Villarreal hosted Deportivo Alaves at the Estadio de la Cerámica with both sides in rather similarly unstable forms. Both won two and lost two of their last four matches. Villarreal’s attack has been destructive so far, being La Liga’s best in terms of expected goals. However, they have been slightly unlucky to concede so many goals. Meanwhile, Alavés’ recent results are understandable given their average quality. They will probably have to fight hard to avoid relegation.
With home advantage and being the stronger side, it’s no surprise that Villarreal didn’t give the opponent many chances in this match. However, the game was equally poised until late goals from Gerard Moreno and substitution Javi Ontiveros made life easy for the hosts.
Villarreal started this match in a 4-1-4-1. Captain Mario Gaspar returned to starting line-up to form a back four with Alberto Moreno, Pau Torres, and Raúl Albiol. Vicente Iborra protected the midfield four of Moi Gómez, Santi Cazorla, André Zambo Anguissa and Gerard. As usual, Karl Toko Ekambi was the lone striker.
Alavés lined-up in a 4-4-2, with Joselu and Lucas Pérez up front, supported by the midfield four of Aleix Vidal, Manu García, Mubarak Wakaso, and Luis Rioja.
Villarreal in possession
Before analysing what Villarreal did with the ball, let’s talk about Alavés. They defended in a 4-4-2 with the aim of protecting the centre. The wingers would try to stay close to the pivots, but still maintain distance with the opponent’s full-backs. When a Villarreal full-back got the ball, the visitor’s nearby winger would step out to close him down.
The front two tried to stick close to each other, aiming to block passing lanes from Villarreal’s back four to their pivot Iborra. Iborra is often the key figure in the Yellow Submarine’s build-up with his wide range of passing and equally great use of both feet. He only had the sixth most touches for his side in this match. His 61 touches were much less than the likes of Pau (97) and Cazorla (91).
However, Villarreal’s centre-backs, especially Pau, are also great passers. With Alavés’s front two close to Iborra, one of them could step out to press the centre-back having the ball while still covering the passing lane to Iborra.
As a result, Villarreal had to heavily rely on their centre-backs in the first phase of build-up. Pau was the more trusted defender in this case. Like Iborra, he is a quality passer with a wide range of passing and great vision. Alavés looked to isolate Iborra resulting in long balls forward to the strikers or wingers.
By blocking these passing lanes to Iborra, Alavés aimed to force the opponent to go wide. As a result of this, their entire defence shifted towards the ball, creating a temporary wing overload to force passes sideways or backwards – the kinds of passes that don’t help progress the ball quickly. Here, Moreno was having the ball. The whole Alavés side moved towards their right, and the near right winger and forward closed down the Villarreal left-back.
Now we know Alavés’ 4-4-2 shape was orientated to the ball. To play through this, Villarreal tried to pass the ball around a lot, with quick switches of play a notable option. Their quick passing from side to side made it difficult for the Alavés midfield to follow and still keep their horizontal compactness, and gaps started to open up. Villarreal’s front players were flexible in their positioning and could roam from their position and drop deep to exploit such gaps.
Cazorla’s smart positioning helped in getting the ball forward. His wide movement would drag an Alavés’ central midfielder and open a passing lane from the centre-back to the striker.
The striker would then hold up the ball and combine with this teammate to progress higher up. In the below example, Cazorla moved wide to open up a passing lane from Pau to Ekambi. Ekambi then received the ball and lay the ball off to Cazorla, who could then spray passes forward.
There were many instances of such movements to the half-space from Cazorla. The below is the Spaniard’s heatmap yesterday.
In these areas, Cazorla could remain close to Ekambi and Moi. The three could combine well, or swap positions to disrupt the opponent’s defence. Moreover, from the half-space, Cazorla could easily exploit the space behind the opponent’s full-back.
In the below example, Moi was the temporary striker, while Ekambi was the temporary left-winger. Ekambi’s dropping movement attracted Alavés’ right back, and Cazorla quickly ran towards the gap behind him to receive the long pass from Moreno.
Ekambi could also swap position with Gerard. Both Gerard and Moi loved to move into the half-spaces and into pockets of space between the lines. In such instances, Ekambi could move wide as said or remain central to combine with the inverted wingers. From there, the three could run into the box and try to get on the end of the crosses.
Here, the front three were quite central and close to each other. This forces Alavés’ back four to become narrower and open up space out wide for Moreno. Moi found Moreno, and the Villarreal front three rushed towards the box to get on the end of the left-back’s cross.
The wide players helped penetrate Alavés’ 4-4-2 with their flexible movements. The winger and full-back on one side were often diagonally positioned, which means they were in different horizontal and vertical lanes. The wide player would stretch the opponent’s shape, while the narrow player would help the build-up and have more passing options to play through the central (if he was lower than the other one), or stay between the lines to provide his teammates with a penetrating option (if he was higher).
This even happened higher up the pitch. Here, Moi was about to cross the ball. Moreno was much more central, on the edge of the box to pick up loose balls or take the shot if possible. He could coordinate pressing with his teammates to win the ball back if necessary. Therefore, Moreno’s position here provided both offensive and defensive benefits.
