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What’s wrong with Villarreal’s offense under Unai Emery?

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Why losing Santi Cazorla was an even bigger loss than we thought.

Villarreal CF v SD Eibar SAD - La Liga Photo by Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

After Villarreal posted 0.2 xG or less for the second time in 30 days during their match with Athletic Club, I decided to do a statistical deep dive into the shot creation metrics for the team this year and figure out what has changed. While Villarreal’s defense significantly improved over Javier Calleja’s side last term, the offense has regressed. In most obvious terms, we went from taking 12.47 shots per 90 minutes last season to 9.75 this term. That took us from 4th in the league down to 13th.

Unsurprisingly, this correlated directly with a reduction in shot creating actions (SCA). There can be more than one SCA per shot because the metric tracks the two actions directly preceding the shot, including fouls drawn, passes, a shot that causes a rebound, or a dribble. A single player can receive credit for multiple actions and the shooter himself can perform an SCA (for instance he could dribble by someone to create his own chance to shoot.)

Missing Santi

Last season we averaged 20.66 SCA/90. This season we are down 16.88. The relationship between SCAs to shots has remained somewhat the same, going from 1.66 last season to 1.73 this season. The nature of those SCAs has changed significantly, though. One of those changes has come in dead ball passes that create shots. Last season we had 1.47 of those per 90 minutes, this year we only have 0.92. I would tie directly to the loss of Santi Cazorla. No one on the team this year averages better than Dani Parejo’s 0.69 dead ball SCA/90, while Santi last year averaged 1.21. Of players with at least 1800 minutes played last year, Santi was 6th in this category in La Liga.

Villarreal CF v Girona FC - La Liga Photo by David Aliaga/NurPhoto via Getty Images

What’s odd to me is that Parejo’s numbers last season were not far behind Santi’s at all. I personally don’t think the quality of the balls he has put in this season has been bad, so I looked at the volume of corners each guy has taken and sure enough, we forced far more corners last season resulting in Santi having prime opportunities to work his magic off set pieces at a higher rate than what Dani has had this time around.

Another significant drop off in our SCA numbers was in live ball passes, and again Santi stood tall in this category last season. He averaged 3.38 live pass SCAs per 90 last season. Among players with at least 900 minutes so far this season, no one is averaging higher than Manu Trigueros’ 2.05.

I have two reactions to this. The first is that there is a real sense in which Santi Cazorla is just a savant and even as Villarreal fans we may have underappreciated just how incredible he was at creating offense. I don’t think there’s anything in the difference between the tactics of Unai Emery and Javier Calleja that accounts for a guy who sees the field as well as Santi does and has the passing ability to pass it up. He’s a genius.

The second reaction is that Emery doesn’t seem to be favoring the lineups that could best counteract the loss of Cazorla. We have three players with at least 400 league minutes who average more live ball SCAs than Manu per 90 minutes. Those players are Samu Chukwueze, Pervis Estupinan, and Yeremi Pino. On the face of it, I see why these players don’t start. Samu isn’t good defensively, Pervis isn’t as positionally sound as Pedraza, and Yeremi doesn’t have Moi Gomez’ years of experience. Part of me wonders, though, if more playing time to at least two of these three wouldn’t result in more chances at goal.

I anticipate that part of this will happen naturally. Samu has been out for a long while, and him coming back at a time of the season where we need all hands on deck to handle two competitions should see him on the pitch more. That said, I would put it to Unai Emery that he could and probably should sacrifice a little bit of his team shape to get more offensive support on the field in wide areas.

Solutions

I’m more than happy to hear suggestions about what can be done tactically to create more chances. I think there’s a balance at work between an understandable step back in the offense because Santi left and also expecting the coach to figure things out because he has more than enough talent to not put up 0.2xG or less twice in 30 days. I suspect the solution involves doing more offensive work in wide areas (which will be hard as long as Juan Foyth is playing right back), and also winning the ball back more in the attacking third. We do the latter of those things at a higher rate than we did last season, but in my estimation it doesn’t happen often enough to make up for the loss of Santi. I think these two improvements would naturally lead to more corners, which would help as well.

From my vantage point, there are tactical options available to get these numbers up, we just might have to sacrifice a little bit of Emery’s team shape to get it done.