La Liga 2019/20: Espanyol vs Villarreal – tactical analysis
In the seventh round of this season’s La Liga, Espanyol welcomed Villarreal in the fixture that could help them overcome their past issues and come closer to their rivals out of the relegation zone. Pablo Machín’s boys were highly motivated before this game, but have struggled to perform which resulted in the away win of 1:0, and also made sure that the Catalans’ problems don’t go away any time soon as they’ll continue their battle for survival.
The home team’s coach set his team in the 5-2-3 formation which highly depended on the side runs and compact positioning of their lines. Their main attacking force laid in the hands and feet of Matías Vargas and Sergi Darder who played up front along with Jonathan Calleri. Most of their actions went through the flanks so the three forwards had huge support from their wing-backs embodied in Adrià Pedrosa and Victor Gómez.
Javier Calleja went into the game with an unstrict 4-3-3 formation which went through a lot of transformations throughout the 90 minutes. The key players of their team were Santi Cazorla and Vicente Iborra who held the midfield, while the most dangerous players of their starting eleven were Karl Toko Ekambi and Gerard Moreno, who were often playing as the striking duo.
Villarreal’s transition and “breaking the press”
The team from Barcelona started the game with a clear approach to put the pressure on their opposition from the beginning of their action build-up which resulted in them going in with the high pressing. They tried to man-mark the opponents in their first attacking third and got to possession in this zone for a few times in the opening stages of the match.
Villarreal were not prepared for that type of defence from Espanyol right from the start, so they had issues to adapt to it in the first 15 minutes which lead them into making mistakes and letting the rivals have attacking initiative in that period.
As we can see, the pressing of the hosts was strict and man-oriented, resulting in them having some shots on goal in the beginning. They were trying to focus their press to the flanks where the opposition had less space to manoeuvre and could more easily be set into traps. In spite of that, Blanquiazules stopped forcing the away team next to the sidelines and turned themselves into pressing in the central areas of the opposing team’s half.
For quite some time they were as good in pressing in those zones as they were on the flanks, as their lines were pretty tight and the whole team’s movement was very well-organised. The gaps between the lines almost didn’t exist and Villarreal couldn’t manage to break their pressing and lost plenty of balls, but Machín’s men didn’t realise their chances.
After the short time, compactness of Espanyol’s defence fell apart and that freed a lot of space for the creative players of the Yellow Submarine to exploit. Their midfielders sensed the open room in the central and inner-corridors of the central zones of the pitch and used them to make their actions progress through the opposition’s lines.
Iborra and Cazorla were always in those areas, trying to provide their teammates with the pass-through option for the purpose of the more transitive play. The latter and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa were constantly rotating, making one of them play a little higher while the other was dropping lower to be included in the build-up phase of their attacks.
The transition was the key to Villarreal’s success. Since they spotted their rivals having problems organising a high press, they started capitalising on the empty rooms that were left between the lines. Once again, Cazorla’s runs were crucial for that to happen, as he most often found himself open in those areas, enabling his team progress faster.
In the picture, we can see how disrupted Espanyol’s pressing is and how the away team’s captain benefited from their poor positioning, and his good sense for space. Defending those zones was key in this match, and Calleja’s men were superior in them which lead them to a positive result.
The away team’s fast breaks
As the game was pretty physical, both teams tended to get in control of the second balls and to try to play it more direct. Fast transformations were the second strongest weapon of the visitors, as they tried to skip the action with deep passes or with long balls.
Their main idea was to exploit their players’ pace, who had an advantage over the opposition, and to pull the rivals’ defensive line high up the pitch so they could have a wider space to attempt their runs in behind. They commonly emptied room for their full-backs who were the ones overlapping down the flanks and providing extra attacking options in the opponent’s half.
The offensive players of Calleja’s side tended to lower themselves in order to drag the direct guards with them closer to the half-way line, which often enabled Alberto Moreno on one side, and Ruben Peña on the other to cash in on the open room behind the defenders’ backs.
That wasn’t the only pattern Villarreal used to skip the play in the midfield, as they time and again addressed long balls to either Ekambi or Moreno. Those passes were mostly the diagonal balls attempted from the defenders with a clear idea of getting out of pressure, while still securing second balls after those were sent.
As it is shown above, the Cameroon striker was the target of the long passes, and he also frequently had the support of the midfielders and other forwards who provided him with play-continuance options. The example in the picture also portraits the common situation where the attacker was searched in the inner-corridor close to the middle of the field, but that was just one of the two most used options for them.
The other one was when the Yellow Submarine tried to fast break the high positioned opposition with the long balls sent over the defensive line. Villarreal’s plan was to exploit the speed advantage their strikers had over the centre-backs who left plenty of space behind their backs, which lead into a lot of alike passes sent to the two guys playing up front.
Moreno was the one that enabled those fast breaks, positioning himself “on the edge” and using his pace and agility to his favour. He attempted runs from the central areas as much as from the wide positions, and he also had pass options embodied in Peña and Cazorla who were tracking the actions well, always backing up their striker.
Organised defence secured the win
Although Villarreal tended to play progressive and offensive through the opposition’s lines, none of that would happen if it wasn’t for their well-drilled out-of-possession structure. Their shape has experienced a lot of transformation when they were defending, as they commonly switched their attacking 4-3-3 into a hybrid 4-4-2, which looked tighter and was tougher to break.
Calleja’s idea is to narrow his team’s lines and to call opposition to play so they could counter and overpower them with their good transitive football. The visitors’ block was most usually set in the central zones of the pitch from where they were trying to put pressure on the defensive line if they saw a chance for it.
The pressing triggers for them were the balls played to wide defenders when the whole press-part of the team oriented themselves to the flank where they tried to win back possession.
As we can see, the away team pressurised Espanyol’s full-back next to the right-handed sideline which resulted in them getting the ball back. Key factors of their high-press game were the closing of the forward-passing lanes along with with the shutting the backwards options, which they did very well, maintaining the compactness of their defensive structure.
If the initial high-pressing out of the central zone hadn’t worked, they were dropping in the central-block once again committing into the narrow defensive setup they used until that moment. When they were organised in that area of the pitch, the main idea was to exclude the opponent’s midfielders out of the attack-organisation for the team from Barcelona, which they did by “caging” those players.
In the picture, you see how Villarreal’s players closed down the rival’s midfielders by creating a 5 v 2 situation in the central zone of the pitch. That lead Espanyol into skipping that area of the field and playing with long balls, which were easily closed by the visitors who had pretty good control over the second ball game.
As it was shown in this analysis, Villarreal came out with a win over Espanyol in a highly physical match which they decided with their good transitional play and securing of the dangerous zones. The struggle of Machín’s team continues since they once again haven’t got to the point(s), and they will go into the next round from the next-to-last spot on the ladder.
Calleja’s men have shown that they are close to getting in the right shape and that they could be a UEFA Champions League spot contender in this season if they carry on with similar performances.
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