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How Villarreal Stumped Manchester United’s Attack

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A quick look at how Unai Emery set his team up to nullify the Red Devils’ Offense.

FBL-EUR-C3-VILLARREAL-MAN UTD Photo by MAJA HITIJ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Villarreal are the Europa League Champions! To be honest, I didn’t expect the Spanish side to come out on top, but Unai Emery has proved me wrong once again, dishing out a tactical masterclass against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his Manchester United side. One of the most important parts of this excellence in tactical gameplay was how Emery set up his Villarreal side in defense, and how he limited the amount of chances that Manchester United’s attackers could create.

Before we get into discussing how Villarreal kept United’s attackers quiet, let’s look at the lineups each manager utilized in the match.

Villarreal lined up in a 4-4-2, using Manu Trigueros and Yeremi Pino as inverted wingers, while Manchester United used their favored 4-2-3-1, with Pogba starting as one half of the double pivot (something that hasn’t happened too often this season).

Starting Pogba in a deeper role really hurt Manchester United, since he was given the responsibilities of progressing the ball and distributing it to his teammates in the final third, as opposed to receiving it there and creating chances himself. United are relatively easy to defend against when Pogba is played in this less-advanced role, as all of Manchester United’s chance-creating responsibilities fall to Bruno Fernandes. If a team can keep tabs on Fernandes and prevent him from getting on the ball in key areas, United will surely struggle to create anything in the final third of the pitch. This is exactly what Villarreal did, and Emery’s lineup was designed to keep United from getting the ball in central areas high up the pitch (where Fernandes is at his best), instead forcing them to play on the wings.

Above is an oversimplification of Emery’s game plan. When United were in possession, Villarreal would try to show United into moving the ball into the areas in yellow. There, they could close them down and either win the ball back, or force United to pass it back to their less advanced players. Even if they did manage to bypass Villarreal’s press, they’d still be in an area of the pitch where Villarreal could recover back into their own penalty area and defend in a low block for a short time.

As stated previously, United’s offense runs through Bruno Fernandes, who is at his most dangerous in the area outlined in red. Villarreal had to try their best to keep Fernandes (and any other United players) from getting on the ball in and around that space and the surrounding half spaces.

Bruno Fernandes (18), the player Manchester United’s attack depends on the most, was kept very quiet by Villarreal’s defense, as they kept a player in front of him (Trigueros, 14) to prevent passes to him, and at least one defender shadowing the Portuguese international at all times (here Pau Torres and Pedraza both mark him).

An example of Villarreal’s typical shape in defense can be seen above. As Aaron Wan-Bissaka receives the ball out wide, Villarreal focus on limiting his options to progress the ball. They’re comfortable letting him receive in this position because they know he only has two options: he can try and dribble down the touchline and attempt a cross, or maintain possession by passing the ball back to his centre backs. He could try and force a pass to a central area of the pitch (to either Greenwood or Fernandes), but Villarreal have these options covered, with multiple players ready to close them down before they could even take a touch. This makes it near impossible for Wan-Bissaka to make a play that will advance Manchester United’s position towards the goal, and forces him either recycle possession or give it away attempting a low-probability cross.

If Manchester United did happen to cross the ball (which they did on 29 occasions against Villarreal), they very rarely got anywhere. Villarreal’s defense were immense out of the air, allowing United to only win two aerial duels in their penalty area throughout the entire match (and only one of which resulted in a shot, a Pogba miss late on in the match).

Below is another example of Villarreal allowing United to receive the ball in wide areas, only to limit their progressive options from these positions. Lindelof has carried the ball up the pitch with no real intent in mind other than to get the ball into a more advanced position. Villarreal gives him space on the left wing, which pushes him to carry the ball towards the space. Once he gets into a position high enough up the pitch where he could be dangerous, Villarreal close him down with two players, Moreno (who tracked his run from midfield), and Pino, who is the first line of defense on Villarreal’s right side.

It just so happens that Manchester United’s attackers weren’t prepared for their centre back to drive at the opposition, and left back Luke Shaw and winger Marcus Rashford end up occupying the same space as Lindelof. Lindelof is forced to pass to Shaw, as he’s the only option available. Once Shaw is on the ball, he has even fewer options; Lindelof and Rashford have Villarreal players tight to their bodies (and they’re both occupying the same passing lane, nullifying themselves), while United’s other attackers (Fernandes, Cavani, and Greenwood) are all surrounded by Villarreal players in positions that make it near impossible to receive the ball.

From this position, Shaw has two options. Just like Wan-Bissaka in the previous example, he can try and break towards the end line and put in a cross to Cavani, or he can send the ball back to Pogba to try and switch the point of attack. He ends up playing the ball back to Pogba, and Villarreal wins another small battle.

Another quick thing to point out: Villarreal had stumped Manchester United enough 30 minutes into the match to force their centre back to take it upon himself to try and create a chance in the final third. While it’s good from United’s standpoint that all of their players are contributing in all phases of the game, it also shows how much Villarreal’s game plan had frust their opponents.

Occasionally, United’s players were able to find space centrally in the final third. However, Villarreal’s defenders were usually able to rectify their mistake by limiting their movement once they received the ball.

In the example seen above, Mason Greenwood drops off from his position on Villarreal’s back line into their midfield ranks. Pau Torres can be seen acknowledging this movement, and he lets Dani Parejo know about Greenwood’s shift. However, while Parejo is watching Mctominay (as he thinks Wan-Bissaka will pass to him), Greenwood gets behind him and finds a pocket of space between Villarreal’s midfield four and attacking two. Wan-Bissaka recognizes this, and carries the ball to an angle where he can find Greenwood.

Once Greenwood receives the ball, Capoue and Parejo close him down. As his back is to goal, they close him down from either side, trying to prevent him from turning with the ball. This forces him to either play back to his centre backs or to Fernandes, who is hugging the left sideline. He opts for Fernandes, and Villarreal have once again succeeded in not allowing Manchester United to hold the ball in dangerous areas of the pitch.

It was said that Unai Emery watched 17 of Manchester United’s matches in preparation for the Europa League Final. After watching his Villarreal side beat United, it’s fair to say that this rumor is true, as Villarreal didn’t seem to struggle at all when defending the Red Devils. Sure it was hard work, but Villarreal’s defensive game plan was executed perfectly, and they could have won in regulation time if not for an unfortunate error on a set piece that resulted in a true “poacher’s goal” from Edinson Cavani.

After a history-making first season with Villarreal, Unai Emery has once again proven that he is one of the best tacticians in football, and hopefully more fans (and pundits) will put a bit more respect on his name. Of course credit must be given to the players who executed the game plan as well, they’re thoroughly deserving of the title “Europa League Champions.”