La Liga 2021/22: How Real Sociedad beat Villarreal at their own game – tactical analysis
With the 2021-22 La Liga season almost complete, many teams were battling it out for the European places for the 2022-23 season. Among these teams were Real Sociedad and Villarreal. Real Sociedad were hoping to secure 6th place by shutting off the Yellow Submarine who were just 3 points behind before kick-off.
Villarreal were looking to do the double over Real Sociedad this season, with Los Txuri-Urdin losing at the Reale Arena 1-3. However, with so much on the line and some tactical changes during and before the match, Real Sociedad were able to come back at the Estadio de la Cerámica to win 1-2.
Both teams changed their personnel from their previous matches as the two sides were nursing injuries. Real Sociedad had fewer players missing with only Oyarzabal, still sidelined with a torn ACL, being a regular feature for Sociedad this season. This was a stark contrast to Villarreal who had four regulars sidelined for this match. Among the unavailable players were Danjuma and Gerard Moreno, both of which have been important players for Villarreal in attack with Moreno scoring two and assisting one goal in the reverse fixture.
In terms of formations, Villarreal returned to their trusted 4-4-2, while Real Sociedad kept their 4-3-1-2 formation from their previous match which they have used for the majority of the season. The formations were always going to be important to the tactics chosen in the match, with Real Sociedad naturally having a numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch. This saw Villarreal struggle to protect the centre of the pitch with them frequently being dragged out of position or man-marked out of the game.
As both sides began with a high press in the match, substitutions were key with the fresh legs of Rafinha Alcantara and Andoni Gorosabel helping Real Sociedad turn the tides in the second half. Villarreal also looked to respond with their changes, but there was no true impact on the result.
It was evident from the first goal kick, that Real Sociedad were going to give Villarreal no time to build up play. Slow build-up play has been used regularly by Villarreal to open up the opposition looking for a killer pass to break the lines. With this in mind, Real Sociedad decided to cut off any passing lanes for Rulli in the Villarreal goal. To do this, Real Sociedad set up with Isak and Sørloth high and wide between the centre back and full back to cut off any progressive passing options as they were close enough to impact any passes to the defenders. With Real Sociedad having numerical superiority in midfield, they could go man-to-man with Capoue and Parejo, limiting Rulli to the long ball.
With Rulli having lots of time on the ball, the intent was to force a ball into Dia upfront for Villarreal. This had huge success for Real Sociedad as Villarreal were having little success completing a pass when the ball ended up at Rulli’s feet.
Real Sociedad were controlling the first 15 minutes and had plenty of chances to go ahead. With Villarreal struggling to retain possession they looked to disrupt the Real Sociedad press. Capoue and Parejo use the spaces between the stretched Real Sociedad shape, to exploit the central midfield area as Real Sociedad opted for a 2v2 to cover the middle of the pitch.
Capoue and Parejo were able to successfully beat the press multiple times using a simple triangle passing pattern. Starting with a simple body feint, Capoue was able to free himself from Illarramendi, who was tightly marking him when Rulli was on the ball. The Frenchman being unmarked made himself an option for the ball dropping to receive the ball to feet. Capoue then played the ball back to Rulli luring Illarramendi in to close down the goalkeeper. Capoue peeled off the back of the midfielder to create a triangle passing pattern with Parejo and Rulli.
Parejo immediately dropped into the space to provide Rulli with a quick option while providing himself a first time pass into the feet of Capoue, who is now ready to break the midfield line. This shows one of the strengths of the double pivot for Villarreal in their ability to beat the Real Sociedad press.
After Villarreal found a solution to playing out of the back they were able to exploit the spaces left behind by Real Sociedad as the Txuri-Urdin shape was vertically stretched. Villarreal had the momentum for the remainder of the first half with Coquelin scoring a spectacular volley to put the Yellow Submarine’s 1-0 up going into halftime.
In the second half Real Sociedad decided not to press the Villarreal defence so high up the pitch, which muted the home sides attacking threat in the second period. This defence solidity allowed Real Sociedad to focus on attacking and breaking down the Villarreal defence. The decision to sit back will be explored more in the third part of the piece while relating it to the aggressive game plan of Real Sociedad.
Villarreal have been the more successful team in front of goal this season with them averaging 1.82 goals a match. Real Sociedad have only averaged 1.15 goals a match during the season but looked deadly when around the Villarreal box in this clash. A key component of their higher xG of 2.06 was their ability to open up the middle of the Villarreal midfield to provide lots of space to exploit.
