Villarreal vs Real Madrid – The Submarine can’t sink Los Blancos

An excellent game at el Madrigal with both sides contributing to an engrossing contest.

Line Ups

Marcelinho made just one change from the side that had swept away Osasuna in their last game with Dos Santos replacing Perbet in attack. Villarreal began with their usual 4-4-2 formation. Cani would tuck into central midfield from his left side starting position.
Starting Line Ups

Starting Line Ups

With a number of injuries to contend with, Ancelotti went with Carvajal and Nacho in the full back positions. Despite not being fully fit, both Isco and Bale started for Madrid with Illarramendi making his Madrid debut too.
After all the conjecture about where Bale would play, he began life at Real Madrid in the right wing in a 4-2-3-1 system. The attacking trident of Ronaldo, Isco and Bale may appear devastating on paper but at el Madrigal, things were anything but.

Positioning

The graphic below shows the average positions during the game. The most obvious feature from a Madrid perspective is just how narrow the side is with the centre of the pitch looking extremely congested. With Ronaldo, Isco and Benzema all favouring the left side and Gareth Bale moving inward from the right, the side lacked a degree of balance in attack:-

Average Player Positions

Average Player Positions

By contrast, Villarreal enjoyed greater balance and movement across the pitch aided by a degree of familiarity and understanding in their play. Both full backs pushed very high especially Mario to support Aquino and push Nacho further back. Early on, much of Villarreal’s play was coming down the Madrid left.

Villarreal Identity Clear

The key aspect of Villarreal’s play was the combined with fluid movement and sharp passing. In Pereira and Dos Santos, the Submarine had two forwards willing to work the channels between centre back and full backs to great effect. Overarching all of this was a clear understanding of what they wanted to achieve. Swift, purposeful moves forward aided by sharp first touch passing with options provided from the second line of attack.

Madrid received plenty of warnings yet failed to heed any of them. Pereira should have opened the scoring after 5 minutes when Pepe failed to cut out a Cani pass on his outside but his weak shot was deflected wide. The Villarreal midfield closed down Madrid quickly early on such as Trigueros robbing Isco after 7 minutes letting the home side break. It set the tone for the game. Villarreal broke quickly and directly but the forwards were adequately supported from the second line of attack. Cani got into the penalty area to open the scoring after 21 minutes with the move being instigated down the channel between Ramos and Nacho.

There were also further chances for Aquino, again driving down the inside right channel, and even left back Costa arrived in the penalty area unmarked. Madrid were physically off the pace and mentally too were lacking. A quick corner in the 13th minute was delivered to the unmarked Pereira at the back post but Lopez saved the resultant shot.

The runners from midfield repeatedly caused problems for Madrid as they went untracked whilst the pairing of Ramos and Pepe looked unsteady.  And at the heart of Villarreal’s play orchestrating things was the highly impressive Bruno.

Bruno Soriano

Although nominally a defensive midfielder, Bruno fulfils a much greater role than purely that of destroyer for Villarreal operating along the lines of a deep lying playmaker at times. Despite performing amidst a crowded central area, Bruno always found time and space to receive the ball and help his side retain possession with a near 100% pass completion rate. He began attacks, prompting team mates to run into space and just as importantly, he knew when to retreat and recycle possession, playing the ball back to Asenjo from the halfway line at one point:-

Bruno Passes Made

Bruno Passes Made

On a night when the press had gathered to see Gareth Bale make a goal scoring debut for Madrid, it’s a fair assessment to say that Bruno was the best performer on the pitch.

Bruno remained with the submarine when they were relegated and he may never receive the move to a bigger, more prestigious club despite reports of numerous suitors throughout his career. He may never add to his four Spanish international caps either but he showed on Saturday evening just what he is capable of and why both he and Villarreal will be an asset to La Liga this season.

