Tactical Analysis: Unai Emery’s Villarreal

by | May 26, 2021

With normalcy kicking in i.e fans returning slowly and steadily back to stadiums, cup finals will have another aspect to become memorable- now that the 12th man will truly be back. One fanbase which will be travelling to support their team is that of ‘Yellow Submarine’- Villarreal CF who will be playing in their first ever major final- UEFA Europa League 2020-21 final in Gdansk on 26th May. The club also has the chance of winning their first ever major trophy in the club’s 98 year history. Such an occasion would have been bland for Villarreal CF had there been no fans but they have their footballing gods to thank now that it is safe to some extent to allow certain percentage occupancy of stadiums.

The Rise of Yellow Submarine from depths to the surface 

Villarreal, a town of roughly 50,000 occupants is home to the El Submarino Amarillo. A club very close to the small community is an example of how a small club can harbor the ambitions of taking the fight to the elites. The club has spent majority of its time in the lower divisions of Spanish footballing pyramid before going under a change of ownership by a local businessman (and one of the wealthiest persons at that time in Spain) Fernando Roig Alfonso. Under his astute ownership, the club underwent a revolution- rising to Segunda Division at the start of 1990s before reaching La Liga for the first time in their history in 1998. Unlike the usual money-minded profit leeching businessman owners in football, Fernando Roig’s Alfonso focused more on the investment in human resource rather than spending cash just for the sake of it, slowly and steadily building one of the best scouting networks and youth development programs in the Valencian district (and eventually one of the best in Spain), fighting toe to toe with it’s local rival- Valencia CF who also were enjoying their glorious era at the same time. The club suffered the ignominy of relegation after their first season in La Liga but the club learnt from this experience, worked hard and worked efficiently to win back the promotion and build up the team slowly and steadily to climb up the table in La Liga over the years. 

This new-found stability provided the club to compete in now defunct UEFA Intertoto Cup, reaching its final 3 times and winning twice- the latter which provided the chance to play in UEFA Cup (2003-04) for the first time in its history- not bad for a club who wasn’t playing first division football 5 years back. On their major European Debut, the club became a dark horse- reaching the semi finals on their first attempt. This was the chance for the Yellow Submarine to make a name for themselves on the big stage. But their local and arch rivals, Valencia CF, stood in their way. Valencia did overshadow Villarreal yet again, going on to win the trophy themselves. But this budding club learnt from it’s experiences- another appearance in the final of UEFA Intertoto Cup provided the Yellow Submarine to play in UEFA Cup (2004-05) but this time it was yet another budding club in AZ Alkmaar who were themselves looking to break the dominance of the Old Guard of Netherlands- the big 3: Ajax Amsterdam, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord Rotterdam- who ended up putting a brave display in the Quarter Finals. Ever gracious in their defeat, Villarreal again learnt from this experience and side by side building’s it’s profile and attracting the interest of some footballing giants- Diego Forlan, Juan Roman Riquelme to name a few with whom they reached to semi finals of UEFA Champions League on their debut- under the stewardship of Manuel Pellegrini.

(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

An 88th minute penalty miss by Riquelme in front of the 23,500 seater El Madrigal ended up costing Villarreal an opportunity of contesting for the grand prize in Paris that summer, a miss which sent Arsenal to their first ever UCL final. Yet another heart break but the club yet again gracious in defeat, learned from this experience.A slight slump in form saw the club out of action in UCL. But this absence was short lived. The club achieved it’s best ever league finish-2nd place in 2007-08 La Liga season which ensured them of an automatic place in UCL Group stages of 2008-09- playing in a group which consisted of yet another English giants, reigning UCL winners at that time (and Yellow Submarine’s opponents on 26th May)- Manchester United, the pride of Glasgow- Celtic FC and Danish side Aalborg FC. The Valencian side had the opportunity to play the Mancunian side again- playing against them for the first time in group stages of 2005-06 CL campaign- churning out an entertaining 0-0 draw on both occasions. Even in this campaign, both sides drew 0-0 at Old Trafford and El Madrigal. They finished 2nd in the group- advancing to R16 where they outclassed Greek champions Panathinaikos. Yet another Quarter Final appearance beckons for the budding club. And to add spice and seasoning to the occasion, they were matched up with Arsenal. A feeling of revenge developed among the tiny town- to take the fight to London and finish off the tie after a 1-1 draw at El Madrigal. But it was Robin Van Persie who produced one of his best ever performances in UCL for Arsenal in the 2nd leg- sending Villarreal and their strong fan contingent back home.

(Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Another slump of form and managerial merry go around kept Villarreal away from defying the odds but again this slump was short lived. Yet again the footballing gods graced the club. This time it was a slot in newly branded UEFA Europa League (2010-11) after RCD Mallorca were found to have massive financial implications. The club, just like it’s hard working population of the town it represents which has historically consisted of Orange and Mango cultivators, took this granted opportunity like there was no tomorrow. A mix of entertaining yet pragmatic performances saw the El Submarí Groguet reach yet another semi-final of European Competition- beating sides such as Club Brugge, PAOK, Dinamo Zagreb, FC Twente, SSC Napoli, Bayer Leverkusen. This resulted in a clash with tournament’s favourite FC Porto led by a young and enigmatic Andre Villas Boas and spearheaded by Radamel Falcao- the competition’s top scorer. But Villareal also boasted some local cult icons- led by Giuseppe Rossi. Villarreal started the match in best fashion- taking the lead at Estadio Do Dragao but the second half saw one of the best ever performances in UEFA Europa League’s recent history. With the support of the fans, The Super Dragons responded with a staggering 5 second half goals to win the first leg. Villareal won the 2nd leg 3-2 but it wasn’t enough. Yet another exit at the semi final stage, yet another ‘what could have been moment’ for the Yellow Submarine. 

The club was flying so high over the years that it eventually was humbled down. But neither the club nor the fans thought that it would happen so soon. 2011-12 La Liga season- a season marred with club crumbling under hefty expectations and a horrendous form in 2nd half of the season saw the club falling down to Segunda. What’s worse is that their recently appointed manager- Manolo Preciado suffered a fatal heart attack on the same day of his appointment and sadly passed away. A tragedy like this coupled with relegation and mass exodus of it’s squad to greener pastures saw the club facing a Herculean task of coming out of this adversity unscathed. 

When all looked lost, the club yet again rose from the ashes like a Phoenix- a brave run in final gameweeks of the La Liga 2 saw the club clinch a 2nd place and automatic promotion back to La Liga. A reborn Villarreal with all of its highs and lows in this glorious 15 year period- straight away secured a place in UEL right after promotion. The 2nd half of 2010s saw the club become a regular of European competition, taking part in UEL and also fighting for CL spots. Yet another strong run in UEL saw the club reach yet another semi final in UEL (2015-16). Another English giant in Liverpool stood in their way. A strong 1-0 win at El Madrigal may just have been enough for Villarreal to secure their place in the final but The Kop provided Liverpool with extra vigour and it meant that another semi- final exit was waiting for Villareal. 

But their fortunes were to change. Another slump in form humbled the club and made them to restructure their strategies. And with yet another blessing from the footballing gods, they got the person who may just be the one who can change their fortunes- who shared the same philosophy about football, about life. The new man-in charge? Unai Emery.

(Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Tactical Analysis 

A humble and down to earth person off the pitch, Unai Emery has made a name for himself over the years in the Spanish footballing circuit. His spells outside of Spain haven’t been very successful but he is a person who has always been ready to take a challenge and test himself. Taking a job in Russia with Spartak Moscow, returning back home and achieving a legendary status in Seville. The charms of Paris and PSG attracted him after his stint at Sevilla,  followed by a fairly successful stint at Arsenal (given the North London side was in an era of transition). His flexibility in managing the resources at his disposal in Villarreal has seen him try various formations, from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1 and even on occasion utilizing a 4-1-4-1 shape. At centre-back however, Emery has established the formidable partnership of former Real Madrid and Napoli man Raul Albiol, and youngster Pau Torres who has started attracting attention of various clubs in Europe. Emery has shown faith in the 24-year old Alfonso Pedraza, who previously had four loan spells away from the club. The young Ecuadorian Pervis Estupinan remains a solid rotation option for Villarreal to use at Left back after his loan spell at Osasuna. The creative Dani Parejo has been one of Villarreal’s key men this season after his move from Valencia, and has been partnered most often with another long-time Villarreal player – Manu Trigueros. And the attack is led by Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer. Gerard has been in the form of his life, enjoying his best spell of his career under Emery who has helped him improve even further.

Passing Map depicting the average positions taken by the players

Playing out from the Back

Unai Emery has always had a desire to play out from the back and that has continued on so far this season in 2020-21. In build-up and attacking phases, Villarreal’s formation shifts more into a 2-1-4-3. For purposes of simplifying things, you could also call this a 3-4-3, with Vicente Iborra/ Manu Trigueros dropping in between or alongside the two centre-backs. This allows the full backs to push wide and further up the field, stretching the play and creating possible openings to receive the pass while creating overload in the middle of the pitch- a possible numerical advantage over the opposition in same area by creating a diamond shape and a route both forward and backwards if things go awry. These shapes offer the Yellow Submarine options both forwards and backwards at proper angles to keep possession of the ball and avoid making dangerous sideways passes in their own half.

