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Being a football hipster is serious business with knowledge about the young starlet making waves for a non-mainstream mid table side often a prerequisite rather than a feather in the cap. To further enhance your, perhaps, burgeoning reputation as a true hipster, Outside of the Boot is on hand to provide an in-depth guide to some of the less celebrated teams around Europe. In this edition of the series, Siyang Xu has a look at Villareal.
It’s been a rapid rise back to the top for The Yellow Submarine following the club’s relegation to the Segunda División just four years ago. Their lone season in the second tier of Spanish football was the result of the most turbulent period in the club’s history, a period all associated with Villarreal are hoping is well and truly behind them now. Following Manuel Pellegrini’s unprecedented success at the helm between 2004 and 2009, a chapter which included the club’s best ever finish in La Liga (2nd in 2007/08) and a Champions League semi-final in 2005/06, the Chilean’s departure for Real Madrid kickstarted a dramatic plummet from the top for the working class club based in a small agricultural town in the province of Castellón. Four different managers came and went in the next three years, each faring no better than their predecessor. The final blow was dealt on May 12th 2012, with a 1-0 home defeat to Atletico Madrid consigning the side to relegation. More tragedy was still to follow, when Manolo Preciado died of a heart attack on the same day as he was appointed Villarreal’s new manager the following month.
Nevertheless, the club’s demotion to the second division did offer the chance to rebuild the side from scratch, and through the 20/20 vision lens of hindsight, we can now argue that it was indeed a blessing in disguise. Players on exorbitant wages like Borja Valero, Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar left the club, and Marcelino, who came in midway through their promotion campaign, was given an almost blank canvas upon which to explore and build upon his ideas. Two successive sixth placed finishes in their first two seasons back in the top flight followed, before a Europa League semi-final and a 4th placed finish in La Liga last time around marked one of Villarreal’s most successful seasons in their history.
With everything going swimmingly and a solid foundation to build on, Villarreal looked set to take the 16/17 season by storm. However, just a week before the club’s opening game of the season, a Champions League qualifier against Monaco, Marcelino was relieved of his duties by the board.
There has been no official line from the club stating the reason behind the impromptu end to Marcelino’s Villarreal career, but reports have suggested that a dressing room revolt was what placed the final nail in the manager’s coffin. It is believed that Marcelino’s decision to strip Mateo Musacchio as captain caused uproar amongst his team mates, a situation which may not be too unfamiliar to many Football Manager players. The club acted quickly in announcing his replacement, bringing in ex-Elche and Getafe manager Fran Escriba the following day. It is yet to be seen how much these sudden, turbulent events will affect Villarreal’s season, but with their place in the Champions League at stake, Escriba will need to hit the ground running.
A man with no Champions League experience and just four months after his sacking at Getafe, Fran Escriba wasn’t near the top of many people’s lists when considering potential replacements for Marcelino. He failed to last the full season at Getafe after being appointed in June 2015, battling and struggling to keep the club above the relegation zone for the majority of his time at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez.
His three years at Elche before that were more successful, guiding Los Franjiverdes back to the top flight for the first time in 25 years during his first season, before successfully keeping them there for the next two. Despite guiding Elche to a very respectable 13th place finish in the final of these three seasons, Escriba left the club after unpaid tax debts saw the club demoted to Segunda División after the season had finished.
As it is yet to be seen how Escriba’s Villarreal will line up or play, this section will focus on how Marcelino made Villarreal so successful last season. The Spaniard set up a 4-4-2 formation, earning his side favourable comparisons to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. There are indeed similarities to the Atletico side that reached the Champions League final last season, with both outfits focusing on controlling the space within their defensive block and making it difficult for the opposition to play through them.
Marcelino recognised that other sides may perhaps have better technical players than Villarreal, and so instead focused on maintaining a stable structure, both in the defensive phase of the game and in transitions. The side usually used a position-orientated zonal marking system, concentrating on maintaining good spacing between team mates both horizontally and vertically, basically ensuring that the opponent would find it very difficult to get in between the lines of their compact structure and play penetrative passes through them. The opposition would often be subsequently forced wide, around their block, a position from which Villarreal achieved greater access to the ball and therefore found it easier to press and win the ball back. This defensive resilience showed in the final table with Villarreal boasting the fourth best defensive record in the league, topped only by the traditional powerhouses of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico.
As you might expect from a team that sets up in this manner, Villarreal’s attacking threat came mostly in transition. The key to effective counter attacking is making disorientating runs off the ball at speed, and these were provided by Villarreal’s front two in abundance. Roberto Soldado would often come deeper to connect the play, whilst Cedric Bakambu would stretch the defence and burst in behind, in a manner you could compare to Shinji Okazaki and Jamie Vardy of Leicester in the Premier League. The wingers were also key to their effectiveness on the counter, with Denis Suarez in particular providing a key creative spark, often roaming around into space and executing incisive passes in behind the opposition.
It is unknown whether Escriba will stick to this transition-focused style of play or if he will look to change the team’s approach, but regardless, he is lucky to inherit a squad who are willing to work their socks off for success. As Leicester showed last season, and as Atletico have done for a few years now, hard work and energy are absolutely key to pulling off a tactical masterplan, and whatever Escriba has in store for Villarreal, he should be safe in the knowledge the players will give him their all.
