Part of success in football is knowing your identity: whether that be as a player, or as a club. Atletico Madrid, remaining consistent under Diego Simeone with their style for the past eight years, certainly know who they are. Villarreal on the other hand, have recently proven to be a basketcase. In a season which has proven to be a disaster on the pitch for El Submarino Amarillo, the club has twice changed managers: the second of these changes reinstalling the man who was initially sacked, Javier Calleja.
However, since his reappointment in late January, Villarreal have proven more resilient and capable despite remaining in the relegation places. Sunday’s match against Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano was the ultimate test of this newfound strength of character.
The home side faced the tough task of deciding whether to stick or twist in terms of selections. Coming off a tough, bruising, encounter with Juventus in the Champions League, many of the players would likely be drained with heavy legs. Nonetheless, Diego Simeone selected more or less a full-strength XI: Diego Godin, Thomas Partey, and Diego Costa the three players who likely could’ve played from the start in other circumstances.
Saúl Ñíguez and Thomas Lemar occupied the wide positions in Atletico’s 4-4-2, and recently signed Alvaro Morata partnering Antoine Griezmann in the attack. As ever with the Frenchman, Griezmann would glide and search for space across the frontline, providing the link between the midfield and the final third.
Villareal and Javier Calleja opted for the 3-5-2 position which has become their hallmark since his return in January. In the past, Calleja has opted for sides which have heavily pressed and countered the opposition when possession when regained. This team’s shape, alongside the players selected, gave them a good balance of this strategy with an ability to go more defensive when needed.
Carlos Bacca led the lineup front alongside Karl Toko Ekambi, and in the centre of the park, Santi Cazorla was tasked with much of the creativity from deep. Alfonso Pedraza and Mario Gaspar would occupy the wing-back positions and sit very deep without the ball to make things difficult for Atletico’s strength out wide.
Villarreal sit deep to frustrate, Atletico chip away
It wasn’t long before Villarreal’s 3-5-2 selection would more closely resemble a 5-3-2 defensively: Calleja cleary wanted Atletico to be the aggressors in the match (a role they typically do not enjoy). The wingback of El Submarino Amarillo stayed tucked in alongside the centrebacks to deny space, and the midfield three had the unenviable task of sliding across the pitch to deny central positions that the likes of Griezmann so often drop deep into. Santiago Cáseres sat deepest for Villarreal and was usually the player who attempted to pick up the forward or midfielder who popped into these spaces between lines. To combat this, Atletico utilised their new signing up front to get the best out of his teammates and chip away at Villarreal.
While Morata’s confidence still needs rebuilding, his hold-up play was sensational. The Spanish international bought his side a number of freekicks in dangerous positions around the penalty area and linked up well with Griezmann and Thomas Lemar especially. While Atletico Madrid is not known for their possession-oriented approach, they were able to keep the ball well as a result of the striker’s efforts.
As well, Simeone’s men tried extremely hard at finding ways to disorganise the deep defence of Villarreal, and this involved switching the ball quickly from side to side. The three-man-slide that the away side operated in requires intense focus and work-rate to properly cover the spaces that Atletico could play through centrally. Moving the ball from one flank to another meant that Atletico could overload the channels and get crosses and 1v1 situations in from the likes of Santiago Arias and Filipe Luis.
It was through this width, and the skill of Alvaro Morata, that Atletico would take the lead just after the half-hour mark as the striker held off the challenge of Victor Ruiz to volley home. While the first half had been largely a battle of attrition with Villarreal coming close on their own (Ekambi missing a chance thanks to a save from Oblak), Atletico deservedly led at the break.
Villarreal fail to capitalise on chances, Atletico finish the job
The second half started very much in the same manner that the first half ended: Atletico looking to disorganise Villarreal through combination play centrally and getting the ball wide for crosses, and Villarreal looking to counter. However, as the half went on and the away side became more desperate to find an equaliser, Calleja made the first structural change of the match. Centre-back Funes Mori was removed for the exciting young winger Samuel Chukwueze, and the team switched into a 4-4-2 shape to attempt to put more of a stamp of authority going the other way.
Combining the passing ability of Cazorla and Iborra centrally with their pace and danger in wide positions, the switch to a more aggressive style worked a treat in regards to chance creation. Bacca, Ekambi et al. all threatened Jan Oblak’s goal throughout the second half but could not register a major, clear-cut chance.
Defensively, they were also flying by the seat of their pants on multiple occasions. It was only thanks to lackadaisical finishing from Diego Costa or last-ditch tackles that Villarreal escaped the match without more damage done, but it was a necessity due to the situation. As the match continued to tick down, and Villarreal got more desperate, the more mobile centre forward Bacca was removed to allow Gerard Moreno (a target striker) to give the away side a presence in the box.
Eventually, in the last minutes of the match, Atletico Madrid would kill the game off: countering quickly following a Villarreal cross, Diego Costa found Saul at the back post to lob goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo. It had been a valiant effort from Javier Calleja’s men, but ultimately their lack of quality in the final third cost them dearly.
While moral victories mean little for a club like Villarreal in their current predicament, a battling performance at the Wanda Metropolitano on Sunday could certainly be considered one. The decision from Javier Calleja to set his team up to frustrate and counter, on another day, would likely have seen Villarreal leave the capital with a point or even all three. Chances for his team did go begging, and this wastefulness in front of goal needs to be addressed but team tactics, shape, etc. needn’t be questioned.
In a vacuum, the 3-5-2 shape and 4-4-2 it morphed into had the desired effect in regards to forcing Atletico to play a certain way, the players individually just couldn’t execute when they did have the ball. It’s hard to see Villarreal have put together such a good performance earlier in the season, and it’s proof that the old ethos of the team may have returned.
Atletico Madrid keeps on ticking under Diego Simeone in the way they always do. It was often times not pretty, and well could’ve/should’ve been more if they’d been more clinical, but a clean sheet at home often means all three points. Alvaro Morata was crucial in linking play together, and if they can get him to continue his recent upturn in form, Atletico will find themselves in a very strong position going forward. As well, supporters of Los Colchonerosshould be overjoyed that this performance came following a tough fixture against Juventus in the week: this ability to grind out results in the league and in Europe could become a necessity.
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