Why Villarreal are struggling under Quique Setién so far – scout report
Quique Setién left football in shame two and a half years ago as FC Barcelona bowed out of the UEFA Champions League following an 8-2 loss to eventual winners Bayern Munich.
This defeat was the first time since 1946 that La Blaugrana had conceded eight times in one match and was the largest defeat in the knockout rounds of the competition since 1990. Furthermore, it was the most goals any team had conceded in one game in the quarter-finals of the tournament.
Barcelona were utterly humiliated. Setién mortified. The then-61-year-old was relinquished from his dream job and went into hiding for the next 26 months, playing his beloved chess at his home in Liencres, Santander.
Setién, who was wildly successful with CD Lugo, Las Palmas and later Real Betis, had become a forgotten man in Spanish football.
That was until Unai Emery announced his shock departure from Villarreal near the end of October after Aston Villa came calling for the Basque manager.
Setién was the coach pinpointed by the Yellow Submarine’s board to rejuvenate the squad since things ultimately began to stale under Emery before his move to the English Midlands.
Bringing Setién back to La Liga was always going to be a risk given how long the 64-year-old has been out of the game. Villarreal were hoping it was one worth taking. So far, it is rivalling his tenure at the Nou Camp for being an unmitigated failure.
Last season’s UEFA Champions League semi-finalists have played five matches under Setién’s tutelage, losing three, drawing once, and winning once scoring in just two of the matches as well, but there is still time for the coach to turn things around.
This article will be a tactical analysis of what’s gone wrong so far for Setién. It will be a scout report and analysis of the coach’s tactics, pinpointing the areas that Villarreal must improve.
A history of his favourite formations
In his final season with Real Betis, back three formations were Setién’s go-to. The highest usage of a back four formation was the 4-2-3-1 which was deployed in merely four percent of the side’s games in that 2018/19 season.
At Las Palmas from 2015-2017, the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 were the predominant structures that the team set up in during Setién’s two-year spell which carried over to his time with Betis in the 2017/18 campaign.
On January 29, 2018, Real Betis were beaten 3-2 by a lacklustre Celta Vigo side away from home. The Seville-based club lined out in their normal 4-2-3-1 but things went horribly wrong.
This was the tipping point for Setién tactically for the final eighteen months of his reign at the Benito Villamarín Stadium. From that point onwards, the former Spain international switched to a back three and saw relative success, guiding Los Verdiblancos to sixth and tenth respectively.
During his time at the Nou Camp, Setién favoured the 4-3-3, although this may have been more so due to the pressure of using the conventional system that has become married with the Catalan club since the days of Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola at the helm.
There were times when La Blaugrana set up in a 3-5-2 as well, providing more defensive security to what was an ultimately ageing backline at the time.
The 4-3-3 reigned supreme as it always has done in Catalonia, but Setién was also no stranger to a diamond in midfield or a flat four, which was used during the team’s catastrophic Champions League game versus Bayern.
After taking such a long time out of football, the biggest question was what formation Setién would look to use on return to management. Would he stick with Emery’s 4-3-3/4-4-2 hybrid or would he switch to a more unorthodox back-three?
Ultimately, a back-three change was out of the question due to the lack of personnel in the defensive department.
Since Setién has been in the dugout, little has changed in regard to Villarreal’s base formation. The 2021 UEFA Europa League champions are set up in a 4-3-3 in possession and a 4-4-2 out of possession for the most part. This has been a constant across the entire campaign under Emery and now Setién.
But as is becoming more and more apparent year after year, formations are far less important than ever before. The system within the shape is where managers earn their coin. Unfortunately, Setién is stuck for cash at the minute.
Villarreal are playing some excellent football under the new boss. However, the player is far too naïve compared to Emery’s more conservative style. Let’s take a look at some areas where the Yellow Submarine have struggled so far.
Risky build-up play
During his time with Villarreal, Emery became notorious for coaching the team to be dogged defensively, giving nothing away at the back, remaining compact and killing the opposition with a mean low block.
In Europe, Manchester United, Arsenal, Juventus and Bayern Munich all suffered dearly from this strategy and couldn’t penetrate the unbreakable wall that Emery set up in front of his goalkeeper.
