The wretched 2011 is behind us. Apart from the Europa League campaign, Villarreal scored an anemic 44 points in 38 games in the calendar year of 2011. Those numbers barely miss relegation. Which is exactly where we find us right now. With Racing Santander's win over Zaragoza, Villarreal will kick-off against Valencia tomorrow in relegation places.
Sunday 8th January 2012. A new year. A new start to the season. A new coach. Lots of changes. Renewed hope that the team will turn things around for the better. Frankly, things can hardly get any worse.
Jose Francisco Molina has no coaching experience in the Primera and very limited experience coaching in the Segunda. Yet president Fernando Roig opted for continuity and went for the insider ("hombre de la casa") to not disturb the system and the mechanisms of the team. A bold move in the circumstances but one that could turn out to be a masterstroke if things pan out well.
Molina wont have it easy against the "best of the rest" Valencia who, apart from the setback in the Champions League have demonstrated that they are the 3rd best team in La Liga by a country mile. Well drilled tactically along with some technically gifted players in all parts of the pitch, Villarreal and Molina have their tasks cut out if they want to get something out of this game.
Tactics and Match-ups
Unai Emery is one of the brightest young coaches in Spain, if not in all of Europe. His teams tend to adapt to the opposition almost on a game-to-game basis. He outwitted Pep Guardiola for a half and almost scored an improbable victory over the Blaugrana. He switched tactics halfway through against Real Madrid and almost snatched a draw in the 2nd half. However the constant changes in tactics also had some negative impact most notably dropping points against some lowly teams at home.
The stock formation of Valencia has been 4-2-3-1. The impressive pair of Victor Ruiz and Adil Rami in the centre of the defence, Jordi Alba on the left and Miguel on the right as fullbacks form the defence. Alba and Miguel provide a the attacking width and attack a lot. Hard-tackling David Albelda and the talented and enigmatic Ever Banega from the doble-pivote supporting the impressive Jonas, Feghouli/PHernandez Mathieu and the goalscoring machine, Roberto Soldado.
Update: Albelda is not available for this game. Thanks Kenez.
Last season when Villarreal was playing some of its best football, Emery opted for a 5-man backline with an extra fullback (Mathieu) and stifled the attacks of Villarreal pinning back the fullbacks and making the interiories defend more than they would like to. The four games ended 1-1(La Liga, Madrigal), 0-0(Copa, Mestalla), 4-2(Copa, Madrigal) and 5-0(La Liga, Mestalla). Except for the blowout towards the end of the season the other three were very close. The rousing comeback win of Villarreal from 0-2 down at HT to 4-2 in the Quarterfinals of the Copa was probably the best game of Villarreal in 2011.
What to expect from Molina?
Unai Emery will find it much harder to devise a specific plan against this Villarreal though. This is the first game of Molina at the helm. Hard to predict what to expect not only for the opponents but even the Villarreal faithful aren't quite sure on what to expect. Molina tended to use the fullbacks a lot in the attack and in general Villarreal B put more pressure on the ball and emphasis on recovering the ball and keeping possession as much as possible. We could see more of the same tomorrow.
One of the recurring themes of Villarreal this season has been their sudden dip in form midway through the first half after a bright start. The end up conceding the lead around the 30min mark and that pretty much was that in most games. I hope Molina has noted this down and has plan to keep the intensity and energy levels up all through the 90 minutes.
Villarreal's tactical dilemma
Tactically, Molina has mostly used 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 at times with Villarreal B. In the first open practice of Molina with the A team, it was 4-4-2, attacking fullbacks and lots of possession. All the practices since then have been behind closed doors. His decision to go one way or the other rests on a few things. Hernán Pérez has been impressive almost everytime he played this season. Nilmar on the other hand hasnt been. However, while Hernán flourished in the 4-2-3-1, Marco Ruben had a tough time playing the lone striker without support. He was most effective when Borja played off of him almost as a 2nd striker in a distorted form of 4-4-2.
The defence and the midfield picks itself due to injuries. Ángel, Zapata, Gonzalo and Oriol at the back with Bruno and Senna at the doble-pivote. Cani, Borja as the interiores and with Marco Ruben up top and either Nilmar or Hernán rounding out the side.
The biggest key for Villarreal will be to neutralize Ever Banega in the midfield. Most of the attacking moves for Valencia start from him. The other key matchups will be Ángel & Cani vs Jordi Alba and Mathieu on the left-side of Valencia. From what we have seen of Ángel's fitness so far, he will need all the help (and luck) to stop them. The longer he stays clean of a booking, the better.
The threat of Soldado and Jonas to shaky Villarreal defence needs no further explanation. Gonzalo is too slow for either of them and Zapata can defend both at the same time. Since both of them played close to 90minutes in a taxing Copa game against Sevilla on Thursday, hopefully they wont be as sharp or one of them starts on the bench.
Marco Ruben and the Villarreal forwards will find both Ruíz and Rami very tough to beat. The physical Rami and the very technical Ruíz complement each other very well, although Ruíz is prone to the odd error. The key is to capitalize on the errors. Bruno and Senna need to have a great game and control the midfield for Villarreal to get anything out of this game.
Villarreal has always fared well at El Madrigal against Valencia. 8 wins, 5 draws and 5 defeats in 18 games against Valencia at El Madrigal. The stadium will be full and the crowd will be egging on Molina and his men to put one on their 'derby rivals'.
Fatigue from playing a tough game just 48 hours before might have an impact on Valencia, especially in the later parts of the game. So it is important for Villarreal to keep it close for as long as possible.
Diego Lopez; Ángel-Zapata-Gonzalo-Oriol; Bruno-Senna; Cani-Borja-Hernán Pérez/Nilmar; Marco Ruben
Diego Alves; Miguel-Rami-Ruíz-Alba; Tino Costa-Banega; Jonas-Feghouli-Mathieu; Soldado
In a normal scenario, I would have probably gone for a home loss but with a coaching debut and the fatigue factor, I believe Villarreal will nick a point here. 2-2.
Endavant Villarreal! Vamos submarino!