Defensive Issues

If Villarreal are clear what they aim to achieve on the pitch, Ancelotti is still working on that element for Madrid. The Italian has repeatedly shoehorned various star players into a starting line up over his career and he will need to repeat the trick again at Madrid. The front three of Ronaldo, Isco and Bale will have many running out of superlatives to describe them but there’s a worry for Madridista’s that the balance is not right.

Ronaldo doesn’t track back but the side could compensate with the workrate of Di Maria on the right but if Bale replaces the Argentinean in the starting eleven and drifts further inward, there will be issues for Madrid during transitions as Villarreal showed on Saturday. Modric and Illarramendi were overrun at times as the Submarine swarmed forward at pace. There was also the problem on occasion of both central midfield players moving forward together with nobody staying deeper to offer defensive protection.

The second goal for Villarreal arrived because nobody bothered to close down Cani as he ran forward in a central area. Lopez saved his shot but Dos Santos converted the rebound. As poor as that was, earlier in the move, Bruno and Musacchio exchanged passes with Di Maria closing them down whilst the remainder of the Madrid team sat back. One player pressing alone is a total waste of time.

It was a difficult evening for Nacho and Carvajal at full back and whilst Nacho may lack the attacking thrust that Marcelo presents, the work of Carvajal on the right collecting a pass from Modric before cutting back for Bale to score shows the greater penetration that he offers over the more conservative Arbeloa.

The graphic below shows plenty of final third passes for Madrid but too few were into the penalty area with key passes leading to shots from outside the area, which is still a strength for Madrid but less dangerous:-

Final Third Passes

Final Third Passes

Villarreal failed with over a third of their final third passes but with a riskier strategy of threading balls into the channels to get behind Madrid, this was always a more likely outcome. The graphic also shows how a number of passes which led to shots came down the Madrid left. The plan was clear. Shift the ball quickly and try to exploit the gaps behind Madrid with pace whereas Madrid were disjointed in attack due to a lack of familiarity with each other and a lack of fitness for key players.

Disconnected

Madrid’s problems were most evidently displayed by the lacklustre performance of Benzema who seemed disinterested for much of the game and often appeared completely disconnected from the rest of the team in the striking position. It forced Benzema to drop deeper and deeper to receive the ball and become more involved in the game. The graphic below shows his positions when he received the ball:-

Benzema Passes Received

Benzema Passes Received

Madrid seldom got in behind Villarreal’s defence and with Benzema dropping deep, it was another example of the visitors always playing in front of their opponents defence. The equalising goal for Madrid was one of the few times they got behind Villarreal.

Benzema was involved in Madrid’s second when his shot was partly saved by Asenjo but the goal was really about the craft of Isco, juggling the ball out of danger before Ronaldo carried possession forward.

The front four of the team possess tremendous individual ability. The trick for Ancelotti will be gaining the best from them collectively.

Missed Opportunity?

Ancelotti will be satisfied and relieved with a point. Playing Bale and Isco whilst not fully fit and handing a debut to Illarramendi nearly backfired but to gain a point and aid team development and player fitness, it will now seem worthwhile.

An excellent point for Marcelinho and Villarreal but the thought will linger that it should have been three and that this may actually have been an opportunity lost. The Submarine created and squandered numerous chances as they attacked with precision throughout.

Four games in and Villarreal are undefeated with ten points. The challenge is to maintain this level of form and begin the process of re-establishing the Submarine back amidst the upper echelons of La Liga.

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Spain – No Turning Back

When the final whistle blew in Gdansk on Monday evening, the European Championships drew to a close for Slaven Bilic and his Croatian players. Some players accepted the applause from their supporters and returned the offer, whilst others swapped shirts and exchanged words with their friends in the Spanish team. At that precise moment, as the feeling of defeat sunk in for the Croatian players, there was the impending realisation that despite coming close to achieving their objective of escaping from the group stage, they had ultimately failed. Dejected, they stood still, exhausted as the victors took the applause.

In the technical area, Bilic, who now departs the national team as a career in club management beginning with Locomotiv Moscow awaits, embraced Vicente del Bosque before the Spanish manager departed into the tunnel.

