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Tactical analysis: A look at Barcelona rivals Villarreal CF

What team will Barça face tomorrow? A detailed tactical analysis of rivals Villarreal

Suhas Achanta

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Header Image by Imago

Barcelona have fallen off in their quest to retain the league title. After consecutive 2–2 stalemates with Celta de Vigo and Atlético de Madrid, they see themselves four points behind the top spot. With a tricky trip to high-flying Villarreal, the scope for dropping more points is high. And thus, this tactical analysis will provide insight into the Catalans’ upcoming opposition Villarreal.


As much as one may deny, La Liga seems to be heading in favour of Real Madrid. Barcelona have been way too inconsistent, drawing three games since the restart. On the other hand, their rivals have won every single match since football resumed. With a complete lack of game-management from Quique Setién’s men, a clash with Javier Calleja’s in-form Villarreal appears to come at the wrong time.

The Yellow Submarines are pushing for a place in next season’s Champions League. Sitting at fifth place and only three points behind Sevilla at fourth, there’s no reason why they can’t qualify for Europe’s biggest competition. They have had an exceptional restart, drawing only one game with Sevilla while winning the remaining five. Form wise, they are the second-best team in the league since football returned.

Overview

Villarreal have always been a challenging side to travel to. With the Estadio de la Cerámica being one of the toughest trips for any team in Spain, Barça has a tricky visit tomorrow. 42-year-old Javier Calleja took over as Villarreal’s coach in 2019, and it’s safe to say that he has done an absolutely outstanding job. He rose up the coaching ranks, managing the club’s youth side from 2012 to 2017 before taking over the reserve team.

In September 2017, he was named as the first team’s interim head coach after the club fired Fran Escribá. He led them to a fifth-place finish. However, he received the boot in December 2018, in the following season, as his side sat only three points above the relegation zone. Once again, within a month, the club sacked Luis García in January 2019 and reinstated Calleja as the head coach.

Javier Calleja Villarreal tactical analysis

This term, Javier Calleja has been able to take Villarreal back to where it belongs | Photo by AFP7 via Imago

Now into his second stint as the Yellow Submarine’s manager, he has been doing really well with an enticing squad that combines youth with experience. A team that has a balance in both defensive and attacking profiles, it’s no surprise that Villarreal is pushing for that final Champions League spot. Barça should prepare themselves for a complicated clash with el Submarino Amarillo.

The two sides were involved in an extremely thrilling 4–4 draw the last time Barcelona visited them. Even if both teams are unlikely to feature in a similar high-scoring game, their respective attacks are skilled enough to exploit the opposition’s defensive fragilities.

Last five league finishes

2014/15 | 6th · 60 points

2015/16 | 4th · 64 points

2016/17 | 5th · 67 points

2017/18 | 5th · 61 points

2018/19 | 14th · 44 points

Clearly, Villarreal is a side that has always flirted with the top four. With a couple of near misses in the last few seasons, they have established themselves as an outside favourite for Champions League football. Aside from the previous campaign that was far below their capabilities, they have always been a consistent side that finished in the top six.

Currently, they are likely to return to the position they belong to. Nevertheless, with Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla inconsistently slipping their spot in the top four, Villarreal can pressurise and possibly leapfrog them. Scoring seven goals and conceding only twice since the restart, Javier Calleja seems to have fine-tuned his men during the break. They only conceded goals in their 2–2 draw with Sevilla, where they were ahead till the 63rd minute.

Before the break, they were on a three-match losing streak. And so, it can be said that Villarreal is one of the several sides that benefitted from the break. Calleja got a chance to regroup with his players and analyse where they were going wrong. He has shown signs of adaptiveness and is also unwilling to rotate the squad massively. It’s an implication that they have found their best XI and could hurt the Catalans with ease if they don’t turn up for the occasion.

Tactics

Javier Calleja has been versatile this term, setting his team up in a variety of formations. Mostly, he tries a variation between 4–3–3 and a double pivoted 4–4–2. Still, Calleja has also fielded his team in a 4–2–3–1, 4–5–1 and 4–1–4–1. Against superior possession-based sides, he tends to pick a 4–4–2 to overload the midfield with an extra man. But against mid-table and lower sides, he gives his team more attacking freedom by fielding them in a 4–3–3.

