Last weekend, the most talked about result in Spain was the 4-0 derby demolition handed out to Real Madrid by Atletico. Most people will probably not even have given Villarreal’s 2-0 home win over Granada a second thought, but in fact that meant the club have now kept a clean sheet in five of their last six matches. 10 days ago their incredible 18-game unbeaten run was ended by Barcelona but the way El Submarino Amarillo has responded to their surprise relegation in 2012 is nothing short of brilliant and now they are back challenging for the Champions League.
Villarreal is a small club historically, as it comes from the city of Vila-real, a city with only just over 50,000 inhabitants. The stadium El Madrigal can fit in half the city’s population within the 25,000 seated stadium. The club actually played its first ever season in the highest division (La Primera Division or La Liga) in 1998-99.
In 2005-06 Villarreal competed in the Champions League for the first time where they went through the group stage unbeaten, and then marched through to the semi-finals. They were paired with Arsenal and lost the first leg 1-0. Back at El Madrigal for the return, they got a penalty at 0-0 and Juan Román Riquelme stepped up, but Jens Lehmann saved it which meant Arsenal went through to the final.
After more than 10 years of fighting at the top end of the table, Villarreal were surprisingly relegated from La Liga with only 41 points. There was tragedy involved around the club as well in that summer of 2012. Manuel Preciado was appointed manager on June 6, but was found dead later that day from a heart attack. This meant a new manager was needed and that man became Julio Velázquez who was promoted from his role as Villarreal B manager. In January 2013, he was relieved of his duties and was replaced with Marcelino Garcia Toral, the current manager.
Despite players like Borja Valero, Diego Lopez, Nilmar and Rossi leaving the club during the season in La Segúnda, the club bounced back and were promoted back to La Liga. Players such as Bruno, Cani and Marcos Senna remained with the club and were instrumental in their promotion push. In the first season back in La Liga, Marcelino led the club to a 6th place finish, remarkable for a newly promoted team.
Despite the success of last year, Villarreal look likely to top it this term. They are sixth at the moment, only three points behind Valencia in fourth. They are safely through to the last 32 of the Europa League and face Barcelona tomorrow night in the Copa del Rey semi-final. The last part is interesting and particularly impressive since it’s the first time the club has reached that round of the tournament.
The way they have been playing, the performances of their players and the outstanding results will without doubt raise people’s interest because this is not a team full of well-known superstars paid by a wealthy owner. On the contrary, it is a well-built squad with cheap acquisitions both from inside Spain and from abroad. As has been the case in the past, Villarreal has been excellent at scouting South American talent, bringing them to Europe and then seeing them flourish, as is seen today with the likes of Mateo Musacchio and Luciano Vietto. Also, the club has proved a great place for stagnating players to re-ignite their careers, the best examples being Juan Román Riquelme and Diego Forlán. The current group of players is a great mix between both South American and Spain, as well as experience and youthful enthusiasm.
Starting from the back, Marcelino has turned to former Atletico talent Sergio Asenjo. Asenjo made a name for himself as one of the best young goalkeepers in Spain at Valladolid which prompted Atletico to sign him. However, injuries and the emergence of the younger David De Gea meant Asenjo struggled for games and last year he went on loan to Villarreal before being signed permanently in the summer. He’s been integral to the side with fine performances and is a big reason why the team has only conceded 20 goals in the league, with Barcelona the only team to concede less.
In front of Asenjo, a very solid back four has taken shape, even after the sale of Gabriel Paulista to Arsenal in January. Paulista started the season as third-choice behind Victor Ruiz and Mateo Musacchio, however injuries to Musacchio meant Paulista started and did well enough to earn himself a big move. Musacchio is now fit again, and Villarreal replaced Paulista with 20-year-old highly-rated Ivorian Eric Bailly from Espanyol to fill the position as third-choice.
As mentioned above, the two to highlight is Ruiz and Musacchio. Ruiz is an experienced defender who has played for the likes of Napoli, Espanyol and Valencia previously. Apart from having positional awareness many better known defenders would only dream of, he’s also one of the best passers in Europe who operates in defence. He consistently breaks opposition lines with his brilliant left-foot and formed a great partnership with Paulista, as well as with Musacchio. Marcelino will definitely look to sign the Spaniard permanently in the summer.
Alongisde the elegant Ruiz is the defensive monster Musacchio. The Argentinian joined Villarreal B from River Plate in 2009 and made his first-team debut in 2010. Since then, he’s played close to 150 league games. He tackles brilliantly, is great in the air and is one of the quickest defenders you’ll see. In the past he’s been linked with the likes of Manchester United, Bayern München and Barcelona but has so far stayed at El Madrigal, even when they were relegated. Along with Ruiz he forms one of the best defensive partnerships in Spain and Villarreal’s impressive defensive record should be continued in the next few months.