Villarreal could attack through passes from the flanks, with the combination between the full-back, the winger and/or Cazorla. All of Villarreal’s attackers shown their dribbling qualities. The most prolific dribbles (in terms of successful attempts) on the field were Moi (seven times), Cazorla and Gerard (three times each) and Ekambi (two times).
Villarreal tried to create 1v1 situations for the skilful dribblers by overloading one side, and then switch play. Here, we saw five Villarreal players around the left-wing. Space was plenty on the other side, and Ekambi launched a long ball towards Gaspar. One thing to note here is Alavés’ ball-far winger (here Rioja) often tried to be much more central than his team’s ball-far teammate. They were often not close enough, and that would make it difficult for them to coordinate defending in 2v2 situations.
A sudden switch of play made it difficult for the Alavés shape to adjust. A 2v2 on the right was created, and left winger Rioja – who is not good defensively – had to follow Gerard, who got the ball from Gaspar. Gerard beat his man and sent a dangerous cross in.
Villarreal’s wing overloads also helped them counter-press quickly when losing possession. In these situations, Anguissa often sat deeper than but remained close to his teammates to provide extra cover and facilitated the counter-press.
Alavés in possession
Villarreal defended in a 4-1-4-1. The forward would press the centre-back having the ball, forcing play to either wing by moving sideways, as demonstrated below. Villarreal’s nearby winger and central mid would join Ekambi to compress the space and close down the ball-carrier, forcing a long ball. The winger would press the opponent’s full-back on the same side, while the central mid closed down Alavés’ nearby counterpart.
Here is another example of Villarreal’s pressing to isolate the ball-carrier. Here, Villarreal players used their cover shadow to block all of Lisandro Magallán’s central passing option. Ekambi’s closing down forces the Argentinian to pass to Rubén Duarte on the wing. Right after Magallán passed the ball, Gerard rushed towards Duarte and successfully prevented him from progressing the ball.
Alavés’s defenders are not strong on the ball. When being pressed yesterday, they weren’t composed. They would launch long balls forward with rather poor accuracy, or pass back to the keeper, who would go long as well. These long balls were in general neither well-calculated nor well-executed, as reflected in the team’s 42% long ball accuracy in the first half.
Unable to get through Villarreal’s midfield shape and pressing, Alavés tried to launch long balls, hoping to win the second balls and then attack with crosses from the wings. However as mentioned above, their long balls were quite poor, and thus the side hardly created any threat in the first half.
Anguissa was a key player in Villarreal’s pressing. Though not having too much of an effect in possession, his mobility and physicality helped Villarreal counter-press effectively. He had the license to step out of the defence and at times run towards whoever was having the ball. While his teammates often used man-to-man marking, he could roam freely to compress the space around the ball and win the ball back.
In the below example, Anguissa chased the ball all the way back to Alavés’ goalkeeper, who was forced to pass to Víctor Laguardia. Anguissa quickly ran back towards the nearby centre-back, Magallán. While Anguissa was applying his intense press, his teammates had enough time to establish a high press using man-marking. Alavés couldn’t escape the press and lost the ball in a dangerous area.
The first goal started with Anguissa winning back the ball. The ball carrier was pressed from all sides, and Anguissa rushed back to tackle him and win back possession. The ball was instantly passed to Gerard.
Gerard rushed forward and played a through pass to Ekambi, whose pace was too much for Alavés’ centre-backs to handle. He then scored from the resulting one-on-one. Gerard and Ekambi are real speedsters, which makes Villarreal dangerous on the break.
Despite lacking ideas in attack, Alavés managed to get the equaliser. One-two passes between Joselu and Lucas led to a cross by Duarte, and Lucas scored with a wonderful bicycle kick. In the 61st minute, Samuel Chukwueze came in for Anguissa, meaning Gerard would join Ekambi at the front, while Chukwueze became the right-winger, effectively making Villarreal’s formation a 4-4-2. This is clearly an offensive substitution, as Javi Calleja subbed out a player with average on-ball quality to bring in a fast and mazy yet strong winger who could disrupt almost any defence.
However, it was one of his passes that made the difference. He initiated the second goal with a crossfield pass to create a 2v2 on the left. As discussed above, the ball-far winger’s positioning (here Vidal) was again not ideal. Here, Vidal was too far away from the right-back and couldn’t stop a pass through the half-space, which is often very dangerous. Moi found Moreno, who made a pass down the half-space for the former’s run. His cutback pass helped Ekambi score the second goal.
After the goal, Villarreal began retreated deeper and deeper, giving control of possession to an Alavés side who, as expected, were unable to break down their defensive block. They relied on the space of Ekambi, Gerard and Chukwueze to hurt the opponent on the counter. They did score the third goal from such a situation, with Cazorla assisting Gerard. A deflected free-kick from fresh leg Ontiveros helped them seal the 4-1 victory.
In the end, as demonstrated by our analysis, Villarreal deserved to win this match. They were the team in control, created good opportunities, and sealed the win with some devastating counter-attack. This season’s underlying stats are quite promising, and no one should be shocked if they can qualify for the Champions League next season.
For Alavés, they were second best throughout the match. They successfully contained Villarreal during the first hour, until Ekambi’s second forced them to attack. It’s clear that they lacked ideas going forward, and Villarreal hit them on the break. Difficulties lie ahead for them.
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