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Villarreal-Atleti tactical analysis: Marcelino gets it right

Villarreal scored an early goal, then controlled Atleti's front line and held on for a famous 1-0 victory.

Maria José Segovia

An interesting lineup for Villarreal, and it worked a charm.  The Yellow Submarine showed their spirit and mettle, playing Atletico Madrid's own game in the first half, which seemed to cause problems for the visitors, and remaining calm and focused in the second half in spite of Atleti provocation.

First half:

The midfield four in Villarreal's 4-4-2 was key--Bruno and Trigueros in the middle, Jonathan dos Santos on the right, Samu Castillejo on the left.  A different lineup, and a different game plan.  Rather than cede lots of possession and wait for a counterattack, Villarreal chose to control possession in midfield, vary speed of play, and look for opportunities to attack the Atleti goal.  And when not in possession, Villarreal didn't sit back, but pressed Atleti into numerous loose passes.

The first forty minutes of this match could hardly have gone better--Villarreal scored one goal, could have had at least one more, and had two-thirds of the ball control.  Villarreal was not playing the same formation as Atleti, but was also playing in the same way as Atleti often does, and this seemed to throw our visitors for a loop.

Trigueros was very effective in moving the ball quickly forward--it was his quick pass forward to Baptistao that created the one-two with Soldado that led to the goal.   Villarreal was content to play most of this match in midfield, though--with only five shots on goal and one corner in this match, the focus was less on offense than on controlling possession and slowing the game down.

Jonathan dos Santos was a key player in this--he had a couple of key passes to create scoring chances, but mostly he was the player who could serve to distribute the ball in midfield.  And Samu Castillejo was a frequent outlet for those passes--he didn't get to use his speed that much in this match, but he did win some key fouls and was able to battle bravely against Atleti's pressure.

And when Atleti did have the ball, Villarreal closed them down quickly--Castillejo, Soldado and Baptistao pressed up front and the visitors were unable to create many periods of sustained possession or danger.  Their best chance by far came at the end of the first half, when Victor Ruiz misjudged a long Oblak punt, Griezmann pounced on the bouncing ball, and Areola deflected his goal-bound shot.

Second half:

Atleti went to a 4-3-3 in the second half, with Vietto and Torres coming on to partner Griezmann.  Atleti offered much more movement in this setup, and Filipe Luis, down the Atleti left, came much more into the match.  As a result, while in the first half Mario and Jona had overlapped a good deal, in the second Mario was pretty much pinned in his own defending third.

Villarreal had a numerical advantage in midfield, but was having to drop deeper to gain possession, and Nahuel and Soldado had little opportunity to press up top as Soldado and Baptistao had in the first stanza  Still, if Nahuel had been able to sort out his feet to receive a Soldado pass, it could have been 2-0 early in the second half.

While in the first period Villarreal's back four had not come under that much pressure (Bailly seemed to have Jackson Martinez in his pocket),  in the second half Bailly, Ruiz, Mario and Jaume Costa were in the thick of things.  Griezmann continued to look the most dangerous of the Atleti strikers; Vietto won a couple of free kicks in dangerous positions but offered little else on this day, and Fernando Torres was controlled pretty well.

Marcelino responded to Cholo's change in formation midway through the half not by changing his formation, but by changing the lineup, bringing on Denis Suarez to play on the left side and flipping Castillejo to the right side, and bringing in Tomas Pina for Trigueros to create a more counter-attacking version of the 4-4-2.  Now Villarreal was playing as we have often seen them do, content to allow the opposition to control the ball, but always alert to opportunities for a direct counterattack.   Bruno Soriano dropped deeper to offer an outlet to our back four, and his touches and confidence in possession were always a calming influence.

This approach, too, could have created a second goal--Nahuel was muscled off a scoring opportunity from a Pina pass,  and another promising attack was whistled back for a non-existent offside on Soldado.

For all that Atleti controlled the ball in this half, they actually created very few scoring chances with it, even though resorting to trickery (a quick free kick taken from just outside the box, which Soldado was alert to and snuffed out the danger) and unfair play (attacking after Villarreal had cleared the ball out to deal with a Castillejo injury).

Their best opportunity came when, for the only time in the match, a quick one-two inside the box freed substitute Correa, who had room to fire a quick shot on goal, but Areola had the angle covered.


Villarreal had three good chances within 25 minutes of the first half, converting one, and that proved to be the difference.  Atleti had only two good chances to score in 90+ minutes--to some degree that was a function of Simeone's rotation, perhaps, but the Villarreal defense played well positionally throughout.  And when there was a slightly mishit clearance, it always seemed there was another player in yellow there to play the ball out of danger.

It would have been unfair had Atleti come back to steal a point--and they didn't.

Hard to pick out a player of the match for me--everyone did their part.  Now a home match in the Europa League on Thursday, and a short trip to play Levante on Sunday.  Endavant Villarreal!!