Europa League Preview: Villarreal

written by: Dougie Wright

An introduction to Villarreal

 Based in a small seaside town 35 miles north of Valencia, Villarreal’s rise to La Liga powerhouse came after the younger brother of Valencia president Francisco Roig decided to buy a lower league team so he could be a football club president as well. 

Fernando Roig’s twenty-year journey at Villarreal has taken them from the second division and moulded them into one of the best sides in the country. A second placed league finish and Champions League semi final are highlights of an era that has seen players such as Riquelme, Forlan and Marcos Senna grace El Madrigal.

Last season they finished fifth in La Liga. This season it’s not gone quite to plan with just one win from their first four games.

How do Villarreal play?

For Villarreal, the centre is key. As such, they use a 4-4-2 diamond in most games as so:

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When they play out from the back, the defensive midfielder comes deep. That means that the opposition need three players to push forward if they want to press Villarreal at this stage.

Once they get the ball out from the back, the defensive mid will push higher, alongside fullbacks Mario and Costa. At times, this basically has Villarreal playing in a 2-6-2 formation, with plenty of movement from the central four midfielders.

All going to plan, lots of short passes between these four (plus the two fullbacks) will give Villarreal control in the opposition half.

However, pushing so many bodies forwards leaves huge gaps in behind Mario and Costa, especially if both go forward at the same time.

Last season, only four Spanish sides committed more fouls than Villarreal.

If you win the ball back and they feel like their two centre backs are exposed, they will stop you from playing out by any means necessary. 

What’s going wrong then?

Villarreal are giving up over 14 shots per game, the fourth highest rate in La Liga.

The centre backs certainly aren’t aggressive enough. Between them, Alvaro and Victor Ruiz are winning just 60% of headers and have only managed to block 6 of the 57 shots put at the Villarreal goal this season.

Against Girona, the Yellow Submarine had 60% of the ball but gave up 24 shots, including this farcical goal: 

This goal touches on a few themes from this season and last that show where Villarreal are weak:

  • The midfield have a tendency not to track runners when the opposition manage to turn over the ball and break quickly.

  • There seems to be a lack of communication between the two centre backs.

  • The fullbacks can disappear up the park, giving lots of space to counter.

However, there is a danger man who Rangers should pay particular attention to…

Gerard Moreno

Villarreal spent €20 million on the 26-year-old striker this summer, and with good reason. The Catalan had hit 16 La Liga goals for a struggling Espanyol side the previous season – accounting for nearly half of their total goals. So important was Moreno to Espanyol, it took until the 36th game of the season for him to be substituted – he had played every single second up until then.

So what makes him so good?

He’s not particularly strong, nor particularly fast.

However, he has that stereotypical Spanish footballing brain and that stereotypical Spanish footballing technique. 

His wand of a left foot means he can do the following:

  • Cut inside from the right wing at pace (watch out for the outside of his left here).

  • Take on two or three defenders at a time.

  • Cushion any speed of cross into the box with his left, before finishing with either foot. 

Moreno fed off scraps for Espanyol last season and turned a potential relegation battle into a comfortable mid table finish. Villarreal are a much more complete side going forward – only Lionel Messi created more goals than Pablo Fornals last season – so you’d think that Moreno should be given even more goalscoring opportunities.

Yet there are a couple of weaknesses Rangers should be aware of:

-       He only really uses his right foot for close range finishes.

-       He’s not pacy enough to get in behind a high line.

So if you keep the line relatively high and you try and push him onto his right foot, you limit his effectiveness.

His penalty box movement means that even if he’s having a stinker of a day, he still has the knack of finding a yard of space in dangerous areas. He’s one of the best Spanish strikers about and is certainly Villarreal’s main attacking threat.

So how should Rangers play against them?


Rangers’ best hope of getting something from this game is probably to stick with the same sort of strategy that they used through most of the qualification campaign: sit deep and wait for space on the counter.

With just two league goals so far, Villarreal have shown that they have had difficulties breaking down structured teams this season, and if Rangers clog up the centre of the pitch with Coulibaly, Arfield, Halliday, Katic and Goldson, it will be difficult for their hosts to create too many clear-cut chances.

The idea is that this will entice the Villarreal fullbacks higher up the park, at which point Rangers should look to win the ball and play a first-time pass into the space vacated by Costa and Mario. Kent and Candeias have the pace and technique to eat up that spare space and there will be good opportunities to play in Lafferty from here.

 For this to work, it’s important that Tavernier and Barisic fight their natural urge to push up too high: the only width Villarreal have comes from their fullbacks, so the duo must stay back to deal with them.

 Rangers will probably have to give up a decent amount of territory and withstand pressure for most of the game, but this is not a Villarreal team who are confident in the defensive transition this season. Sit back, stay patient, and the chances will come.