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The tactical difference between Boulaye Dia and Paco Alcácer off the ball for Villarreal

A quick look into how both strikers move when not on the ball

Villarreal CF v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by Michael Sohn - Pool/Getty Images

After Paco Alcácer only scored six goals in 27 league appearances last season* (and only four in the half of the 2019/20 campaign that he played with Villarreal), it’s clear that the Spaniard has begun to hit a decline in his career. Despite being only 28 years old, Alcácer has been unable to replicate his Valencia and Borussia Dortmund form from earlier in his career with Villarreal. Alcácer’s decline, coupled with the transfer of veteran striker Carlos Bacca to Granada and the loan of Fer Niño to Mallorca has left Villarreal’s roster quite sparse in terms of players that can play in the ‘number 9’ role. As Villarreal lacked a striker to compete with Alcácer (I consider Gerard Moreno to be a better winger than a striker, as I talked about here), they decided to spend big in the summer transfer window and put an 11.2 million euro investment into 24 year old Stade Reims’ striker Boulaye Dia.

Dia and Alcácer are completely different players with dissimilar profiles. Alcácer is a striker who specializes in holdup play, while also being a good finisher. Dia on the other hand is an attacker who uses his expert vision and off-ball movements to create space and chances for his teammates. Each player affects the squad’s buildup and chance creation differently through their movement, something that I was very interested in looking at.

Dia

Boulaye Dia is a player whose off-ball work is his greatest strength. He’s got an explosiveness about him that helps him accelerate quickly, which causes all kinds of trouble for opposition defenses. The system in which he played with Reims is slightly different from what Unai Emery currently uses with Villarreal, in that Dia most often played as a lone forward in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-4-1 formation. The majority of Dia’s goals for Stade Reims came from either him receiving through passes in behind the opposition back line where he’d go one-on-one with the goalkeeper, or from crosses and “right place, right time” scrappy finishes. He scored more than 25% of Reims’ open-play goals last season from situations like this.

With Villarreal, Dia has been asked to partner Gerard Moreno up top in a 4-4-2 shape. This plays into the Senegalese’s strengths quite well, as Moreno is extraordinary at reading the game and exploiting space, and Dia’s movement will surely help to create many chances for Moreno over the next few seasons.

As stated previously, Dia tends to default to making runs in behind the opposition back line when his team is in attack. This is quite beneficial to any side that he plays in, as it opens up space on multiple fronts; if Dia’s defenders fail to track him then he can be found via a through ball that will put him in on goal (as Villarreal has a glut of midfielders who are capable of playing inch-perfect long passes), and if he’s properly tracked then this will drop the opposition backline line deeper into their own territory, which will open up space in front of the back line for Villarreal to exploit.

Dia’s runs are also expertly timed and placed. He tends to stay outside of the center-back who is marking him, trying to stay in their blindspot. Once he sees the option to make a run open up, he’ll move from the defender’s blindspot to right in front of them, where he’ll use his explosive acceleration to burst ahead of the defender. The combination of the movement from an area where the defender doesn’t have Dia in view and his burst of pace makes him very difficult to defend. Even if the defender is positionally sound and has their body opened up to view Dia and the play ahead of them, Dia forces them to do a 180° turn, which is quite difficult as well.

A quick graphic of Boulaye Dia’s typical run. He starts outside of the center-back, then moves inside, and finally uses his pace to make his run in behind.

Dia’s runs themselves are quite interesting, as he seems to have a set pattern with how he goes about making his movements. If he starts his run in either half-space, he will keep his run in the half-space, running straight at the end-line. If he starts his run in the middle of the pitch, he will make his run wider (in either direction), usually into one of the half-spaces. Examples of this can be seen below.

If Dia begins his run in either halfspace, he will usually keep his run in said halfspace.
If Dia begins his run in the middle of the pitch, he will most often take his run into one of the halfspaces.

Another asset that Dia brings to the squad is his defensive work rate. He tracks back well in defense, and is quick to start counter attacks from deep. He often tries to carry the ball right up the middle of the pitch after winning the ball back using his pace and strength to beat defenders.

