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Unai Emery got the tactics right against Real Madrid

Missing Paco Alcacer, Villarreal got a credible draw.

Villarreal CF v RCD Espanyol - Copa del Rey Round of 16 Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

When I saw Real Madrid’s lineup Saturday, I said to myself that if we only had Paco Alcacer on the pitch we could win this match. Frankly, we played well enough for much of the contest to win without him.

Right out of the gate, we gave up what I consider a freak goal to a Mariano header. Mariano has a habit of scoring within a couple minutes of coming into a match, heck, he has a habit of doing it against us, and in this one a downright weird situation played out. Lucas Vazquez was offside, but because Pedraza intentionally played the ball (and the intent matters because if it were just a deflection the offside would have held) the flag came down. Villarreal players stopped playing, expecting a whistle, Dani Carvajal and Mariano did not, and we conceded.

The rest of the first half was pretty cagey, with neither team having too much of an advantage, but I felt like we really dominated the second half. We should have done a much better job getting shots on frame, but the draw was very well earned. Here’s a graph of attacking pressure by team throughout the match, notice that after the opening stanza, even when Madrid did apply pressure it was not as strong as what we were bringing:


There was some discussion after the match about Emery’s decisions in the starting lineup, notably his choice to play Pedraza ahead of Estupinan and Carlos Bacca instead of Samu Chukwueze. I believe, given the circumstances coming into the match, that both decisions were the right call, no matter how well the benched players played when they came on.

The case for sitting Estupinan is pretty straightforward. On the 12th he was playing as a left wing in Bolivia for Ecuador, where he was on the field the entire match for a 3-2 win. On the 17th, he was back in Ecuador, playing 90 minutes again and scoring in a huge win over Colombia. He then lost his passport and nearly missed his flight back to Villarreal. About 12 thousand miles of travel and 180+ minutes of gametime over the break, with Madrid this week, Real Sociedad next week, and a Europa League match in between.

Pedraza has been in solid form, so given the circumstances not starting Estupinan was from my point of view the best possible thing for the player long term.

I think most folks will track with me there, the more controversial decision may have been not moving Gerard central and starting Bacca over Samu. But here’s the thing about that. Eden Hazard had an absolutely miserable match. He could find no space to move and he had virtually no impact whatsoever. This was, in my view, by design from Unai Emery. Given the fact that Mariano and Lucas Vazquez both started this match, Hazard and Odegaard were likely to be the danger men for Madrid and we erased both of them. If you’ve been watching Villarreal over the last couple of years, you will know the defensive problems Chukwueze has had. In particular, him being above Mario on the right flank has left us exposed more times than I can count. Chukwueze had a very nice match once he came on, but he only spent about four minutes on the pitch before Eden Hazard came off, an expected sub given the Belgian’s injury issues.

What Emery did was make his lineup more threatening just as his opponent was having to take off their most talented attacker.

Take the penalty out of it, and we still beat Madrid in expected goals for this match. With the penalty included, the final xG tally was 2.0 to 0.5. We’ve now faced Barcelona, Madrid, and Atleti (we may be the only side in La Liga to have already faced all three) and have two draws where we looked the equal of our opponents. I’m not even bothered by the Barcelona loss because it inspired tactical changes that have paid off incredibly well in the intervening time. In very early 2020, I wrote articles where I felt the need to criticize the performance even when the result was favorable to us. Now, I great about our performance against Real Madrid, even if we didn’t get the win.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

-Take Kubo did some really nice things when he came on. Should have done better on his chance at goal (maybe should have passed it) but the touch and run that drew a yellow from Toni Kroos was wonderful.

-Gerard wasn’t crisp in front of net this match. No one else was, either, with Samu and Parejo among others failing to get chances on frame, but with our all world finisher out we really needed Gerard to test Courtois more than he did.

-There were 19 open play shots in this match, we had 12 of them. Between both teams only one attempt was on target.

-We had more than twice as many tackles as Real Madrid despite possession and fouls being fairly even.