However, this became a stereotype of Emery’s team that was inherently untrue. Of course, during the memorable Europa League run throughout the 2020/21 season and the side’s Champions League semi-final quest in the previous campaign, Villarreal had to be solid defensively due to the quality gap between themselves and the opposition they faced.
However, in La Liga, Villarreal were very much a possession-based team for the most part, particularly against clubs outside the typical big three: Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
Emery was insistent on having beautiful build-up patterns, dragging opponents all over the pitch and creating space to progress through the thirds. Setién has carried this over during his brief stint in charge, maintaining the same build-up structure as his predecessor.
The centre-backs split wide, and the fullbacks remain low to be close passing options for the central defenders to play to. The team also set up in an orthodox three-man midfield with one pivot behind the opposition’s first line of pressure and the other two sitting higher behind their opposite numbers. The role of these advanced midfielders, or ‘8s’ as they are also called, will become clearer in this section.
Meanwhile, the goalkeeper’s importance is crystal clear. Like Emery, Setién has implemented an obstinacy on his players passing it out from the back which always begins with the man between the sticks. The keeper must be comfortable with the ball at his feet, initiating play for the Yellow Submarine.
Despite being erratic at times, especially from sweeping behind the backline as seen from last season’s Champions League second leg against Liverpool, Rulli is adept with the ball at his feet.
From the stopper’s pass map of his two matches under the new manager, it is clear to see that Setién is not so keen on his goalkeeper playing long balls to the forward line as the majority of his passes are to the fullbacks and centre-halves.
The issue for Villarreal thus far during the manager’s reign has been the predictability of their play in this area of the pitch.
Build-up play requires a lot of rotation and players dropping deep to receive and dismantle the press. However, Setién’s team have focused heavily on playing down the sides to the fullbacks.
The team’s build-up play is often quite risky too, with the fullbacks given license to take on their man and drive forward, bypassing the initial press from the opponents.
This is a perfect example of Villarreal’s fullback taking risks in the first third of the pitch. Having been pressed by Athletic Club’s winger, the right-back Kiko Femenia pushes the ball through the defending player’s legs, causing a rupture in the Basque club’s pressing structure.
Dribbling is an underrated method of beating pressure that is perhaps overlooked at times. Instead of playing through a press, often a good ol’ dribble is the perfect tool to progress the ball up the pitch. In this instance, it certainly was.
Unfortunately, Villarreal look really predictable during this phase of play. Teams have found it incredibly easy to box Setién’s team into the corners and force them long.
When this occurs, the manager instructs his ‘8s’ to make runs in behind the winger or else drop deep to offer a short passing option, allowing the team to either go long into the channels or else play from outside to inside.
Furthermore, the fullbacks also have the option to play it short down the line to the wingers.
Nonetheless, as shown in this example, due to the high positioning of the wingers who offer depth and width, the distance between the fullback and them is too far and the only solution is to play long if the inside ball is cut off, meaning that it can be quite easy for the opponent to recover possession.
The rotations in the midfield area aren’t there anymore which is clearly a tactical tweak made by Setién to make the team’s shape more balanced in possession, but this has also given way to predictability and is an issue within Villarreal’s tactics that the new head coach needs to iron out if continues to be adamant on playing out from the back.
Forcing the issue
Another issue with Setién’s set-up at Villarreal so far has been that the side are almost trying too hard to break through an opponent’s low block.
One of the major criticisms thrown the way of Emery at the helm, and perhaps during his time in charge of Arsenal too, was that his teams lacked creativity in the final third and the overall play was tedious in this area of the pitch.
Across his 87 matches in La Liga with Villarreal, the team averaged 1.55 goals per game which isn’t dreadful but still meant that there was a heavy reliance on the backline to keep the ball out of their own net.
Setién, in his quest to rectify the issue, has almost gone too far the other way, looking to force the issue far too much, which hasn’t borne fruit for the manager just yet as they have been goalless in three of his matches.
When in the opposition’s half of the pitch, Villarreal maintain a 4-3-3 structure with a diamond stemming from the striker to the deepest midfielder.
