Well, we failed to in on opening day again. We haven’t won on opening day since 2014, though we have finished in the top 7 in the league every one of those years save one.
We started the match really, really brightly. We were all over Granada, creating chances, but each time it seamed like there was one small bit of finality missing. Dia takes a touch a little too hard, Yeremi puts a tame shot at the end of a great buildup, Mandi misses an open header or Gerard gets a header on frame from too far out. After about 40 minutes, our control over the match started to wane, and he substitutes didn’t really bring anything new. In short, we looked like a team that had played 120 minutes four days before.
As the match wore on and Gerard continued to drop deep out of buildup necessity, you realized that this is still a side that is still missing Dani Parejo’s influence in midfield without a legitimate replacement. As Yeremi showed his inexperience in multiple possession and attack opportunities, you realized how much Samu Chukwueze burning down the wing would be useful. As Alberto Moreno added very little to his flank going forward, you realized we really do still need a left winger. However, there are reasons to be still be very optimistic about this team.
A new Dia
Boulaye Dia, in two matches worth of action so far in the yellow shirt, just looks like a marvel. At some point, if he doesn’t see one go in we’ll ask anecdotal questions about his finishing rate, but he’s scored about 21% of his shot attempts over the last two years and even if that doesn’t translate directly to La Liga I think he’ll be fine shooting the ball. This is an incredibly smart footballer. In one instance, after receiving an incredible throughball from Gerard Dia had the right idea to escape defensive pressure but his touch let him down just a bit but he immediately recovered and played a intelligent cut back to a running Yeremi. In a couple other instances he timed a pressing run well enough that it caused panic for Granada, once to one of their CBs and another time to their keeper that was too far out of his box. In yet another situation he put his back to the goal, received the ball, and held off the defender as his support came in a way I haven’t seen a Villarreal striker do in a long time. As he continues to learn his teammates, with his football mind, he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.
We’ll get healthy
I know I’m a broken record of optimism sometimes, but this is the same thing I was saying early in 2021 when everyone was panicked that we wouldn’t make Europe at all. The cynical will point out that we finished 7th and would be in the Conference League without the Europa League trophy but I’ll emphatically retort that with minutes to go in our final match we were in 5th despite having sacrificed league performance for weeks in chasing that UEL crown. With Parejo, Chukwueze, and Iborra back into the mix, plus the eventual inclusion of Paco (who looks like he’s staying for now) and Coquelin as depth options, this team has an amount of talent that will simply be too much for the vast majority of La Liga sides to keep up with over a 38 match season.
In two matches so far against Chelsea and Granada, we’ve looked excellent defensively both times. Granada only mustered 0.3 xG against us in 90 minutes. They only took six shots. Even after we went down a man (losing a defensive presence, no less) we never looked in danger of conceding. All of this of course was without our single best defender, Pau, playing at the back. If we’re one of the best defensive units in our league, things will work out just fine.
Emery’s method of management is one that requires his players to buy in, and he will spend half a year or more working with a player until he buys in or else Unai just won’t put him on the pitch. We saw Chukwueze start to buy in towards the end of last year with great effect, Yeremi and Foyth have bought in, and early days it looks like Dia is as well. Some players simply refuse to do so, and they end up leaving. Take Kubo is one example, and it’s starting to look like Pervis Estupinan, for all his talent, is going to be another.
What this method of management means, however, is that the end result of a team is more important to Emery than how we look in August. It’s part of why Unai is such a good cup manager, but it can also be frustrating early in the season. Not every team is sure they’ll be better in May relative to their competition than they are in August, but for Villarreal I still think we can feel sure of that.
Some draws feel like losses, others just like missed opportunities. On a weekend where the expected top four in La Liga all won, this feels like a missed opportunity. Our 14 shots only generated 1.1 xG, and we need to get better shots closer to the goal, but we were far and away the better team yesterday, and if we are the better team the majority of the time, we’ll be fine when it’s all said and done. Only five teams won this weekend. We’re level with Betis and Athletic on points, we’re ahead of La Real and Celta, and realistically these are the teams we’ll be competing with. Onward and upward.