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Evaluating Escriba’s Villarreal

We’ve had nine matches now (two in the EL, seven in La Liga), so....what do we make of Villarreal so far?

Real Madrid CF v Villarreal CF - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

When Fran Escriba was appointed coach, there were plenty of naysayers (remember, there were rumors Pellegrini was back in Vila-real and preparing to accept the job, which were totally false). Several commenters on here said, “let’s wait until the October international break to see where we are”. So, where are we? At first glance, not a lot has changed:

2015: 7 matches, 16 points; 13 goals for, 5 against (La Liga)

2 matches, 1 win. 1 loss, 2 goals for, 2 against (Europa League)

2016: 7 matches, 13 points; 9 goals for, 4 against (La Liga)

2 matches, 1 win, 1 draw, 3 goals for, 2 against (Europa League)

2015 and 2016 both featured disappointing draws against clubs we should have beaten on the road (Betis and Granada, respectively). The 2015 Villarreal had a couple of good wins by this point (Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, at El Madrigal) while the 2016 edition drew Sevilla at home and Real Madrid away. However, we haven’t lost at this point; we lost 1-0 to eventually relegated Levante on the 7th round last year.

Villarreal host Celta Vigo on Sunday, ironically enough the same team the hosted (and were defeated by) at the same time last year. Should we win, we’d have the same number of points as last time.

Beyond the numbers: a different strategy

Villarreal’s eternal struggle seems to be to find the right balance between defensive solidity and creating chances to score. Last season Villarreal were last in the league in shots, but managed to score enough to get into fourth place. Worth noting though that after the first seven matches of the season, Villarreal had 31 league matches, scored 31 goals, allowed 30. If it seemed as though every match was a tight one, that’s because it was!!

Marcelino famously said possession was not important, our style was to win the ball and counterattack with speed—if we can do it in one or two passes, we would.

Perhaps we wore down late in the season—injuries took their toll, and once fourth place was wrapped up we definitely coasted—but overall, the team had a definite style and has to be considered one of our more successful squads, though in the end we could not stand up to the physicality of Liverpool in the EL to get to a European final for a first time.

Fran Escribá inherited—at short notice—a much-changed squad. Our three leaders in assists (Soldado, 10; Adrian, 4; Denis Suarez, 4) are all gone or unavailable; Soldado’s 5 goals were actually tied for second on the team behind Bakambu’s 12, and he has been out of action too.

Escribá has shown himself to be a more flexible tactical manager than Marcelino, who was wedded to a strict 4-4-2. While Escriba tends to favor that formation, at least at home, he has experimented with a 4-2-3-1 on the road.

Our possession stats are up a bit—48% through 7 matches—but what we really are doing differently is more short passing, though we are still primarily attacking through the middle of the pitch. It’s not totally working yet, but there is a definite change in attacking strategy, which has allowed Samu Castillejo and Manu Trigueros to shine (plus Jonathan dos Santos). Defensively, not much has changed—we are still weak in the air and don’t defend set pieces that well, which have been Villarreal characteristics pretty much forever. At least if we possess the ball more we won’t have to defend en masse as much.

Players to watch:

So far, Escribá has rotated less in the league than Marcelino liked to. It remains to be seen whether that will change. So far, Denis Cheryshev has not been that impressive, certainly not like he was for us two years ago. If he can start contributing, that would be great. Same for Roberto Soriano, who by his own admission is getting more comfortable with each match.

Sansone’s hot start has been excellent, and hopefully will continue, but if Pato or Bakambu can add a second scoring option, that would be terrific. (Santos Borré I figure is mostly going to play in the EL group matches).

And then there’s....

N’Diaye. Escribá came out and said Marcelino saw him as a central defender—Escribá does not. Which pretty much means he’s not going to see a lot of league action. As happened with Jonathan de Guzmán, the coach who wanted N’Diaye so badly is gone, and now the player has no position to play. I would not be surprised to see him loaned out in January.

League forecast:

As I noted this summer, one effect of the more equal split of TV money could be that the middle of La Liga becomes more competitive. Last year fourth through sixth was being fought for by Villarreal, Celta and Athletic Club, with Sevilla focusing on winning the EL again. It’s early to know, but maybe Las Palmas, or Eibar, or Valencia, with their new coach, or some other club, can get into the mix?

At the bottom, Sporting and Granada look like early candidates for the drop, as do Osasuna. Though historically a team that makes a good start (like Alavés and Leganés) ends up struggling to survive, and one that struggles early makes a great escape.

Where do you think Villarreal will finish? Comment below!