A calculative manager is capable of shuffling around with a variety of formations depending upon the nature of the opposition. They are likely to be set-up in a 4–4–2 with Vincente Iborra and Zambo Anguissa as the double pivot. These two are highly physical midfielders who provide robustness to the midfield. With creativity coming from former Arsenal man Santi Cazorla, and pace from Moi Gómez, they can also hit teams on the break. 

Gerard Moreno Villarreal tactical analysis

With 15 goals, Gerard Moreno has been La Liga’s third top goalscorer this season | Photo by AFP7 via Imago

The necessity for Quique Setién’s Barcelona to be anticipative of what’s thrown against them tomorrow is mandatory. Villarreal is a side that is capable of relinquishing possession and using Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcácer for pace and goals. On the other hand, they even have Carlos Bacca and Samuel Chukwueze to provide a different dimension of attacking options.

They are a team that’s well-equipped with different variations up top and also quality at the back. The centre-back partnership between Spanish internationals Raúl Albiol and Pau Torres provides a mix of experience and youthfulness. The latter has been fantastic this season and is also being linked with a move to Barcelona.

It’s not simple to breakdown Villarreal if they choose to close the spaces and defend compactly. Notwithstanding, they have the habit of leaking goals when the entire team goes out of shape. They tend to be victims of the domino effect at times, as they go on to concede three or four goals after going behind. Barça should look to take advantage of the host’s questionable defending when they are trailing.

Player to watch

There’s no denying that Santi Cazorla is the club’s best player. He is capable of unlocking opposition defences with his quick feet and pinpoint vision. Even so, the player we will be looking at is Pau Torres. The 23-year-old has earned himself an astounding reputation across Europe. Aside from Barcelona, many possession-based sides are interested in acquiring the ball-playing centre-back’s services.

Pau has played 29 games this season and has rarely had a bad game. He is fundamental when Calleja chooses to play more with the ball. But before looking into how good Torres is with the ball, there’s a need to analyse his defensive contribution. He has a 66.7% ( 18 / 27 ) success rate when it comes to facing dribblers. With a judicious pressing sense, Pau doesn’t barge ahead to startle the opposition. Instead, he is calm and calculative, making him an impetuous decision-maker.

He wins most of his on-pitch battles, while his aerial presence could be better. Although not in the best shape for being a rigid defender, he is well-built to handle sturdy attackers.

Pau Torres Ángel Correa Villarreal Atlético de Madrid

Pau Torres has been a revelation for Villarreal this season | Photo by Irina R. H via Imago

His ability with the ball is exactly why several fans want to see him in blaugrana colours in the coming season. Pau has pass receiving accuracy of 98.7%, which is naturally high as he is at the back. However, it’s not as simple as one may think. As on numerous occasions, centre-backs have to deal with the opposing attacker’s press. That said, this is never a challenge for a composed defender like Torres.

He picks the right moment before advancing upfield. But, he’s not a central defender like RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano, who drives forward with the ball. Instead, he smartly attempts to find the spaces left by the forwards who press Villarreal’s backline. He can also switch the side of play by pinging long balls to the portion of the pitch where the opposition is vulnerable.

Pau Torres is the right player who ticks all the boxes for the Catalans. Those who are already aware of his expertise will surely be keeping an extra eye on Pau.

Conclusion

Barça is in no way a team that’s looking likely to bounce back. The performances haven’t been ideal. Even if their style of play has improved, the results aren’t there to show for it. With rumours of Quique Setién’s job being on the line, there’s a pressing need for them to get a win against Villarreal. However, that will not be a simple task as they have agendas of their own.

Barcelona has slipped up on their last two away trips, drawing with Sevilla and Celta de Vigo. Anything aside from a victory would put an unassailable lead between them and Real Madrid. The fans will be hoping to see an improvement in the overall performance of all departments. Villarreal may not be the ideal side to face amidst a period where they need a confidence boost. Nonetheless, the flip side of facing a team that’s playing well will be the morale boost the players, fans, and coach gets if they beat them.

