Villarreal – Atlético Madrid: An Entertaining Goalless Draw Between Freeform Villarreal Attack And Staunch Atlético Defense (0-0)
In the first half, Villarreal’s attacking flair produced shot after shot against a patient Atlético, who produced fewer but higher quality chances. In the second half, both teams continued to trade punches, with João Félix leading the Atlético offense while Samu Chukwueze and Zambo Anguissa lead Villarreal’s attempts.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Perez.
Villarreal are one of the most curious teams in the 2019/20 LaLiga season. Coach Javi Calleja has created an offensive system that creates expected goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. at a similar rate to Real Madrid and Barcelona. And instead of using a rigid tactical structure, Calleja has achieved this by giving significant positional freedom to players like André-Frank Anguissa, Santi Cazorla, Karl Toko Ekambi and Gerard Moreno. However, all this offensive power and freedom comes at a cost: Villarreal are the fifth worst defense in the league, both in goals and expected goals conceded. This poor defense explains why Villarreal and their spectacular attack are only placed 14th in the league table.
Against Atlético (and with the key absence of playmaker Santi Cazorla), Villarreal lined up in a nominal 4-3-3 shape, with the usual back four of Mario Gaspar, Raúl Albiol, Pau Torres and Quintilla. Midfield featured a trio of Vicente Iborra in the holding midfield role, with Manu Trigueros and Zambo Anguissa as interior midfielders. Up front featured the trio of Moi Gómez, Gerard Moreno and Samu Chukwueze.
This time, Villarreal’s opponent was none other than the mighty Atlético defense, the best in the league as per underlying numbers. However, the last two months of LaLiga have not been kind to Simeone’s men, with five draws and a loss to Barcelona that have made Atlético lose steam in their race of the league title. Their offense this season actually looks healthier than before, with a 30 per cent increase in expected goals per game compared to last season. However, strikers Álvaro Morata, João Felix, and Ángel Correa are all undergoing a rough finishing streak and are lagging behind their expected goals. Once their finishing goes back to normal, we would expect Atlético to start getting better results.
Against Villarreal, Atlético lined up in the usual 4-4-2, with the key absence of Ángel Correa due to suspension. Left back Renán Lodí returned to the starting lineup, while Santiago Arias took the place of Kieran Trippier at right back. Midfield featured the same double pivot as last week with Thomas Partey and Héctor Herrera, while Koke and Saúl played the wide midfield roles. Up front lied the striker duo of Álvaro Morata and João Félix.
Atlético’s 4-4-2 shape in possession against Villarreal’s disorderly 4-4-2 / 4-5-1 defensive block. Notice the amount of space behind Trigueros and Anguissa, and how Koke and Saúl are positioned to take advantage of those spaces.
Why did Atlético concede so many shots and set-pieces?
On average, opponents only manage to create nine shots per game against the Atlético defense. Villarreal’s offense did so well that they created an amazing sixteen shots against Atlético in the first half, with eleven of those shots happening in the box.
Set-pieces were arguably the biggest factor that led to these shot numbers, with half of Villarreal’s sixteen shots coming off set-pieces. Atlético concede five corner kicks per game, but against Villarreal they conceded eight corner kicks just in the first half. While both teams traded punches frequently, Villarreal’s attacks managed to cut deeper and produce shots more often, which forced Atlético defenders into more last-ditch interventions and more conceded corners.
The difference between Atlético and Villarreal’s attacking success throughout the game had to do with two factors:
- Villarreal’s dribblers: Anguissa (4/4 successful dribbles) and Chukwueze (6/9 successful dribbles) were outstanding at breaking past Atlético’s pressing lines as well as beating their men to get into shot and assist positions.
- Villarreal midfielders attacking the box: Simply put, Villarreal committed more men to the offense than Atlético, with two central midfielders – Anguissa and especially Trigueros – constantly moving into zone 14 and into the box to shoot or assist their forwards. By loading the box with so many players, Villarreal could find free men in the box more easily.
Villarreal’s quick attacking mechanisms
Under Javi Calleja, Villarreal always look to attack quickly on the counterattack. They don’t press too actively, mostly during opposition goal kicks or when the opponent makes backward passes from midfielders to defenders. Calleja’s men prefer to defend deeper, allowing the opponent to move forward and leave spaces at the back that can be countered. And the few times Villarreal tried to press Atlético, the away side would simply send the ball long to Saúl, Morata and Felix.