Real Sociedad used the wide areas of the field during the match to stretch Villarreal horizontally, opening up the opposition’s compact 4-4-2. The spaces left behind enabled the creativity and movement of David Silva to be maximised and the pace and power of Isak and Sørloth to be threatening on and off the ball. The game plan was for one of the strikers to drift wide to offer an option for the ball down the wide channel forcing the Villarreal centre backs to open up and follow the strikers. The most common area Real Sociedad exploited was behind Estupiñán, the Villarreal LB, who frequently drifts high up the pitch to give Villarreal lots of width in attack. With this in mind, a long ball would be played into the vacant wide right channel for Isak or Sørloth. With the pace and power the strikers possess, it meant that the centre backs had to remain tight when marking dragging them into the wide channels.
Using the wide channel to play the ball centrally was a key component for both of Real Sociedad’s goals. The first goal being from a great cross across the face of the Villarreal goal with a mix up between the defence and goalkeeper gifting Isak with a tap in at the far post. For the second goal Real Sociedad completely opened up the centre of the pitch.
This goal came in the 72nd minute, starting with a high press from Isak on Pau Torres, forcing the centre back to kick the ball long. Rafinha, who came on in the 65th minute, intercepts the ball and launches it up in the air. The ball ricochets off multiple players before finding its way into David Silva’s feet. The Spaniard dribbles the ball looking for an option, and ends up on the right wing being closed down by two Villarreal players.
It looked as though Silva had held onto the ball for too long, but a sweet one-two with Merino allowed Silva to slip away from the Villarreal pressers and slide Isak down the edge of the Villarreal box with a huge gap open on the edge of the box. This gap was created because Capoue and Parejo, the two centre midfielders for Villarreal, had been drawn to the wide channel opening up the space in the centre.
Isak should have played the ball to the edge of the box after receiving it, with the 3 players free in front of the goal. Instead, he fires a driven ball into Sørloth who is tussling with Albiol. The ball eventually bouncing for Zubimendi to volley it into the net.
This goal gave Real Sociedad a one-goal lead enabling them to just hold onto their advantage. Real Sociedad sat deep keeping their structure compact and rigid. Real Sociedad knew they just had to see the game out and resorted to the dark arts, searching for fouls, slowing down the clock, and doing whatever it takes to win the match.
Seeing out a match
Villarreal have made themselves notorious in Europe, from matches in the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League most notably against Bayern Munich, for seeing out matches by doing whatever it takes to get across the line. Whether you call it the dark arts or just being street smart, slowing down the clock is something every team must do at some point.
In the second half Real Sociedad tactically set up to be rigid in defence while giving themselves the ability to be aggressive to see out the match. The change saw Real Sociedad press Villarreal when they got near the halfway line instead of all over the pitch. This was different to the first half as Real Sociedad were far too open when the press was broken, leading to Villarreal having multiple chances. The shape saw a tighter structure between the back four and the three centre midfielders giving the strikers freedom to press the ball around the halfway line. The Real Sociedad shape had lots of width while remaining compact enough to shut off lots of space between the lines.
Real Sociedad always looked to be aggressive in their press and had let Villarreal know early this was the plan by fouling them numerous times within the first 10 minutes. The change of shape meant that Real Sociedad were marking man-to-man with the ability to slow the game by fouling Villarreal. Real Sociedad could also draw fouls to slow down the game. Rafinha encapsulated this by winning free kicks in additional time killing the game and the Villarreal momentum. Being able to slow the game down allows players time to get back into position, especially when the team shape is disorganised.
There was one moment in the match where it looked as though Real Sociedad had gone too far with fouling the opposition as two Real Sociedad players handled the ball off while in the Villarreal goalkeeper’s hands.
The goalkeeper had just caught a corner kick from Real Sociedad and was looking to play the ball quickly aiming to catch Real Sociedad on the counter. The counter-attack was always a threat, with Villarreal having fresh legs in attack, even with Villarreal choosing to bring all players back to defend the corner.
Le Normand was lucky not to even get carded for the offence with it being a deliberate handball and clear obstruction on Rulli. The game ended with a final kick in the 100th-minute for Villarreal, after the substitutions, a VAR decision and the time wasted was all added up.
The match was very even with the majority of stats being equal between the two sides. Real Sociedad had the quality to take the chances they were presented with, which was the deciding factor in the match. Villarreal will be disappointed to have lost the match with them never looking out of it and taking a one-nil lead into halftime. Villarreal were able to find a solution to the Real Sociedad press which looked to be an important part of the Real Sociedad game plan. Despite that, Real Sociedad got their tactics right in the second half to come back, doing everything they could to secure their spot in the Europa League next season, even getting away with an obvious bookable offence and a controversial penalty decision being overturned.
Villarreal will need to get a result against Barcelona or to hope for the results to go their way this weekend for them to get Europa Conference League for next season. Real Sociedad will play Atletico Madrid with both teams guaranteed European football for next season.