A highly entertaining game awaits both parties who are likely to share the ball equally. Considering how static the azulgranas‘ midfield has been lately, the hosts could overload the central part. By fielding an extra man in the midfield, they make it more challenging to play between the lines and move the ball up faster. All eyes will once again turn to Lionel Messi, but it’s high time that the entire XI owns up to their poor display in the recent days.


See more

The evident difference between Samuel Umtiti and Clément Lenglet

• The palpable decline of Luis Suárez

• Starting Luis Suárez: Do the negatives outweigh the positives?

• La Liga over? Analysing the chances of Barça turning the lead around

I started writing so that I could bridge the gap and pass time on days when there were no matches. But little did I know that writing about the beautiful game would amp up my love for it. I've always wanted to learn more, and share whatever insights I have on the game, to anyone, anywhere. The world stops for 90 minutes when your team plays, and that for me is very much true.

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Analysis

Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?

Samuel Gustafson

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Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

Work rate is a crucial element in a successful football side, but which Barcelona players have put in the most effort this season?


While FC Barcelona has always been renowned for their technical ability and tactical intelligence of its players, their work rate on the pitch has also played a key role in the club’s greatest triumphs.

The concept is simple, but that does not detract from its importance. Players who track back to win the ball, make bursting runs to create space and passing angles, and constantly apply pressure out of possession are incredibly valuable.

While it may be impossible to quantify a player’s effort with full accuracy truly, the available data can still reveal some prominent trends. With that in mind, which Barcelona players put in the highest amount of work rate statistically?

Offensive effort

First things first, time to establish a methodology. Using data from FBRef, the dataset will be filtered down to outfield players who have played five or more 90’s in one of the big five European leagues in the 2020/21 season. That means each player has at least a decent sample size under their belt, so there will not be anyone with only a few ten-minute appearances off the bench.

Then, which metrics can be used to quantify effort best? With the data available, it seems like the most viable option is to try and identify box-to-box players. For that, we can use the different areas of the pitch in which players take their touches.

Each player’s percentile rank for touches per 90 minutes in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, middle third, attacking third, and attacking penalty area was found. The average of those five percentiles became each player’s “attacking average.”

These averages were then scaled between 0 and 100 for the final “Offensive Coverage Rating.” This is how the top five came out for all clubs:

  1. Raphaël Guerreiro (Dortmund) – 100
  2. Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 97.5
  3. Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 94.3
  4. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) – 92.7
  5. Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid) – 92.4

Elsewhere in the top 20 are names like Andrew Robertson, Reece James, Luke Ayling of the intense Leeds United system, Ander Herrera, and Frenkie de Jong. There seems to a solid set of players who work their way up and down the pitch, either down the flank as full-backs or as energetic centre-midfielders.

How does the Barça squad stack up in particular?

barcelona work rate

As previously mentioned, the full-backs are the main standouts. The never-ending stamina of Jordi Alba is especially on display. Frenkie de Jong sits as the top non-full-back by a solid distance, reflecting his ability to drop deep in the buildup and provide dangerous runs forward.

A bit lower down the list, though, things start to look a bit weirder. It should be noted that this methodology can be a bit biased towards centre-backs. They rack up many touches in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, and middle third in a possession-based system, and the additional touches they get in the attacking penalty area off of corners and free-kicks can drive their scores pretty high.

Looking at Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite all the way at the bottom brings up another limitation. While we can track players who are active in many different areas of the pitch, we can not do the same for players who move and work a lot in the same area.

Watching Braithwaite and Griezmann definitely shows how active they are making runs in behind or across the attacking third, but because they do not drop off very often to pick up the ball, they rank low in the team.

However, those top names prove this offensive coverage metric is able to quantify box-to-box play in possession. Additionally, incorporating defensive metrics will clean things up even more.

Defensive effort

On the other side of the ball, the process is very similar. The same players and methodology will be applied, only this time with pressures instead of touches.

StatsBomb, who collect the data displayed on FBRef, define pressure as, “…applying pressure to an opposing player who is receiving, carrying, or releasing the ball.” These pressures are just broken down based on the thirds of the pitch, not the penalty areas too, so only three metrics go into each player’s “defensive average.”