Either side of the centre-backs is two Spanish full-backs who have also impressed. Mario Gaspar has been at the club for a long time since he has come through the academy at the club and is a consistent performer at right-back. On the opposite side is Jaume Costa, who joined Villarreal B in 2010 and has steadily made the left-back position his.
This quartet provides the foundation for Villarreal’s defensive security, but still need help from the players in front of them.
Marcelino lines his players up similarly to Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid in a 4-4-2-shape with two hardworking players up front, a narrow midfield and a solid back four. When winning the ball back, Villarreal counter-attack in devastating fashion through the two forwards and most often the left-winger Denis Cheryshev.
The midfield quartet has been equally as impressive as the back four. Bruno Soriano is now the captain, a legend at the club after coming through the academy to play almost 300 games for his beloved club. His positioning, anticipation and work rate is excellent, he tackles well to break up play and his ability with the ball is brilliant. He keeps the ball moving with his passing and isn’t afraid to venture forward with the ball at his feet going at full speed through the opposition midfield. His quality is further underlined by the fact he’s been capped by the Spanish national team many believe to be the best of all time in their most successful period from 2010 onwards, and in midfield, their strongest position. Alongside Bruno is most often another Spanish player, either Manu Trigueros or Tomás Pina. Trigueros joined the club as an 18-year-old in 2010 and has also risen through the ranks from Villarreal C via Villareal B to the first-team, and Pina joined from Mallorca in 2013 as Villarreal prepared for their La Liga return. Pina is the one picked against the bigger clubs as he is better defensively but both are good La Liga players who complement Bruno very well.
On the right side of midfield we’re used to seeing Jonathan Dos Santos, signed from Barcelona in the summer to join his older brother Giovani at El Madrigal. Since he’s more a central midfielder than a winger he tucks inside more to join the other midfielders in possession, leaving the wing open for Mario to attack. So far he’s been a regular and has played 19 games in the league, scoring two goals, and progression is expected for the Mexican.
On the left, a more conventional winger is used in Denis Cheryshev, on loan from Real Madrid. The Russian has been excellent this season, and has nine assists in the league for the club. His dribbling and crossing ability is very impressive and Villarreal will have a fight on their hands this summer to make the deal permanent. Cheryshev is integral in the counter-attacking approach often adopted by Marcelino away from home, and he’s certainly flourishing at the moment.
Academy player Moi Gómez is another impressive youngster making a name for himself at the club, and he is certainly one to watch for the future with more than 60 league games already under his belt as a 20-year-old.
The front two is usually made up of Luciano Vietto and one of Ikechukwu Uche or Giovani Dos Santos. Uche is the better goalscorer but Giovani is the better player is probably a fair judgement. In fact, Giovani is yet to score in the league this season (he’s got three in all competitions) while Uche has six in total. What Giovani has that Uche lacks is what he showed when setting up Vietto for Villarreal’s second goal away to Barcelona a few weeks ago when he won the ball off Pique and then ran half the pitch before putting the ball on a plate for his strike partner. He’s a great dribbler, and is very dangerous when running with the ball and just gliding past players with ease. He needs to improve his goal scoring, obviously, but that shouldn’t be a problem since he scored 12 last year with 8 assists too.
However, the star man is 21-year-old Argentinian Luciano Vietto. Vietto signed in August 2014 from Racing Club and didn’t need any time to settle. At the time of writing he’s got 15 goals and six assists in 28 games across all competitions and his performances has been nothing short of phenomenal. To perform the way he has straight from the start is very impressive and the future looks very bright. He’s like a mix of countrymen Carlos Tevez and Sergio Agüero, a hard-working, energetic forward with great composure in front of goal. He scored the winner away at Atletico Madrid and also scored at Camp Nou, so he performs in the big games too. It remains to be seen how long Villarreal will be able to keep hold of Vietto, but for now there no doubt that the youngster is best suited to remain with El Submarino Amarillo.
So, in summary it’s fair to say that this resurgent Villarreal side makes sure football fans continue to be fascinated by the over-performing club from the small town on Spain’s east coast. The second best defensive team in Spain have shown that they can mix it with the big boys of La Liga again and they will likely continue to perform at a high level until the end of the season. If that means they manage to secure Champions League football at El Madrigal again remains to be seen, but the way the club has responded to the relegation in 2012 is exceptional and hopefully the story will continue in the coming months and years.