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Villarreal vs Mallorca post match and what to do with the midfield

It was an ugly three points yesterday.

Villarreal CF v RCD Mallorca - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

The end of that match reminded me of the movie Return of the Jedi where Lando knocks the satellite dish off the Millenium Falcon and says “That was too close.”

We don’t normally do match ratings out of ten or anything, and we won’t today, but if I was generally grouping performances from yesterday’s match I’d say Chukwueze and Asenjo were outstanding, Torres and Anguissa were generally good, most of the rest of the team was forgettable and Alberto Moreno and Paco Alcacer were downright bad.

In saying all that I don’t mean to deride the performance of our goalscorer, Carlos Bacca, but frankly other than his tap in, he didn’t do a ton. There might be one or two others that folks want to pull out from the middling pack but overall, this was a bad performance that we were fortunate to get a lead in and hold on for dear life.

Still, it’s two clean sheets and two wins in a row, and that’s a positive. The negative is that we’ve probably faced the worst two teams we’ll get a chance to play in this 11 match sprint to the finish.

My last match review was heavy in ball progression numbers and xG and I won’t do a ton of that here. If anyone has a specific numbers related question just drop it in the comments and I’ll look it up and get that data to you. I do however want to draw attention to the sheer variety of all the positive things Chukwueze did last night because he was outstanding:

What to do about the midfield:

Going forward, we have a midfield issue. Now, I thought we kind of shifted around formation a bit through the game yesterday. What we opened in felt like a 442 given how wide Santi played and how much Chukwueze tracked back, then at times we moved (through substitutions) to something that truly was a 433 and then back into a 442 by the end, but all that I think is just a produt of us having talented players but not a ton of like for like substitution options. What I want to look at here is what our options are if we generally play three midfielders and three forwards (which we do even when we run the kind of ‘442’ from yesterday with midfielder Santi on one side and foward Samu as the ‘wide mid’ on the other).

I’d said on Twitter in response to the idea of a Zambo, Manu, Santi midfield that I just didn’t think anyone would play enough defense to make it work. I love all three players but I see all of them as more or less attacking 8s, none of them are a ‘pivote’ or a 6 depending on what term you prefer. Iborra isn’t really a 6 either, but his positional discipline allows him to approximate one better than the other three.

Anguissa, the de facto ‘defensive’ midfielder in this trio, actually did play good defense yesterday. The trouble was he played much of it too high up the pitch to necessarily be the guy being relied on as a DM. I’m still waiting as of time of writing on official pressure data from the match yesterday but here is Zambo’s heatmap:

His two biggest areas of activity are great, exactly where he ought to be, but also look how far he ranges forward and how much width he covers. At any given time, this is a midfielder who may not be in a good defensive position if we suddenly lose the ball and have to track back, and we saw this several times yesterday when Mallorca, specifically Kubo, got the ball on the break and faced very little pressure until they reached the attacking third. (Alberto Moreno was also hugely at fault in this regard, his defensive positioning was terrible yesterday.)

Iborra against Celta took almost 30 fewer touches than Zambo had against Mallorca in a game we had much more control in. He still came forward some put it was in the context of us dominating position not the driving forward on the break that Zambo was doing yesterday, and because that was a more controlled environment he didn’t get caught out nearly as much.

So far, this sounds like a criticism of Zambo but it’s really not. Anguissa played yesterday almost exactly how I would want him to play, how anyone who saw him before he came to Villarreal would expect him to play, he’s just not a defensive midfielder. Iborra being suspended put us in a bad midfield spot yesterday but for the rest of the way if he’s not available I think we would be better off starting Manu Morlanes in his place instead of going with the Zambo/Santi/Trigueros trio again. Morlanes isn’t as good a player as any of them but positionally I think he would offer a better platform for some combination of the other three to work in front of him.

There’s one other thing about the midfield I want to touch on in this already too long post. If we’re only going to play Santi 30 minutes, why on earth is he starting? What I would like to see against Granada is a trio of Iborra, Trigueros, and Zambo start, with Zambo coming off at half for Cazorla. Let Santi’s sharp mind work against tired legs instead of making him go against guys much more athletic than him when they are completely fresh. Zambo doesn’t need to play another full 90 anyway, so let him and his marauding runs tire out the opposition for 45 minutes and then enter Santi to pick them apart when they are tired. Calleja almost certainly won’t do it this way, but he should.

On to the next.

This calendar just won’t stop. We’ve got a huge match with Granada next, we’ve got to play better, and I hope the players (AND THEIR MANAGER) are ready for it.