There was, however, no celebration from the Spanish players on the pitch. The players simply walked off the pitch.

Was this the first piece of visual evidence of the perceived lack of lack of hunger within the team? Players no longer showing emotion at the final whistle? Or was it simply an acknowledgement that the first part of the tournament had been negotiated successfully? The second part would prove harder.

In the post match press conference, del Bosque, although keen to accentuate the positives from qualifying as group winners, sounded downbeat:-

“The truth is it was not a great game overall and this should concern us. Things didn’t go according to plan”

Spain had just beaten Croatia 1-0 to finish top of Group C and secure a quarter final berth but the level of performance in the group stages has polarised public opinion.

The failure to use a recognised, conventional striker in the opening group match against Italy was the first step. Torres, Negredo and Llorente were all overlooked to accommodate Cesc Fabregas. Critics will point to the lack of a central focal point in the attack, the lack of penetration and the over indulgence on a raft of talented playmakers. The inclusion of both Xavi and Xabi Alonso in midfield necessitates squeezing Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva into the forward line. It’s a wonderful ensemble of attacking creative talent but does it come at a cost? What price the addition of cutting edge to your play?

Yet the Spanish goal against Italy was vindication of the system and personnel. David Silva, occupying the false 9 role, dropped deep and provided the assist for Fabregas who arrived late into the penalty area. Llegada, the Spanish call it. The ability to arrive in the penalty area on cue from the second line of attack. Fabregas has demonstrated llegada in abundance at Barcelona this season.

It’s also what Spain often lack. A midfield runner prepared to break beyond the forward line. The deployment of Iniesta in an advanced attacking role on the left removes this element from his game. Fabregas remains the one midfielder within the squad who is direct and offers vertical movement. Or “anarchy” as the technical staff at Barcelona labelled it.

The Ireland match offered a glimpse into the future expanded European Championships, when smaller, plucky nations punch above their weight and qualify for a major tournament only to inevitably suffer a few hefty beatings before meekly departing. The game told us nothing new about Spain. It simply boosted the confidence of Fernando Torres via a brace.

And so Croatia would provide the final opponents for Spain. Dependant upon your perspective, the hallmarks / failings of this Spanish side were evident throughout. Spain continued to pass effectively / without penetration. Their intricate passing seeking to pull the opposition out of position / whilst lacking width.

The performances have not lived up to expectations yet upon closer scrutiny, does the performance not exceed the expectations of almost every other footballing nation? Is the burden upon the Spanish now so great that we pour over every aspect of their play seeking deficiency?

“The worst thing we can do is doubt the style and change it. It has worked and we think we have the resources to beat teams that wait deep for us. Neither the players nor anyone else should doubt the style”

Del Bosque, it seems, is not for turning.

It must be recognised that, like all champions, Spain are faced with opponents raising their performance level when they meet la seleccion. Spain are increasingly faced with a defensive wall comprising 8 or 9 outfield players as the opponent lies in wait for the one or two chances they will have during the course of a match to alter its outcome. Rakitic failed to take that chance for Croatia and eventually, worn down physically and mentally, Jesus Navas struck. A goal of supreme creativity and one which epitomises Spain’s outfield play. Navas walked the ball into the net.

Should another team deliver a performance on the technical level of the Spanish, it would be revered but familiarity has bred contempt in some quarters. We expect it of the Spanish and more besides. We demand demolition football whereby the opponent is thrashed. At this level of football, it is simply not going to happen.

The statistics do not lie. On Monday evening Spain had 64% possession and 15 shots at goal according to Uefa.com. With 38 shots on target to their name thus far, Spain also lead the way in this department. And they also lead the charts for possession,  pass completion, fewest goals conceded, most corners.

And so a trip to the Donbass Arena in Donetsk to face France on Saturday evening awaits Spain. The sides have met on six occasion in competitive matches with les bleus winning five times. Spain’s best result being a draw.

