How Villarreal’s Mix of Hard Running and Killer Balls Could Set Them Up This Season


In their last match before the international break, Villarreal travelled to the RCDE Stadium to play Espanyol. The match itself wasn’t anything to write home about, with the Yellow Submarines dominant in possession but unable to break through against a deep-sitting opposition. That led to a fairly standard 0-0 draw, a result that Villarreal’s manager, Fran Escriba, described as being tinged with a certain “bitterness” due to his team’s inability to convert in front of goal.

In a lot of ways, that reaction was understandable. Villarreal had 60% of possession but only registered five shots in total, four of which missed the target. That meant Espanyol’s goalkeeper, Diego Lopez, only had one save to make for the game, and in truth, he did it pretty easily after a weak first-half attempt from Samu Castillejo.

That’s not to say that Villarreal were poor, though, and the manner in which they created that chance for Castillejo spoke to their biggest strength. The move started out looking fairly innocuous, with centre-back Victor Ruiz picking up possession well within his own half. Due to Espanyol’s deep defensive structure, the Spaniard had time to weigh up his options. He responded by moving forward slowly, taking a couple of ponderous touches. Then Castillejo made a darting, outside-to-in run from the right-hand side, and the meandering attack suddenly picked up speed.

Ruiz hit a powerful pass along the turf, with the ball fizzing in between the two Espanyol centre-backs in the process. Castillejo sprinted onto it, almost unnoticed, after ghosting in behind the opposition back four, before shooting first-time with the inside of his right boot. Lopez rushed out to block the 21-year-old’s effort, but even considering the lack of impact on the score sheet, this kind of move felt like Villarreal’s best avenue towards goal.

They used these diagonal runs from the wide areas frequently, so much so that they created plenty of opportunities from doing so. In the second half, for instance, Manu Trigueros pinged an aerial pass over the top for left-winger Roberto Soriano, who tracked it down in behind the Espanyol defence. He couldn’t get his shot away in the end, largely because the opposition were defending in such deep locations, but it wouldn’t be the last time Villarreal would break in behind like this. When Soriano was replaced by Denis Cheryshev with 20 minutes remaining, the Russian international would continue the trend.

First, he dropped short into a spot between the lines, something designed to take his direct opponent, Espanyol right-back Javi Lopez, with him. The ploy worked nicely, and with Lopez having stepped out from the back four, Villarreal left-back Jaume Costa shuttled into the vacant space behind him. Ruiz again provided the pass, this time with a clipped ball over the top, and Costa hit a hard, volleyed cross towards Castillejo. The right-winger did well to head the ball back across the face of goal, but he punched his effort wide of the mark.

Then, only a couple of minutes later, Cheryshev made a run of his own. He powered into the gap between Espanyol’s fullback and centre-back, and after a neat little flick from Trigueros, Bruno Soriano set about finding him. In true Villarreal style, he played a precise killer ball into the space between Espanyol’s back four and goalkeeper. Cheryshev took a nice touch to steady himself, but in a case of yet another near miss for Villarreal, Lopez got back to stop the Real Madrid youth product from getting his shot off.

As it turned out, this would be the pattern for the day. Villarreal would apply the pressure and Espanyol would fend it off, successfully, to hold out for a scoreless draw. But putting the result to one side, it’s clear that this combination of through balls and hard running in behind is what makes Villarreal tick. According to WhoScored, only two teams in this season’s La Liga have averaged two successful through balls per game; one is Villarreal, the other is Barcelona.

The formula worked well in the example below, where Roberto Soriano played in Nicola Sansone for a goal against Real Sociedad earlier in the campaign. This is what makes the team so dangerous. They have guys like Soriano, Trigueros and even Ruiz who can slice open the opposition defence, and then they have the likes of Castillejo and Sansone to tear away from their markers to sprint onto those passes.

This has enabled the club to start the 2016/17 La Liga season with consistency. Villarreal are currently fifth in the league after seven games, and what’s more, their three wins and four draws mean they remain unbeaten. Their defence has been exceptional – Villarreal have only conceded four goals at this point – and their attack is also starting to mesh. It might take a little more time due to a combination of new personnel and the untimely sacking of Marcelino, which occurred just days before the club’s ill-fated Champions League qualification campaign, but things are back on the right track. Mario Gaspar, Villarreal’s regular right-back, recently talked of this. “What’s clear is that we can do damage to any team,” he said. “Now we have more variety up front, bit by bit we’re seeing the manager’s work come to light. We have to keep working like this.”

What’s made that even more impressive has been the response to the disappointment of missing out on the Champions League. Under Marcelino, Villarreal finished in fourth place last season, meaning they earnt the right to try and qualify for the group stages of Europe’s biggest club competition. They failed in the midst of Marcelino’s dismissal, succumbing 3-1 on aggregate to Monaco, and it could have been something that triggered a slump. But according to Escriba, it had the opposite effect on the group.

“The group was affected because they would have deserved to have played in the Champions League, considering the good season they had had,” he said. “We had difficult days but it united the group in terms of finding balance. We cannot be driven by defeats and that balance is what is helping us function. Besides that [Champions League playoff] setback, everything is going well and I’m happy.”

It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Villarreal aren’t only going well domestically, but they are also topping Group L in the Europa League after picking up four points from their opening two matches. For Gaspar, this is the foundation they need to build from. “We want to get more points than last season (64), but it won’t be easy,” he asserted. “We have to make the most of the momentum we have and get ourselves a cushion beneath us like last year.”

If Villarreal are to make the most of their early-season momentum, and maybe even put themselves in the hunt for another shot at the Champions League, they’ll need to make the most of that impressive ability to find their runners in behind.