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A Struggling Villarreal: 2011-12 all over again?

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Let’s get back to these happy times!!!
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Villarreal’s problems have been well discussed here, but now that we’ve reached the winter break in seventeenth place with a team that most people felt could challenge for the European spots, more media commentators are beginning to take notice.

Sid Lowe’s column in the Guardian this week is about Villarreal, and is a good read, as his columns always are. It’s a bit short on detailed analysis of the team, but the comments he references from a player and an ‘insider’ about the team feeling like a group of guys thrown together with no real idea or plan rings true.

Yes, there are some similarities between the 2011-12 season and now—though Sid is wrong about how many points we had after 16 weeks (we had 18 then and were 13th in the table, compared to 15 and 17th now). The mental fragility and fear that I remember the last months of that campaign are present, and the last-minute Huesca equalizer brings back too many memories of points dropped late on in the spring of 2012.

The causes of our problems, in my view, are partly similar. What we didn’t know in the summer of 2011—and remember, this was during the worst of the Spanish financial crisis—was that in spite of making the Europa League semifinals the year before, and qualifying for the Champions League, the financial situation of the club was not good. Villarreal decided they had to sell a player, and though Giuseppe Rossi aroused some interest in Barcelona and presumably others, in the end it was Santi Cazorla who was shipped off to Malaga.

The financial situation in the summer of 2018 was somewhat different: Villarreal made money, though the advent of Financial Fair Play, and new league regulations, haves put constraints on our wage bill. But what is similar is that the money we brought in from sales (Santi then, Bakambu and Rodri now) has been invested without, it seems, much of a plan.

Some of you may remember that we interviewed Jonathan de Guzmán right after he had signed for Villarreal in August 2011. My colleague and I were somewhat aghast when he told us his preferred position was to play behind the strikers—how was he going to do that in Garrido’s rigid 4-4-2, with a doble pivote in the center of midfield and two strikers? I’ve never figured out why (a) we spent €8m on a player who wasn’t going to fit into the coach’s preferred/only formation, and (b) once that coach was gone, why didn’t we use him more in a 4-4-1-1, playing behind a lone striker? It was baffling. Our other big (€9m) acquisition, Cristian Zapata, never fit in either.

Now, let’s look at this year. Yes, Gerard and Toko Ekambi have taken some heat over their inability to score (though Toko Ekambi, certainly, and Gerard, hopefully, seem to be improving) but we’ve scored one less goal than Alavés and the same as Getafe, currently sixth and seventh.

The major problem lies in the defense. From 2014 to 2017, Villarreal were in the top three or four defensively, and allowed less than a goal a game. Last year, we were middle of the pack in goals allowed (1.3/game) but we scored enough to offset that. But this year the lack of scoring has amplified our defensive woes. we’re currently 13th in goals allowed (1.4 goals a game). What has happened?

Miguel Bataller, a longtime Villarreal supporter, has an interesting column in the digital ‘paper’ Castellón Información. His main point is that since returning to the Primera, at least, Villarreal’s play has been defined by the doble pivote and the two types of players in it. One has had the responsiblity of winning the ball back in midfield, breaking up counterattacks, making the short pass to a player who could move the ball forward quickly. Think Bruno, and, last year, Rodri.

The second player was the (in Bataller’s words) slow but creative player, an excellent passer from outside the area who could channel the ball either directly forward to a striker, or to a fast player on the wing like Cheryshev, Castillejo, or (now) Chukwueze. Manu Trigueros has performed that role really well over the last few years.

The problem is twofold. First, Trigueros has not recovered from his surgery in the summer— he needs rest and he hasn’t gotten enough of it. Second, while Santy Caseres is a tireless worker and ‘containment dog’, he doesn’t have the physical presence and aerial strength of Rodri or Bruno. (My guess is the front office thought Bruno would certainly be playing again by now, so Santy—who has played pretty much throughout every competition for us so far—could be worked in as an eventual replacement).

Without the strong defender, midfield is....well, screwed up (that’s Sid Lowe’s diplomatic translation of ‘jodido’.....). It’s been too easy for other teams to start attacks and get shots off (we are 18th in terms of allowing shots on goal; if not for Asenjo having an incredible season, things would be even worse).

And without the strong defensive ‘beast’ in midfield, Fornals and Santi Cazorla are searching for defined roles, while our other ‘signing’ of the summer, Alfonso Pedraza, is more of an attacking player than a defensive one. The result of all this is that our centerbacks, never our strong suit, are being woefully exposed.

Can we address this? Vicente Iborra—now at Leicester—would help (and, as one of our commentors on here mentioned, so would Alfred N’Diaye, currently on loan to Malaga). Bataller also mentioned using cantera players such as Ramon Bueno (holding midfielder) and Manu Morlanes (Trigueros-type midfielder).

What he didn’t mention, but I will, is that Funes Mori tried to fill that defensive midfielder role and wasn’t actually bad at it. Now, I’m hearing that Huesca has asked to cancel Ruben Semedo’s loan and return him to us. He’s tall, good in the air, and a good tackler. Yes, he has a lot of baggage—would Sr. Roig be OK with him playing for us (in midfield)?

Moving some players who don’t seem to have a role for us right now (Sansone, Layún, etc) would open up some salary room, and Dani Raba’s playing time has disappeared since Samu Chukwueze’s rise—a loan to a Segunda side would give him a place to play. January will be active.