Four points. That’s what separate Villarreal and Barcelona in the La Liga table, and that’s the gap between Villarreal and European places. After an incredibly frustrating midweek where we completely outplayed Manchester United in the first half only to fold in the second, what do these players have left in the tank for Unai Emery as he desperately struggles to keep this season from going off the rails entirely.
No Leo Messi. None. This Barcelona side is so much less dangerous than the LAST time Dani Alves and Xavi suited up for them it’s almost absurd, and yet this is not a match we can take for granted at all. We can be encouraged by the fact that in the two matches since Xavi took over, they have only a dubious penalty goal to show for their attacking efforts. If Villarreal were humming along at the level they had at the end of last season, I should be extremely confident in our ability to win this match outright at home. There is talent, to be sure, but this is also a club who has no idea what their identity is, at the moment. Missing are Pedri, Braithwaite, Ansu Fati, or Roberto. They are also missing Sergio Aguero, who may have to retire before his Barcelona career ever gets going.
We haven’t won any of our last 24 matches against Barcelona, but the Catalan side haven’t won back to back league matches all season so who knows...
I don’t even know what we say at this point. Last time out in the league Emery played four fullbacks in a match he seemed afraid to win, and then against Manchester United his striker-less lineup couldn’t convert any of the chances of frame until finally a turnover let Cristiano Ronaldo score. On the topic of that Gero Rulli pass, I consider it about 60% his fault. Capoue should do a better job coming back to receive the ball after he lets it go, and Unai Emery shouldn’t be asking his keeper to handle the ball nearly as much as he does.
You may not know this, but Gero Rulli is 7th among all goalkeepers in La Liga for keeping out goals compared to the quality of shots he faces (well ahead of big names like Thibaut Courtois and Jan Oblak). He is also attempting more short passes per 90 than any goalkeeper in the league, and this last number is to me a big part of his issue. Rulli is a good ball playing keeper. He’s actually particularly good at finding wingers over the top in behind fullbacks. However, he is not an elite ball playing keeper and Emery’s system seems to demanding that he be one. Gero averages 0.5 inaccurate short passes per 90 minutes, tied with Marc Andre Ter Stegen for the most in the league. That means that every other match he makes a mistake back there, and I think that number would go down if he were playing fewer balls. (For instance, Courtois averages the third most volume at 18.2 short passes per 90, but only misplaces a short ball once every ten matches. I think Rulli operating at that lower frequency could have comparable numbers.)
At any rate, Emery has his hands full trying to be the first Villarreal manager to beat Barcelona in ages, while also saving our season in the process.
I want to be bold here and predict a Villarreal win. I really do. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. 0-0 draw.