In this image, Villarreal have positioned themselves according to Lech Poznan’s 4-4-2 defensive block in what looks like a basic 4-3-3.
The wingers are holding the width on the outside but once the fullbacks advance up the pitch to join the last line, the wide forwards invert, creating a 2-3-5 or a 3-2-5 if the pivot drops in between the centre-backs.
There is plenty of central occupation as Setién wants his players to try and progress the ball into these areas. Teams like Manchester City are really meticulous when doing this, being patient, and moving the ball around until space between the lines opens up. Pep Guardiola famously once said:
“The intention is not to move the ball, rather move the opposition.”
Villarreal are not as tempered as the Premier League champions and are far too impatient when breaking down a low defensive block, making it easier for the opponent to defend and giving away possession too much.
Here, the centre-back has tried to split Mallorca’s midfield with a pass straight to the feet of the advanced midfielder who isn’t quite free to receive. Straight away, the hosts win it back and hit Villarreal on the break.
There are numerous short passing options for the backline to play to in order to keep moving the ball around and probing the defending side, but the pass was rushed and gave Mallorca the chance to counterattack.
When these forced passes come off, the attacking play is scintillating to watch at times. There was one moment in particular from the same game that almost led to a goal, leaving Mallorca dumbstruck at the back.
Having broken the lines, the receiver then plays a quick ball around the corner to the forward making a run in behind. This is a wonderful example of Setién’s football at its very best.
Unfortunately, these moments have been rare, and Villarreal are ceding possession needlessly by trying to force play too much.
Poor at the back
Nobody wanted to play Villarreal during Emery’s reign. The Basque coach made the Yellow Submarine really tough to break down and the side were incredibly well-drilled, especially in big games.
This security at the back has seemingly gone out the window under Setién. The 64-year-old has never been a defensively-minded coach but not many expected the drop-off that has been seen with Villarreal so far.
One of the main worries has been how open Villarreal have looked during transitions. The squad doesn’t have the quickest defenders in the world. However, in order to prevent a foot race from occurring with the centre-backs on the break, the team’s rest defence structure needs to be on point.
So far, this hasn’t been the case, as the image above portrays. Having lost the ball inside the opposition’s half of the pitch, Villarreal’s players close together to counterpress and try to regain possession.
The initial counterpressing fails from the team as Mallorca break through with ease. The next line of the rest defence structure should be the central defenders. In this case, the centre-backs are not close enough to the strikers, causing them to be in between two minds about whether or not to stay or drop back.
In the end, the defenders chose the wrong option here and are killed in a foot race against Mallorca’s forwards, leading to an excellent opportunity on the counter for the islanders.
The central defenders needed to be already much closer to the Mallorca forwards in the chance that the initial counterpress was broken, which it was.
Furthermore, it sounds rather unhelpful to say but Villarreal have looked like a soft touch at the back, lacking structure even in the simplest of defensive situations. This was most apparent from two goals conceded by the side against Lech Poznan in a 3-0 hammering taken out in Poland in the Europa League.
From this image, Poznan easily carved open Villarreal through the central areas. The biggest failing in this screenshot is that the midfield is too flat. The space in front of the backline is not being protected and a simple forward pass to the feet of the centre-forward ripped the defensive block to shreds, leaving the defenders exposed in a 3v3 situation. In the end, the Polish side got in behind with ease and scored.
The third goal conceded by Villarreal was even worse.
When a team are challenging for the ball in the air, one of the defenders needs to step out to contest it while the others drop off and set themselves in case a flick-on occurs.
Club America have done this impeccably here to prevent the opposition from winning the second ball.
However, Villarreal have failed to do so in the previous image provided. The defender challenges for the ball in the air and mistakenly heads it back into the space behind the defensive line.
The other three haven’t dropped off and closed together, leaving the forward to latch onto the error and square it across for his teammate to tap home the final nail in the coffin.
The way Setién has his players playing is admirable. Emery was arguably too pragmatic at times, leading Villarreal to drop points against lower sides in the table.
However, the experienced coach has almost gone the opposite way of doing things, leaving the Yellow Submarine far too exposed at the back and in transition. The door of the submarine is wide open, leaving the sailors drowning.