From the most recent meeting in 2006 when France triumphed 3-1, only Ribery, Malouda and Diarra remain in the French team. Yet a glance at the Spanish team sheet from that day reveals the names of Casillas, Ramos, Fabregas, Alonso, Xavi, Torres, Iniesta and Reina.

This Spanish side has grown together, setting records and winning trophies in the process. On Saturday evening expect more of the same from Spain even though del Bosque has dropped hints of a more expansive approach.

Navas continues to deliver from the bench. Against tiring limbs, his pace is a valuable asset. When you have chased and harried for 60 minutes, the sight of the Sevilla winger coming off the bench must be disheartening for left backs.

The central trio of Xavi, Busquets and Alonso will continue to pass, pass, pass. Pulling the opponent across the pitch. Probing, seeking the gap to exploit the opponent. The fleet-footed running of Iniesta on the left balanced by the guile and trickery of Silva on the right, both seeking to break forward when the opportunity presents itself, to identify and find the surging run from Torres, creating the yard of space which could be the one opening for Spain to take the lead.

The opponent chases, attempting to win the ball back. They gain possession momentarily before Spain squeeze them, pressing high and forcing errors in their passing. Spain have the ball once more and the opponent enters a vicious circle. Chase, gain possession, lose possession. Finally, with the opponent exhausted and drained, Spain stretch the game and begin to create chance after chance. It’s a relentless game plan and one which is now so well known yet counteracting it remains so difficult.

It is the turn of Laurent Blanc on Saturday evening. Blanc has a number of key decisions to make for this match.

The marauding forward runs of Debuchy on the right, a key feature for the French so far, will likely be reined in as France firstly attempt to halt Spanish attacks. An additional midfield partner for Alou Diarra, who has operated at the base on midfield alone, also seems a logical step for Blanc in this game. Yohan Cabaye may be deployed in a deeper role. This will provide a sound platform to build upon. It offers the new, as yet untested in the competition, centre back pairing of Rami and Koscielny, the necessary support.

Les Bleus need a performance from Frank Ribery on Saturday evening both individually and collectively. He needs to push Arbeloa back and link with Benzema who has often looked isolated to date. And when the attack breaks down, Ribery must offer support to Evra.

The questions over the positional sense of Evra will be closely examined as will his fitness when Navas eventually emerges.

Can Benzema identify the weakness within his team mate at club level, Sergio Ramos? Throughout the season Ramos performed well at centre back which hinted at a new found level of maturity in his game. Yet the old failings have appeared again, the impetuous charges forward and being caught out of position against both Italy and Croatia. His athleticism saving him the first time, a dubious refereeing decision on the second. Benzema inevitably drifts to the left of centre where he will face club adversary Gerard Pique.

Jeremy Menez will need to curtail the runs of Alba as Nasri becomes a casualty to injury, or the internal bickering depending upon your viewpoint, that has disrupted the French camp ahead of this contest.

The Spanish defence has yet to be tested seriously in this competition. Can Benzema aided by Ribery and Menez provide a closer examination?

A host of key personal battles across the pitch which will combine effortlessly to shape the outcome of this game.

If Spain falter or if they struggle to defeat the French, the questions will surface once more. It will be asserted that del Bosque cannot see the problem, that he is unable to find the solution within a superbly talented squad.

Or maybe he does see the problem. Maybe the stubbornness of one man, his refusal to see the problem and change it is actually the identification of perseverance.

Maybe del Bosque’s reluctance to change is not due to some misguided sense of loyalty to the players on the pitch but a deep held belief that what he has instructed his players to do is correct.

Maybe the worst thing for Spain to do, would be to change tact as del Bosque suggests.

So what should the supporters who questions del Bosque do? What are our options on the sidelines as we query the inclusion of Fabregas and Silva but no striker in the starting eleven? When we ask why Llorente and Negredo have seen only a few minutes of playing time combined and will start on the bench yet again?

We should listen to the man who scored the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup Final, Andres Iniesta.

“Trust us”