After the away win in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League’s first round of the knockout phase, Villarreal welcomed Sporting Lisbon at the “El Madrigal” for the return game. Javi Calleja’s squad got back on the right track after a turbulent few months of bad performances, and the 1-0 win in Portugal was a breath of fresh air for the team. Marcel Keizer’s boys came to Spain hoping they could get the better of their opponents, but the situation on the pitch was hugely different than what Verde e Blancos planned beforehand.
This tactical analysis of the match indicates that Villareal dominated the game fully and that they are finally getting in the form they expected to be in from the start of the season.
Both teams started in a 3-4-3 formation with the wingers in the inner corridors, and the wing-backs as the attacking options next to the sidelines.
Villareal went into the game without Santi Cazorla, so the midfield was held by Javi Fuego and Manu Trigueros, while Pablo Fornals and Dani Raba worked in the half-spaces and helped them in defence. The key player for Sporting was Bruno Fernandes who had the attacking support in Diaby and Bas Dost. Calleja’s idea was to double-team Fernandes with two fast players surrounding him, with Mario Gaspar as a right-centre-back and Llambrich as a right-wing-back.
Villarreal pressing drove Sporting crazy
The home team focused on high positioning and pressing the opponent. Javi Calleja’s boys had quite a compact setting when they were not in possession. They tried to go high-up the pitch and press the Portuguese in their own half, trying to force them to pass the ball to the flanks. The pass to the wing-backs was the pressing trigger for the home team. They always positioned themselves in order to let the pass get to Jefferson and Ristovski, so they could press them from several sides.
When the initial press didn’t work, the non-pressing part of the team came closer to the others and maintained the pressure on their opponents. The other trap for the Sporting players was intended for their defensive midfielders. If they got the pass from the wing-backs, they were usually surrounded by three players in yellow shirts.
Out of those types of situations, Villareal got the better of their opponents which resulted in lots of counter-attacks in which they had numerical superiority in the final third. Despite that, they didn’t manage to score from those situations because of poor decision-making and because of the good reactions of the Sporting Lisbon defenders.
Positional play for the home team came down to playing out wide. Fornals and Raba searched for the gaps between Sporting’s midfield and defensive line, positioning themselves in the half-spaces. It was a common occurrence that when the ball was on the left-hand side, Fornals positioned himself in the left-inner corridor and Raba played as a second striker on the right-hand corner of the box.
Fornals in the inner corridor freed the space for Pedraza to overlap and to be one of the main attacking options for Calleja’s team.
In defence, the Yellow Submarine sat in a 5-2-3 shape. If the pressing didn’t go as they planned, Villarreal retreated to a central or even a low block, letting the away team pass around their well-organised team.
Sporting’s game didn’t go as they planned
The Lions from Lisbon came to Ceramica one goal down to their opponents so they needed to go into the match with an offensive attitude. They tried to start their attacks from behind, searching for the midfielders in order to progress faster through the lines, but they were caught in a trap so that didn’t work for them. Because of that, they often surrendered the ball to Villarreal’s defensive line and then went high to press them.
Their pressing was not as good as Villarreal’s was, they had issues in compactness of the lines. Since Gudelj was watching Fornals and Raba the whole time, they were usually a few seconds late to press high. That created the gap between the pressing part of the team and the deep-lying midfielders, so the Yellow submarine had an easier way to break through the press.
If Sporting’s pressing was good and Gaspar, Funes Mori, and Ruiz were left with no passing options, they would try to skip the midfield in their build-up and search for Moreno to get out of the press.
Sporting scored their goal out of good positional defending and a huge mistake from Funes Mori. Bruno Fernandes took the ball away from him and had an empty field on the opposition’s half. H scored without any difficulties and got his team an unexpected lead.
Red card changed the situation
Jefferson’s red card at the start of the second half changed the tactical approaches of both coaches. Sporting went to a low block in front of their own goal, trying to protect the lead and to secure extra-time. Villarreal made a few changes in their squad, bringing Ekambi and Iborra in for Raba and Javi Fuego.
That meant Fornals kept searching for the gaps between the lines but with the help of Iborra. Ekambi and Moreno were the striking duo. At that moment, Llambrich was basically a winger.
After the last substitution for the home team, when Santi Cazorla entered the pitch for Llambrich, the Yellow submarine became more dangerous in front of Salin’s goal. In that phase of the match, four midfielders in Villarreal’s squad were constantly in motion, rotating their positions and trying to confuse the opponent.
The numerical superiority that Calleja’s team possessed resulted in an unguarded player on the flanks, which was usually Fornals or one of the two strikers.
The equaliser came out of the surplus of players that Villarreal had and out of the tiredness of the away squad. Cazorla positioned himself perfectly in the half-space on the edge of the box and passed the ball to Ekambi who was not guarded because of the lack of players Sporting had. The Senegalese striker then passed the ball to Fornals who was alone in the middle of the box, so there was no doubt about the finish.
Afterwards, the game became a total mess with Sporting trying to score and get themselves through to the next stage. But, Fornals’ goal ensured the round-of-16 for Villarreal since Sporting Lisbon didn’t have enough stamina to come back from the shock.
Villarreal are finally in the right form. After the win against Sevilla, the good result versus Sporting Lisbon, and more importantly the fact they played really well indicates that their struggles have come to an end. They outplayed their opponent with brilliant pressing traps which Calleja set up, especially in the first half. And the rotations up-front. Keizer’s squad weren’t prepared enough to cope with that kind of play, and their task was much more difficult after Jefferson was sent off.
The Lions were not at the top of their game – they were overpowered by their opponents, so the Yellow submarine deserved to go through to the next stage of the Europa League.
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