A lot of the numbers you will see here were discussed in our podcast #25 which you can find here. By giving that a listen you will get more detail than what we have here. The stats presented here come from Statsbomb.com (specifically @StatBombES on Twitter), fbref.com (who has a partnership with Statsbomb), and a few things sprinkled in from whoscored.com and understat.com. As we list things off we will credit them. All these sites are great resources if you are curious about free data available for the game of football.
According to Whoscored, Villarreal now leads La Liga in shots off the counter (top three according to recent Statsbomb data). Villarreal accomplishes this despite having over 50% of possession on the season. The way this is accomplished is based on where we tend to pressure the ball. As you can see in this graphic from Statsbomb that displays the pressure zones of all teams in La Liga, we press at an above average rate starting at the midfield line.
Waiting to pressure until the midway point of the field allows us to recover the ball after our opponents have already committed men forward, meaning that one turnover by our opponents can create a goalscoring opportunity. A perfect example of this goal was scored by Zambo Anguissa earlier this season against Valencia:
One bad pass just inside the halfway line gets stolen and Valencia do not have enough men back to handle the ensuing break. While Anguissa accomplished his goal in a solo effort, many of our counters come off one incisive pass (like Paco’s debut goal, though that one started a bit deeper).
This sort of sequence contributes to two other statistics worth pointing out. The first is that we are third in La Liga in long balls attempted (fbref) which is unusual for a team that usually has the majority of the ball, and we are third in pressures attempted after losing the ball (Statsbomb, see below). So what’s happening is we are turning them over, attempting to break them down immediately, and if it doesn’t succeed we are working hard to immediately getting the ball back.
Playing this way has resulted in our having the third best non penalty xG in La Liga (understat and fbref). Which is great. Whether or not we are overperforming our xG by two or underperforming it by three depends on which site you ask. Fbref has us underperforming and I happen to know that the xG formula they are using is a bit more sophisticated and that’s the one I trust more. That said, we replaced Karl Toko Ekambi with an even better finisher in Paco Alcacer so if anything this ratio might get better as the season pushes on.
When this works, it’s a joy to watch. When it doesn’t, you get matches like what we had against Valladolid, where they aren’t willing enough to push forward to allow our mid press to work effectively, and the game gets very ugly. Lately we’ve had a mixed bag, with a couple outings like the match against Levante where our xG numbers were absolutely pitiful but two really good finishes won us the game anyway.
It is well known that our back line has had health issues all season. I think that these injuries combined with the style of play outline here have created their own issues. While our defenders do a good job in one on one tackles (second best tackle percentage in La Liga as a team) when having to track defenders in space we have all seen the issues. With Pau Torres finally coming back and Alberto Moreno theoretically not being hurt forever I think these issues will improve.
Javier Calleja takes a lot of heat from Villarreal fans, but I actually think he has a pretty clever style of play here. He can be criticized for not having a real plan B, and for not doing a great job of adjusting to his changing personnel in the back, but there is some real merit to be found here. Ultimately, if we do not find ourselves in European spots at the end of the season it is all for not. Results in football outweigh everything else at this level, but barring failure to reach Europe I think I would prefer to build a team around this system than try to change the manager and come up with a whole new idea.