Villarreal hosted Levante in this week’s La Liga round 24 fixture. Since the start of the season, Villarreal have underperformed the statistics but had seemingly got back on track with seven points from the last three league matches. Meanwhile, Levante had been in quite disastrous form, but won their important last match against 20th-place Leganés after four consecutive losses in the league. There’s no doubt that both sides were determined to improve their position going into this match.
Villarreal (4-1-4-1): Sergio Asenjo; Rubén Peña, Ramiro Funes Mori, Raúl Albiol, Mario Gaspar; Vicente Iborra; Moi Gómez, Santi Cazorla, Manu Trigueros, Gerard Moreno, Paco Alcácer.
Levante (4-4-2): Aitor Fernández; Carlos Clerc, Rúben Vezo, Sergio Postigo, Jorge Miramón; Enis Bardhi, Nikola Vukčević, José Campaña, Ruben Rochina; Borja Mayoral, Roger Martí.
Villarreal in possession
Villarreal built up in a 4-1-4-1, with Iborra the lone pivot.
Levante defended zonally in a 4-4-2, with the aim of blocking central progression. The centre forwards would try to stay close and block passing lanes towards Iborra. That was quite effective, as Iborra only touched the ball 20 times in this match. He should have dropped deep, becoming the third centre-back to be more present in the build-up. Cazorla and Trigueros’s positioning was now of key importance to help the home side progress the ball. In the first half, Cazorla often took up very high positions, which greatly limited his team’s building up through the centre.
It was not too difficult for Levante to disrupt Villarreal’s weak short build-up scheme. Levante’s shape shifted according to where the ball was. Should a centre-back have the ball, the ball-near forward would gradually move towards him, while the other forward kept close to Villarreal’s other centre-back and keeper. A pivot marked the ball-near central midfielder. The wingers would try to stay compact with the double pivot, but would press either of Villarreal full-backs should he get the ball. Keeper Asenjo was forced to play the ball long a lot, and he showed great competence with 12 of his 15 long passes successful.
Levante normally didn’t press intensely, but would do so if there was a back pass. This would trigger a series of presses, with the wingers pressing the full-backs, and the centre-forwards pressing the centre-backs (but still tried to used their cover shadow to block passing lanes towards Iborra). In the below example, a back pass towards Gaspar trigger the intense press, and Villarreal was forced to pass in a U-shape and finally had to go long. A pressing-resistant defender like Pau Torres would have made things much easier.
Should they somehow progress higher, mostly by winning second balls and winning dead-ball situations, Villarreal often tried to build up through the left, with the presence of Cazorla and Moi. The two were very flexible in their positioning and interchanged positions a lot. The two’s heatmaps below are quite similar.
On the flanks, Cazorla had more time and space to scan the field and control the game. In addition, it was natural for Moi to move inwards as he was playing on his wrong side. These position interchanges confused the opponent and often created space for one of them. Such smart movements lead to Villarreal’s first goal of the match. From a position close to Alcacer, Cazorla suddenly moved wide, which was unfollowed. Moi then ran inside, dragging the opponent’s right-winger with him. A passing lane towards Cazorla was now open for Iborra. Cazorla received the ball with time and space, and launched a diagonal long ball towards Alcacer on the right. Gerard then got the ball and had space to cut inside and score.
Moi and Cazorla received help by left-back Rubén, who showed smart movements and passing out wide. He was very active and combined well with Moi and Cazorla. Their interchanges of positioning and one-twos often create space on the left for one of them to cross the ball.
Trigueros was also eager to move towards the left to help his side overload that flank. The four good passers there combined well and forced Levante’s shape to move to their right, creating space on the other flank for Gerard and Gaspar. The two could then combine to then cross, or Gerard can cut inside to shoot or combine with the likes of Alcacer and Trigueros.
To deal with Villarreal’s central combinations, Levante’s shape became very narrow, with the midfield four actively protecting areas in and around the box. Therefore, crosses were Villarreal’s main attacking choice in the first half.
