Villarreal took on league leaders Atlético Madrid in Sunday night’s clash at the Estadio De La Ceramica, in what promised to be a mouth-watering tie which saw two of the leading scorers in La Liga go head-to-head: Gerard Moreno and Luis Suárez. Despite putting in an impressive performance and dominating the game, an own goal from Alfonso Pedraza and a driven finish from Joao Felix saw Atlético leave with all three points.
Villarreal have been blighted by injuries recently, and missed striker Paco Alcácer with a muscular injury. Young winger Samuel Chukwueze made his first start for 11 weeks on the right hand side, with Gerard leading the line through the middle.
433: Asenjo; Foyth, Albiol, Pau, Pedraza; Capoue Parejo, Trigueros; Moi Gomez, Gerard, Chukwueze.
Atlético, returning from their Champions League defeat to Chelsea in midweek, were also missing key players in Carrasco, Jose Gimenez and Kieran Trippier. They continued with their back 3 which has been so successful this season, with record signing Joao Felix on the bench:
3142: Oblak; Savic, Felipe, Hermoso; Koke; Vrsaljko, Llorente, Saul, Lemar; Suarez, Correa.
Villarreal started the game well, playing on the front foot and taking the game to Atlético, but were sucker punched against the run of play when Thomas Lemar put in a fantastic cross to the back post, where Savic helped Pedraza bundle it over the line for an own goal. Following a lengthy VAR check, the goal was given, and Villarreal found themselves trailing. Villarreal almost equalised instantly when a free kick from Parejo found Gerard in the box, who somehow missed his header, threw his body at the ball, only for it to eventually be cleared off the line. Villarreal continued to push forward to no avail until half time, but Thomas Lemar could have seen red for what looked like an elbow to the face of Capoue, but another VAR check only deemed this worthy of a yellow card.
Villarreal looked shaky at the start of the second half, and Pau Torres nearly gifted a goal to Luis Suarez after a lapse in concentration. However, Villarreal grew back into the game and pushed forward, bringing Carlos Bacca and Estupiñán off the bench, but were dealt another blow when a poor clearance from Pau fell to Joao Felix on the edge of the box, who finished superbly into the bottom left corner.
The yellows responded strongly to this sucker punch, and should have really pulled one back through Bacca, after fine work from Gerard in the box. Substitute teenager Álex Baena nearly scored two stunning strikes from outside the box; one cannoned off the post and one forced a magnificent save from Oblak, which epitomised the bad luck Villarreal encountered on the night.
Villarreal ended the match with a lot more possession (64-36), more shots (19-6), more passes (529-270) and a higher xG (expected goals) – 1.97 vs 0.67, reflecting a dominant performance with a lot of chances created, but poor finishing.
Samuel Chukwueze was excellent on his return to the starting XI, creating 4 chances, winning 11 duels, making 7 ball recoveries, and completing 4 dribbles. He looked lively throughout the game and caused Atlético a lot of problems down their left-hand side. Gerard and young Baena can also be proud of their performances, and both were very unlucky not to see at least one of their attempts find the back of the net.
In terms of formation and tactics I thought Unai Emery’s game-plan was spot on. Unlike recent games, such as the draw vs Athletic Club, Villarreal looked threatening and created good chances vs Atlético in a deep block. Breaking down low blocks has proven to be a problem this season, but when facing a team like Atlético, even if you breach the defence, you still come up against one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Jan Oblak, who was excellent.
Although recent results have not been good, I do think the 433 is the best formation for this team. Capoue at the base of midfield with Trigueros and Parejo playing more advanced allows for more creativity whilst not being too exposed in the middle, and in the absence of Paco Alcácer, Gerard through the middle with Chukwueze and Moi Gomez on the flanks is much more preferable than starting Gerard wide to accommodate someone like Carlos Bacca.
I was disappointed with the substitutions. Bringing Bacca on, who is well past his best, whilst leaving a promising young striker in Fer Nino on the bench, was frustrating for a number of reasons. Whilst playing Gerard off Bacca seemed to be effective creatively, Bacca missed a glorious chance to pull a goal back, and giving his minutes to Fer Nino, who has been so impressive in the Europa League this season, would have been more beneficial in the long run.
Chukwueze’s ability to find space in behind was excellent, and he linked up with the midfield very well. A big chance came from his quick interchange of passes with Parejo, coming in from wide to enter the box.
This move saw Chukwueze play a one-two with Parejo, in which three Atlético defenders were taken out by the perfect weighting of pass, as well as the sheer pace of Samu to round them and enter the box. Chukwueze then floated a cross directly to Gerard in the middle, who attempted to score with his elbow and was ultimately penalised. This type of quick movement in the box is what has been missing in recent league games, and based on his overall performance, Chukwueze deserves to keep his spot in the team to add this dynamism to the attack.
Álex Baena can have a strong case for a first team place. The 19 year old was sensational off the bench, firing in two long shots as well as injecting some flair into the attack, and considering the goalscoring troubles of late, Baena and Chukwueze might be able to add some additional creativity.
Villarreal are in a bad run of form, with no wins in 7 La Liga games. Despite two impressive wins in the Europa League against Salzburg, the league position is very disappointing, having dropped down to 7th below Real Betis. A crucial derby against Valencia is up next on Friday, and not gaining a positive result there could be disastrous for morale.
Emery needs to rotate some of his trusted starters. Pau Torres has played every single minute in La Liga this season and was far from his best against Atlético. A rest could help him rediscover his best form for the end of the season, and the same goes for Alfonso Pedraza. Pedraza has been underwhelming for a few weeks, and with Estupiñán looking impressive off the bench I feel he is currently more deserving of a starting spot than the Spaniard.
Injuries have been very disruptive to the season, but with some excellent young talent available, Unai Emery has a decision to make with trusting them to help find some form to help the team in both La Liga and Europe.