Highlights, such as they were:
Now you can argue there looked to be a foul in the buildup to the goal, and I would agree. You can also argue that the goal-scorer was offside for much of the play, and that would be true as well—if Victor Ruiz had stood still, Garcia would have been in an offside position when Aduriz’s shot came in.
However, let’s be clear: the best team in the match yesterday won. If not for Asenjo’s heroics, and a goalpost, this could have been 3-0 or 4-0. What went wrong for the Submarine?
Let’s start with some tactical decisions:
(1) Overly defensive starting XI and setup. As against Espanyol, you can argue our coach maybe should have played a more attacking group on the road. A 4-2-3-1 with Trigueros as the link with Sansone? Curious given how well Manu has played in the middle of the 4-4-2. And Sansone as the solo striker was strange too, given that at Sassuolo he played as an attacking midfielder, not a striker. He had only 16 touches in 67 minutes, btw.
(2) Curious substitution pattern. The introduction of Jonathan dos Santos made sense, because he was able to give us a bit of short passing skill in the midfield and at least improve our possession statistics. But I expected Bakambu to come on for Rodri, so we could switch to a 4-4-2 with Trigueros in the middle and Bakambu and Sansone as strikers. Didn’t happen. Pato and Bakambu ended up together, which is not as good a combination—and Trigueros was on the bench at that point.
(3) The missing man—Denis Cheryshev. Why not fight speed with speed? Iñaki Williams constantly used his speed to break open our defense—he hit the post after skinning Ruiz, had another one-on-one chance that he couldn’t quite control, and was constantly pulling our back line out of shape. Jaume Costa didn’t get much defensive help from the winger on that side (Roberto Soriano).
Chery is our fastest attacking option and a player who can create chances for himself as well as others—but he didn’t get on the pitch yesterday.
But don’t put this all on the coach:
Regardless of the lineup choices, the players have to perform. And Villarreal’s didn’t. The top eight players in yesterday’s match (according to WhoScored) were all Athletic Club players. That might be a bit of exaggeration, but about the best that can be said is Mario Gaspar and Jaume Costa battled bravely, Rodri and Bruno were competent in the center of the pitch, and Asenjo made some great saves (and I don’t blame him for spilling the rebound on Aduriz’s shot, it was hard and difficult to handle). As for everyone else, meh at best. Victor Ruiz and Alvaro Gonzalez won’t enjoy watching this game film, that’s for sure.
The first half was bad—we had no shots anywhere near goal that I can recall and virtually no possession of consequence— but the second half, while more exciting to watch, was characterized by a number of unforced Villarreal errors. In some cases it was sloppy passing, or sloppy ball control, in others, just being dispossessed in man-on-man situations. We just didn’t seem to be focused the way we should have been. The one(!) legitimate scoring chance we had—when the ball fell at Bakambu’s feet off a corner—he wasn’t ready for it. Sort of summed up our day.
Credit to the opposition—not taking anything away from Athletic—but to be honest, they did what we should have expected Los Leones to do, playing at home in a must-win match. They played to their strengths—physical challenges (OK, the ref let them get away with a few, but no surprise), Aduriz’s skill in the air and excellent movement in the penalty area, and excellent play from the three behind him. If the lineup and formation change was supposed to help us deal with those strengths confidently, it failed miserably.
Final thoughts: As I have said before, let’s not forget that we are a club which changed a LOT of moving pieces in the offseason, and the start-stop nature of the first half of this season, with three international breaks, hasn’t helped. We’re a better team than we showed yesterday.
We now face a big match in Zurich on Thursday. I hope we go with a stronger lineup and a more attacking mentality than we’ve shown so far in Europe this season, because this is now a must-win match for us. If we lose, and Osmanlispor win in Bucharest, it’s hard to see how we will qualify for the next stage.