Villarreal made just one change from last week’s win over Eibar: new signing Estupinan came in at left back to make his full debut, in place of the injured Alfonso Pedraza.
For the hosts, Ronald Koeman’s new look Barcelona lined up in a 4231 formation in his first game in charge. Antoine Griezmann played as a lone striker, with Messi, Phillippe Coutinho and 17-year-old Ansu Fati behind him. Sergi Roberto played at right back following the departure of Nelson Semedo to Wolves.
The story of the game
From the first minute it was clear that Barcelona would be dominating possession, and Villarreal playing on the counterattack. For the first 15 minutes, Villarreal held their own, and a counter led to a cross finding Paco Alcacer in space in the box, who surprisingly chose to lay the ball off to Chukwueze instead of shooting himself. However, Barcelona broke the deadlock shortly after this. A long ball from centre back Lenglet found Jordi Alba in acres of space in Villarreal’s box, who promptly cut it back to Fati, and the teenager executed a clinical first time finish beyond Sergio Asenjo.
Barcelona only grew in dominance from this moment and extended their lead through Fati again just 4 minutes later. Coutinho found himself completely unopposed in midfield and carried the ball for 40 yards before slotting a through ball to Fati, who finished superbly again. This goal was the turning point of the half; Villarreal’s heads dropped, and Barcelona found it easy to pressure their box. Ansu Fati was tormenting Mario Gaspar for the entire game, and won a penalty after Gaspar brought him down in the box in the 35th minute. Messi converted for his first goal of the season, and Villarreal looked to be sinking without trace. Barcelona constantly attacked down their left hand side, and their fourth goal came just before half time; Messi whipped a cross in which Pau Torres accidentally redirected into his own net.
Villarreal came out for the second half with damage limitation in mind and Unai Emery made 2 substitutions: Striker Alcacer and midfielder Coquelin made way for Vincente Iborra and Manu Trigueros, and the team switched to a 433. The second half was a major improvement for Villarreal as a result, and managed to create some small opportunities, but ultimately it was too little too late and the game ended 4-0.
The stats reflect a very dominant performance for Barcelona, with Villarreal falling under significant pressure. They had more possession (57%-43%), significantly more shots on target (9/17 – 1/5), and a much higher XG (expected goals): 3.51 vs 0.24.
Unai Emery’s tactics on the night were very questionable. Starting with the same formation and shape as the previous two matches may have been to maintain some continuity, but to use the same approach for a mid-table opponent at home and Barcelona away, is a very risky strategy, and different to what Emery’s usual opposition-based approach looks like. Emery himself conceded that this was the wrong approach in his post-match interview, where he stated “we were too precipitated in wanting to get quickly to the opposition goal, leaving spaces in behind, which they knew how to make the most of.”
Lining up in a 442 formation sacrifices a body in midfield, and doing this against a side which possesses as much quality in midfield as Barcelona do, meant that Villarreal were completely overrun through the middle. This was particularly emphasised in the second goal, where the lack of cover in midfield meant Coutinho had no trouble at all bursting forward:
Here you can see that a lack of an extra midfielder meant that there was no one in the zone circled who could have closed Coutinho down. Parejo was caught high up the pitch, whilst Coquelin hesitating meant he was in the wrong channel to intercept the run.
This shows the poor positioning of Coquelin, and in particular Mario Gaspar (both circled). Mario’s inability to track back having been caught out in the opposition half meant that Fati was left unmarked, and Coquelin’s poor midfield tracking meant Coutinho could find Fati with a simple pass. Without taking any praise away for Coutinho or Fati, this goal was preventable by better defending from Mario, and a more solid or well drilled midfield shape. Mario was targeted as a weakness in the back 4 by Koeman, and 55% of Barcelona’s attacks came down his side.
Throughout the game the limited attacking threat shown by Villarreal came from the wings, and especially Estupinan, who all things considered, had a promising debut. Barcelona did not have much luck attacking down his side, and he was able to get into very promising positions to deliver crosses; Estupinan attempted 9 crosses, although his delivery has plenty of room for improvement. The immense pressure down the right-hand side of the pitch meant that Mario and Chukwueze could not contribute anything in attack, in a very poor performance from both of them.
A change in tactic?
Half time saw the team move to a 433, with Gerard alone upfront, and a solid midfield three of Iborra, Trigueros and Parejo produce a much more accomplished performance in the second half. Going forward, I would like to see the team switch to a 3-man midfield, either with these three, or a 4231 with Take Kubo in the #10 role. Based off the last few performances, Paco Alcacer and Chukwueze both have a strong case for being dropped, especially given how good Kubo has looked in his limited game time so far.
Whilst it has only been 3 games, Unai Emery must see the first half performance as an indicator of how far away Villarreal are from where they should be in terms of getting the best out of the squad. Villarreal and Emery himself both have very poor records at the Camp Nou, so losing the match is not necessarily a disaster in itself, but the manner of performance in the first half, particularly the lack of organisation in midfield and defence, was very alarming. As a coach, he needs to find a solution to the midfield being very exposed, and should aim to better organise the defence off the ball.
Mario Gaspar’s level right now is a serious cause for concern. Ruben Pena currently being injured means he is the only senior right back available, but his presence in the team is costing the team goals, and Emery might even want to consider playing a youth right back in his place.
Villarreal do not have much time to dwell on this defeat as they face Alaves at home on Wednesday. Alaves are in poor form, and a strong performance here would go some way in silencing the critics from Sunday’s match. I would like to see Trigueros and Kubo start in place of Paco and Chukwueze, and maybe Iborra if Coquelin is still struggling with injury; but it is clear a tactical rethink is needed.