot of speed up front, and would allow Ødegaard to operate in the space between the lines, picking out wide runners as well as Nketiah’s off the shoulder movement, which he showed against Everton.
Even though Arteta believes his eggs, most certainly, aren’t in one basket, the Europa League needs to be the main focus. As such, the last 5 domestic games shouldn’t be more favourable than securing a victory.
It’s time to trust the reserves, but not for Europa League.