Levante in possession
Levante had many options when building up. They could go route one with lobbed balls or send passes down the flanks towards one of their strikers – both of them eager to move wide.
They could also build from the back with the help from the double pivot, especially Vukčević, who often dropped very deep, almost like a third centre-back. The defenders are not pressing resistant and often looked to go long when the got pressed. However, if they could find one of the skilful midfielders, who are calm and composed, Levante could comfortably play short passes.
Villarreal pressed in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Alcacer mainly trying to close down a centre-back with the ball while blocking his passing lane towards the other centre-back. Either Cazorla or Trigueros might step out of position to press the ball-carrying centre-back, and Iborra would fill in his position, making Villarreal’s defensive shape a 4-4-2 at times.
When the ball was on the flank, Alcacer would team up with the nearby central mid and winger to limit the ball-carrier’s passing options. He moved close to the aforementioned teammates, while still using his cover shadow to block a passing option.
The whole shape would be compact and ball-oriented. They would use their cover shadow to block central passing lanes. The central midfielders marked the away side’s double pivot, while the wingers would wait for the ball to come to a full-back and close him down. When there was a back pass, Villarreal would press intensely to force mistakes or long balls.
Levante built up in a 4-2-2-2. Apart from the full-backs who mainly hugged the touchline, the whole shape was quite compact, which meant they often overload the ball side. The ball-near winger would drop deep to provide a passing option, while the ball-far one would move centrally. Many times, the ball-far winger would be quite high and close to the forwards. In the below example, we could see Bardhi dropping to become a passing option, while Rochina was quite central and close to the strikers.
The wingers’ roles were quite unorthodox and they seemed to be everywhere on the pitch. Their heatmaps below looked more like box-to-box midfielders’.
Levante attacked in a compact shape, often overloading the ball side. This ensured their technical midfield four could combine and progress through the wings. The image below showed that almost all of their progressions took place on the flanks.
After these combinations, often a full-back on either wing could receive the ball and send a cross into the box. However, Levante’s crosses in this match were ineffective, with only 13% of their 24 crosses accurate.
This narrow shape also allowed Levante to counter-press effectively when they lost the ball.
Right at the start of the second half, A. Zambo Anguissa replaced Iborra. The introduction of the Cameroonian, who is not a pivot like Iborra, means that Villarreal now played in a 4-2-3-1, with Trigueros and Anguissa in a double pivot. Anguissa is much more mobile than Iborra, often roaming around to find space, sometimes dropping deep like a third centre-back. This means it was impossible for Levante’s strikers to block passing lanes towards him easily like they did with Iborra. With the composed Trigueros now also playing deeper in the first phase of build-up, Villarreal could progress the ball much easier.
According to Wyscout, PPDA is a metric used to measure the pressure that the defending team puts on the opposition players when they are in possession of the ball. It is calculated by dividing the number of passes allowed by the defending team by the total number of defensive actions.
In the first half, Levante’s PPDA was 8.6. Their PPDA in the first 30 minutes of the second half was 16.3. It’s reasonable to assume that their pressing intensity didn’t drop off much as they were trailing for the majority of that period. The change in PPDA was more likely due to Villarreal’s more effective build-up scheme in the second half.
However, Levante got the equaliser after overloading the right flank and then suddenly attacked through the left. Clerc’s wonderful cross found Mayoral for a simple tap-in. Five minutes later, Moi’s left-footed shot from zone 14 helped the Yellow Submarine regained the lead. In the final 15 minutes of the match, the home side dropped deep and in the end, came away with the 2-1 win.
This analysis showed that Villarreal did just enough to secure the win. They did not tactically outplay their opponent, failing to build up properly in the first half and did not create big chances, but did well with the few small chances they had. They are now only two points lower than fourth-place Atletico Madrid.
For Levante, this was quite an encouraging performance. Having gone through a bad streak, they showed that they had the quality to beat even the top sides and get a much better result. They should and can improve in the latter stages of the season.