Villarreal trying to play from the back

Midfield Superiority 

If the opposition are then keen to try and bypass Villarreal’s midfield triangle, they are often forced into longer passes or the wide areas, closer to the touch-line. Dani Parejo and Manu Trigueros are the most frequent ball-winners for Villarreal, and in Francis Coquelin they have another player who can do the exact same job when needed.  In attacking transitions, they have a very vertical approach and as already noted, Moi Gomez and Gerard Moreno often drift inside. Their verticality naturally increases their use of through-balls down the middle rather than working the ball out to the wide areas and delivering crosses.

An attempt at through balls in central area of the pitch

While the Yellow Submarine started well in La Liga, their form has been topsy turvy which has left them at 7th place with 58 points, 3 point short of 6th place, ensuring a chance to play in the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League next season at minimum. But their performances have yet again come up in the Europa League this season. With the club’s penchant of performing at top level in European competition and Unai Emery’s experience at the same stage complementing each other, their performance in this season’s Europa League have been exciting to follow. They topped their group stage with relatively easier sides- Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel, Sivasspor of Turkey and Qarabag of Azerbaijan. They then went on to defeat RB Salzburg, Dynamo Kiev, Dinamo Zagreb to reach the semi finals where they were again paired with Arsenal. 

This was a tie which held a lot of importance to both the manager and the club, a chance at redemption and glory and possible revenge against the side who got the better of them twice before in KO rounds of both UCL and UEL. The first leg was played in Spain, at El Madrigal. Villarreal opted for a 4-4-2 with Manu Trigueros starting at left flank, trying to cut in and drop into more advanced midfield areas- creating an overload in the center and Parejo, Capoue sitting in deep midfield space and nullifying Arsenal’s approach of playing a narrower game. The biggest problem for Arsenal in this game was essentially self-inflicted. They tried to press high, with the wingers responsible for helping Smith Rowe. Saka and Pepe would press from the outside in, trying to force Villarreal through the centre where Smith Rowe, Odegaard, Ceballos and Partey would look to overload the Spanish side’s double pivot of Capoue and Parejo. But Villarreal were able to play out of this pressure.

The Villareal center backs trying to play through the opposition’s pressing higher up the pitch (example 1)

Villarreal’s centre-backs and midfielders were comfortable handling the ball under this high pressure, combining to find a way out. Arteta’s choice of Smith Rowe upfront naturally led to an extra option in midfield, as the 20-year-old dropped back looking to make angles for his teammates. However, Villarreal were compact and organised enough to minimise space for Smith Rowe and Odegaard between the lines, forcing Arsenal to play more directly – in the end, 11.4% of the Premier League side’s passes were long balls (compared to 9.8% for Villarreal). Ceballos was sent off early on in the second half, which didn’t help Arsenal’s chances.

The Villareal center backs trying to play through the opposition’s pressing higher up the pitch (example 2)

At that point they were 2-0 down, with Albiol heading home from a set piece to double Villarreal’s advantage. And it could so easily have been more. Arsenal continued to press as they had before, only now they had one man less. Unsurprisingly, this led to gaps for Villarreal to exploit in a midfield populated only by Smith Rowe (moved back when Arteta brought Gabriel Martinelli on for Odegaard) and Partey. Emery’s introduction of Francis Coquelin worked out, as the ex-Gunner frequently found himself the extra man in midfield and nearly set up a third goal for the hosts. In the end, it took a bit of individual quality and luck for Arsenal to get back in the tie and set-up a mouth watering 2nd leg clash in London. 

But, Villarreal was in control because their players were used to play a more pragmatic approach. Using the basics of seeing out the game, Villarreal defended well against an Arsenal side who again lacked the intensity which was clearly evident from their playing style. A 0-0 draw was enough to finally break the duck- a first ever final appearance in any competition for Yellow Submarine. And it came at the expense of tactically outclassing Arsenal, a sign of relief for Villarreal and Unai Emery.

A fairytale run across Europe will reach its final destination- Gdansk, Poland. With fans ready to back the Yellow Submarine against the Red Devils, a historic Europa League final is on the cards. A victory against Manchester United will not only mean a first ever UEL trophy (also first ever major title) but a victory against an opposition of the prestige of Manchester United, one of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ of ESL will be such a sweet experience for Villarreal. 

No matter what happens on the pitch, this Villarreal side will not be just playing for a trophy, this side will be playing for it’s colours, for it’s Barrio, for it’s philosophy. 

The Ramones’ ”I Believe in Miracles” which has been heard quite a few times at El Madrigal on matchdays, will actually hold a brand new meaning for Villarreal if they end up taming the Devil in front of them and get their hands on that Europa League trophy.  

“I believe in miracles. I believe in a better world, for me and you”- the ethos on which this club, deeply attached to it’s smaller community, has worked during its entire history. 

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)