Once again, those averages are then scaled between 0 and 100, creating the “Defensive Coverage Ratings.” The top five performers in these ratings were:

  1. Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro (Lazio) – 100
  2. Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria) – 98.1
  3. Leonardo Bittencourt (Werder Bremen) – 98.1
  4. Morgan Sanson (Marseille) – 98.0
  5. Maxence Caqueret (Lyon) – 97.2

Midfield workhorses like Fred and Adrien Silva, along with high-pressing forwards such as Diogo Jota are common throughout the rest of the top 25.

Given that Barcelona are a possession-heavy side, and one that often presses at a lower intensity, one would expect these defensive work-rate ratings to be a bit lower. Still, though, which players stand out?

barcelona work rate

Pedri comes out as the clear leader. Impressively, the teenager’s score is one that would be respectable in any side. Let it serve as just another testament to his work rate and ability to perform a variety of different tasks on the pitch.

With Sergio Busquets in second, even as he ages, he is still one of Barça’s most active players in terms of closing down the opposition. In third is another newcomer, as Sergiño Dest’s tendency to press aggressively puts him much higher than most of the other defenders in the squad.

The tallies for the other members of the backline are quite low because they defend in a more reserved nature. This can also be attributed to the fact that Barcelona give up fewer opportunities than many teams.

With both of these two ratings in place and some solid results for top-ranking players, it is time to combine them.

Overall

Here in the endgame, we will be combining all eight metrics to create one “Overall Coverage Rating.” That means touches in each third, touches in both penalty areas, and pressures in each third are all included. This way, we can see the players who cover most of the pitch overall.

barcelona work rate

The top five is comprised of:

  1. Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) – 100
  2. Ander Herrera (Paris Saint-Germain) – 99.3
  3. Bruno Guimarães (Lyon) – 97.6
  4. Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid) – 96.7
  5. Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 96.2

Idrissa Gana Gueye, Dani Carvajal, Joshua Kimmich, Renan Lodi, Arturo Vidal, Maxence Caqueret, Ezgjan Alioski, Pedri, Reece James, Mason Mount, and Mateusz Klich are among the top names as well.

Now, for the final Barcelona squad rankings:

barcelona work rate

The numbers still involve the same intricacies as those discussed for the separate offensive and defensive ratings, but at least the top five names seem to match an eye test evaluation of the squad.

Pedri has joined the team and impressed everyone with his work rate and movement. He will track an opposition runner back to the defensive third, win the ball, combine in midfield, and then get forward to be an outlet for Messi.

While not as youthful and agile, Busquets still serves as a metronome in the possession and an active defender. He will move and reposition to rack up touches in the deeper thirds and engages in defensive duels very often.

The right flank has been slightly ignored at times this season, leaving Dest isolated, but the American always brings energy. He has all the skills and the mentality to be a great modern full-back.

Dest’s counterpart on the left, Jordi Alba, performs a much greater portion of his work offensively. His countless runs down the left wing have made him a key target for through balls and switches of play over the last few seasons.

Lastly, Frenkie de Jong backs up his reputation as an all-round midfielder. This season, the Dutchman is settling in more at the Camp Nou, and his surging runs forward to the penalty area have been awe-inspiring as of late.

Griezmann and Braithwaite are probably the hardest done by these metrics. However, their energy, work rate and volume of runs they can provide off the ball is noticeable when watching them play, and invaluable for Barcelona.

Final thoughts

There is no perfect way to quantify how hard a player works in-game, especially with these limited statistics. What this attempted to do, though, is focus on effort in terms moving to a variety of areas, being as involved in the match as possible, and doing so in different ways.

While not perfect, this methodology was successful in identifying some of the busiest players in the side. It should serve as a reminder of the value these players, like Pedri or de Jong, can offer beyond even their brilliant technical ability.

Given that 32-year-old Sergio Busquets and 31-year-old Jordi Alba were also near the top, it is a reminder of the potential replacements the club will be forced to make eventually. How long can these two continue to exert energy at this level? Could younger players be doing even more in those roles? How will Barça fill those holes when they move on? These are questions that need answering.

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