Villarreal delivered what was easily their best performance of the season away at Atalanta, going 3-0 up inside an hour before a late scare saw it end 3-2.
The result meant the Yellow Submarine is in the Champions League last 16 for just the fourth time in club history, a remarkable achievement when considering how bad the season has been domestically.
Sitting in 13th with just four league wins, Unai Emery has come under the microscope, as his tactics seem to be stifling any creativity or attacking flair from a talented group of players, whilst also playing a slow, conservative style.
However, a change in style for the Atalanta game saw a remarkable improvement.
What failed before
Villarreal were seeing poor performances coupled with poor results for most of this season. The ball was moved far too slowly and there seemed to be a defensive error every game. Plenty of games were drawn simply through being unable to take the attacking initiative.
Villarreal aimed to dominate possession and had the majority of the ball in all but three La Liga games this season. However, this has not translated to results or even goals being scored at all.
The 2-0 loss to Valencia in October highlights this well. Villarreal had 75% possession away from home, completed 500(!) passes to Valencia’s 114, yet only had 1 shot on target and 0.8 xG.
The team lined up in a 433, with Moi Gomez at false 9, and a three-man midfield of Capoue, Coquelin and Parejo.
The obvious answer to the question of “what went wrong here” would be the lack of striker, Gerard Moreno in particular, but that still would not explain why the team struggled to create anything of note and moved the ball so slowly.
What changed against Atalanta?
Unai Emery shifted to a 442, with Gerard back upfront alongside Danjuma with surprisingly Alberto Moreno and Moi Gomez on the wings. To counter Atalanta’s attacking threat, the gameplan was to concede possession and use the pace upfront on the break. The result? 36% possession, which is lower than in any La Liga game this season, but 3 goals, and 6 shots on target.
Atalanta pulled two back late on which highlights how the in-game management and discipline from both Emery and the players needs refining, but in terms of shape, attacking threat and defensive solidity, the first 60 minutes of this match was the best Villarreal have played all season.
What to do now?
Emery continued with the 442, whilst rotating, against Rayo Vallecano at the weekend, which saw another win and a clean sheet, and only 52% possession compared to our 60% average before that match in the league.
442, therefore seems to be the way forward. Attack on the counter and use Parejo’s ability to beat the press to launch these counters. The next league game is away at Real Sociedad: a similar gameplan to the Atalanta match would be ideal to counter their attacking threat posed by Alexander Isak, Oyarzabal and co.
Gerard returning is also crucial to the attack having any substance, and creating a lethal partnership with him and Danjuma upfront is an exciting prospect.