Eric Bailly’s big money move to Manchester United may be the most well-known departure from Villarreal this summer, but a transfer commanding a much smaller fee might be the one that hurts Marcelino’s side the most. Just one year after letting him leave the Nou Camp, Barcelona activated the buy-back clause they placed in Denis Suarez’s contract upon his departure for the Estadio El Madrigal in 2015, bringing the talented winger back for around €3m, a measly fee in the current market for a player who contributed directly to 16 goals last season.
Samu García and experienced midfielder Tomás Pina have also left for pastures new, whilst the loan moves of Alphonse Aréola and Adrián López both came to an end.
Determined not to let these departures deter him from his mission of building a side capable of making the step up to Champions League football, Marcelino kept himself busy over the off-season with the completion of several new signings. After three seasons out on loan at various clubs in La Liga, Denis Cheryshev has finally found a place he can permanently call home, arriving for just £6m from Real Madrid. Roberto Soriano and Alfred N’Diaye are both solid additions the bolster the centre of midfield, whilst winger Cristian Espinoza, left back José Angel and goalkeeper Andrés Fernández are also new faces at Estadio El Madrigal.
The most intriguing bit of business done by Villarreal, however, has definitely been the capture of Alexandre Pato. The ex-AC Milan ace returned to European football in January with a loan move to Chelsea, but played just twice for the Blues during the remainder of the season before being deemed as surplus to requirements by incoming manager Antonio Conte. The player’s hefty fall from grace was made even more apparent when his own club Corinthians made it clear they did not want the striker to return from his loan spell away, paving the way for Villarreal to swoop in. The move is definitely a gamble, with Pato’s laid back approach sometimes preventing him from playing to his full potential. This was best highlighted during a Brazilian Cup quarter final in 2013 when an attempted Panenka during the crucial, final penalty in a shoot-out was scuffed and sent Corinthians out of the cup. Some of his own team mates had to be physically restrained to prevent them from attacking him, not just for the penalty miss, but as a result of the growing frustration to the striker’s casual attitude to games. Still a relatively young 26 years of age, however, there is certainly time for the Brazilian forward to re-find the form that once made him the most sought-after teenager in the world. His talent has never been in doubt; any objections to the forward has always been a matter of mentality. If Escriba can help Pato sort out that side of his game, who knows what the Brazilian is capable of? For a fee of less than £3m, the risk-reward balance surely falls favourably on the side of the latter.
Mario Gaspar: A one club man and fans’ favourite, Mario has been an integral part of the Villarreal side for a number of years. He may be remembered in England for a spectacular overhead kick, scored in Spain’s 2-0 friendly win over The Three Lions last year, but his fans back at home are more appreciative of his non-stop running up and down the right flank. He offers an excellent balance between providing offensive support with overlapping runs and remaining solid defensively, and is also a key influence in the Villarreal dressing room.
Bruno Soriano: The experienced central midfielder is the heartbeat of this Villarreal team, acting as a key figure in the progression of the ball from defence to attack. His clever movement effectively opens up passing lanes from his central defenders, and is also capable of finding the subsequent pass forward after receiving the ball. His fantastic form for Villarreal was rewarded with his inclusion in Spain’s EURO 2016 squad this summer.
Cédric Bakambu: The Congolese striker burst onto the scene last season with an excellent debut campaign for Villarreal following his move from Bursaspor. After an impressive return of 22 goals in all competitions, including some excellent auditions to the rest of Europe with his performances in the Europa League, expectations of the 25 year old will now rocket. His clever runs off the ball were key to Villarreal’s success on the counter last season, and you’d imagine that he will remain the side’s main goal threat this year under Escriba, especially given the recent news that Roberto Soldado will be out for six months after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament in pre-season.
Samu Castillejo: There were high expectations around Samu Castillejo when Villarreal bought him from Malaga in 2015 for £7m, but the 21 year old has struggled to live up to his hype so far in his career at the Estadio El Madrigal. A measly contribution of one goal and one assist disappointed fans of The Yellow Submarine, but there is certainly still time for young winger to reach his high ceiling, especially with his humble, hard-working and committed approach to his football. His many wonderful performances in his final season at Malaga earned praise from all quarters of Spain, including the former jewel of Malaga, Isco, tweeting “It’s the Samuel Castillejo show” during one of his appearances for the club. It was once hoped amongst the management at Malaga that Castillejo would turn out even better than Isco, shown by the huge €1.6m 5-year contract given to the youngster at the age of 16, and although it might seem unlikely now, Villarreal fans will still be praying for a monumental step forward from the winger this year.
The Yellow Submarine have gone through a rollercoaster of a week, mixed with optimism for the new season and disappointment that the manager that has brought them a bucketload of success is now gone. Turbulent periods are, however, what the passionate Villarreal fans are more than used to, and for a club that only played in the top division of Spanish football for the first time in 1998, the progress Villarreal have made in the past two decades has been staggering. The squad definitely has potential to have a great season, but you have to wonder what effect Marcelino’s sudden departure so soon before the season’s beginning will have.
Read all our 2016-17 Hipster Guide articles here