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Villarreal’s desired team shape has been nonexistent in its first two La Liga matches

Unai Emery needs Dani Parejo back badly.

RCD Espanyol v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Joan Valls/Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Okay, two matches in, we can’t score. I don’t really think this is a forward line problem, and I don’t think it’s permanent, but clearly the offense is a bit broken right now. The defense isn’t actually great either, despite two clean sheets, and I personally want Asenjo back in goal in a hurry though the analytics nerd in me knows it’s only but so much of an improvement. Simply put, without Dani Parejo on the pitch, the team shape for Villarreal is completely broken. I wish we weren’t still so reliant on him, but it appears we are. Let me show you what I mean:

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This is our pass map from Granada. I use this one first because it is SO MUCH BETTER than the one against Espanyol. Alfonso and Pedraza connected fairly well on the left flank, but as you’d expect from a wing of two fullbacks the attacking threat was only but so effective. Trigueros was put into the ‘Parejo’ role but while he stayed central he really wasn’t in the center of the action.

Mandi attempted the most passes and this shouldn’t be a surprise. Two of our top three players in pass attempts last season were Pau Torres and Raul Albiol. The problem is, under Unai’s system, the person at the very top of the passing food chain is supposed to be the player in the position where Trigueros was, and where Parejo usually is. Parejo in buildup play isn’t so much the guy who puts in the final ball, he’s the guy who passes it to the player who puts in the final ball, a crucial aspect of the supply chain to attack that was totally missing from the Granada match. This led to some good sequences of play, particularly on the left, but nothing too dangerous.

Two other things to notice here and I’ll move on. Juan Foyth and Yeremi Pino, Yeremi in particular, were absolute passengers in possession. We had no really buildup play on the right at all, making us very one dimensional. Also notice that the leader in xGChain, was Gerard Moreno. xGChain measures the expected goals from all possession chains a player is involved in and adds them together. Basically, leading the team in this stat means you were crucial to most of their attacks, which is what we’d expect from Gerard. He is also the receiver of the most progressive passes, which he or Dia should be as focal points of our forward movement. Now look at Espanyol:

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What team shape you saw in the Granada match was just totally gone against Espanyol. You don’t have that nice possession cluster on the left, though Trigueros was more involved, and for some baffling reason it was Moi Gomez being shoveled most of our progressive passing in a forward central area. Mandi attempted the most passes again, and Etienne Capoue was or most active progressive passer (not his job as a defensive midfielder). Remember the xGChain number I described to you above? Yeah, go check who led that against Espanyol. Geronimo freakin Rulli, a goalkeeper. Not good, not what you want, I don’t care if your goalkeeper is the best passing keeper ever, that’s not good. Not surprisingly, this led to a downright putrid xG result.

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Giving up 1.4 xG to Espanyol is not great. Creating less than one xG against them is horrible. The number of shots we took wasn’t the worst in the world, but we just didn’t create any really good looks all match long.

The return of Dani Parejo should resolve a lot of these problems. He functions as a hub in possession in a way absolutely no one else can. To illustrate this, go take at look at this article I did two matches into last season. That one contains a graphic from the same people that did the pass maps above, and you see everyone organized around Parejo in the center in a single cohesive shape. A unified shape in our team will go a long way into us creating better chances as the year goes on.

The other way a Parejo return will help is on free kicks. We generated just 0.05 xG off set pieces yesterday, which is less xG than the number of goal creating actions Dani Parejo had per 90 minutes last season.

The return of Chukwueze is going to help a lot too. In two weeks with two different players on the right, we have yet to create a threat over there and we know Samu can do that. Once he and Danjuma get rolling with a central hub of Parejo pulling the strings, I think our offense will be fine.

In the meantime, I’m pretty worried that this is what our team looks like without those players. I expected us to have more depth than this that could impose itself against two pretty pedestrian opening opponents. Nevertheless, I still think things are going to improve drastically for Villarreal as the season progresses... we just have to survive Atleti first.