If he doesn’t get the ball back on counterattacks, Dia will drift wide on the opposite side of the field from where Villarreal’s counter is taking place. His runs from this position usually aren’t goal-driven though, it seems that he tries to stretch the opposition defense horizontally to try and create holes for his teammates to try and penetrate. He doesn’t really have a major impact on the play in these situations, as it really only takes one of the opposition’s fullbacks or wingers to track back and keep him from doing much from his wide position.

If Villarreal’s opponents are marking them tight in a medium block near midfield, Dia will attempt to drop off to receive the ball from his deeper-lying teammates. However, Dia isn’t too creative or risky with his play. If a defender stays tight to his back when he drops off the defensive line, he will usually just play a one-touch pass right back to his teammate who played him the initial pass. Dia is much better suited for playing against teams that play a high defensive line than a tight medium or low block.

Alcácer

As I said earlier, Paco Alcácer is a completely different player than Boulaye Dia, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. While Dia’s off-ball movements might be space-oriented, Alcácer’s tend to be goal driven. Alcácer doesn’t possess the explosiveness and acceleration that Dia has, so he uses his positioning differently. He prefers to play as a single striker, as the sole target for his side (this also allows Gerard Moreno to play on the right wing, something that I much prefer for Villarreal).

As the sole striker, Alcácer facilitates holdup play alone, and he’s quite good at dropping off from the opposition back line, receiving the ball, and turning his body to switch the point of attack by passing to a teammate on the opposite side of the pitch. Alcácer is quite secure on the ball, and he ranks very highly amongst strikers in terms of ball retention. His holdup play is one of his biggest assets as a striker.

Since he isn’t as fast as Dia, Alcácer rarely ever tries to get in behind the opposition defense. Instead, if Villarreal are driving at their opposition, he will make a run directly at the center-backs, trying to force them deeper so that Villarreal’s ball carrier has more space in front of the back line to operate with. He has no intention to receive the ball in these situations (barring an egregious error by the opposition), just to drive his opponents farther back into their own territory.

Another thing that Alcácer brings to the squad that Dia hasn’t for Villarreal is his penalty box presence. While his finishing is sometimes questionable, it’s undeniable that Alcácer is fantastic at getting himself into great shooting positions. Alcácer’s non-penalty expected goals per shot rate was one of the highest in La Liga last season, and a lot of that comes down to his movement during Villarreal’s attacks. Quite a few of his most recent goals have come from “right place, right time” situations, or perfectly timed runs that have resulted in tap-in finishes.

One thing that noticeably stuck out to me was Alcácer’s movement on crossing-based situations. Villarreal aren’t the most crossing-dependent side (they were middle of the pack for La Liga in terms of crosses attempted last season, and near the bottom for the 2021/2022 campaign), but they would be if they wanted to take advantage of Paco Alcácer’s excellent movement. Nearly every time Villarreal attempted a cross for the past few seasons, Alcácer would start at the top of the penalty area, and make a run directly at the front post. This causes confusion for his marker, as he has to make a split-second decision to follow Alcácer or pass him off to a teammate, and this confusion breeds mistakes. Alcácer’s front post run can also allow him to meet crosses before the opposition goalkeeper has a chance to, giving him a slight advantage in getting a shot off.

Conclusions

The best way I’d describe the difference between Boulaye Dia and Paco Alcácer’s movement is that Alcácer tries to make himself the target of his teammates’ passes, while Dia attempts to make space the target. Both players have their advantages and disadvantages, and could be beneficial to Villarreal against different types of opponents. Dia is definitely better suited for playing against opponents with higher defensive lines, where he can find space in behind, and Alcácer would be better against teams playing in a low block due to his ability to find space in his opposition’s penalty area as well as his ball retention in the buildup phase.

It’s always good to have many options in each position, especially when your options have totally contrasting profiles. Unai Emery has the luxury of selecting from two top class strikers who are better fits for different situations, something that will surely benefit his Villarreal side for the 2021/2022 season.

*In all competitions, Paco had 12 goals and 5 assists in about 2061 minutes, meaning he contributed to a goal once every 121 minutes he was on the pitch. For point of reference, Gerard Moreno, minus penalties, contributed to a goal once every 107 minutes last season.