Villarreal were prepared for the exchange of long balls and the ensuing aerial battle. Defender Pau Torres and midfielders Anguissa and Iborra did not dominate Saúl and Morata in the air, but at least they managed to win half of their aerial duels against the Atlético pair. Villarreal’s midfielders also prevented Atlético from dominating second balls too.
Once they recovered the ball, Villarreal would move the ball forward quickly through long, vertical ground passes and quick passing combinations. Midfielders Trigueros and Anguissa would drift wide and create passing triangles with their respective fullbacks and wingers. As can be seen on the passing network and progressive passing maps, the Quintilla-Trigueros-Gómez triangle on the left provided most of the ball progression for Villarreal.
Quintilla and Gómez usually stayed wide, attracting the attention of Atlético’s fullback and wide midfielder and opening up spaces in the box for their teammates. Meanwhile, Anguissa and Chukwueze would move inside from the right, using their dribbling to beat Atlético defenders close to the box. With Chukwueze, Anguissa, Trigueros and Moreno all loading up the Atlético box, it’s no wonder that Villarreal found plenty of shooting opportunities.
Atlético’s not-so-quick attacking mechanisms
We often think of Atlético as a counterattacking team, but the harsh reality is that most of their midfielders and forwards are not particularly fast nor good at dribbling, which makes it harder for them to counter quickly. Simeone’s tendency to play with four central midfielders instead of actual wingers – like he did in this game – does not help.
Despite their lack of speed, Atlético often managed to take advantage of the trade-offs of Villarreal’s offensive approach. With Trigueros and Anguissa pushing up so high, there was plenty of space behind their backs that Saúl, Koke, and Félix could take advantage of. The trio would often position themselves behind the Villarreal midfield line, awaiting passes from the Herrera-Partey double pivot or their defenders. If they received the ball with enough time and space around them, they would drive forward and try to shoot or assist teammates. If they had little space, they would quickly flick the ball to their fullbacks, who were rushing forward to help move Atlético into the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal.
Villarreal often struggled to deal with the threat of Atlético’s fullbacks. They defended in a narrow 4-4-2 block while the Atlético fullbacks hugged the touchline, aiming to stay as far away as possible from Villarreal defenders. The wide positioning of the fullbacks meant that whenever they received the ball, it took time for Villarreal defenders to catch up to them, giving them more time and space to create chances, or to allow other Atlético teammates to move forward. To make things worse, Hermoso and Partey wreaked further havoc in the Villarreal defense by sending long diagonal balls to the fullbacks, too.
Atlético’s other attacking mechanism was sending long passes to Morata and Félix. Morata managed to win several duels, but overall Atlético did not win second balls consistently enough to become a real threat from this mechanism. However, the lighter Felix often made an impact upon receiving the ball, with close ball control and nimble turns allowing him to get into some good shooting positions in the first half.
All in all, Atlético did not shoot as often as Villarreal did in the first half, but as the expected goal plot below shows, their fewer chances were of significantly higher quality.
Félix leads Atlético in the second half, Chukwueze and Anguissa respond
Things went much better for Atlético in the second half, outshooting Villarreal by eleven shots to seven. And this resurgence was led by the young João Félix, who shot six times and provided two shot assists throughout the second half. Felix appeared everywhere across the pitch: right lane, center lane, left lane, in between the lines, in the box. Through his wide movement range, sharp controls and passes, runs into channels between Villarreal defenders and sneaky micro-runs inside the box, Felix had a tremendous influence on the game. Atlético’s attacks were finally turning into shots and this pushed Villarreal back.
Simeone started using his substitutes soon. In the 59th minute, Thomas Partey was replaced by Vitolo. This gave Atlético’s attack more speed and dribbling that they sorely needed. It also allowed Saúl to move back into the double pivot, which helped Atlético to win more aerial duels and second balls in defense.
Having produced only three shots in 25 minutes, Calleja knew he had to change things for Villarreal. In the 68th minute, he replaced Gómez with Karl Toko Ekambi, and in the 73rd minute, midfielder Iborra was substituted by the young Manu Morlanes due to injury. With Ekambi, Villarreal became an even more direct team. They attacked by sending long ground passes to Moreno and Anguissa, who would then carry the ball past defenders or quickly pass it to the quick Ekambi and Chukwueze running behind Atlético defenders. Villarreal managed to create a few dangerous chances thanks to these movements, especially Anguissa’s dribbling.
The last ten minutes of the game continued the back and forth between both teams, who were mostly running out of steam. Attacks became increasingly shorter, crashing more and more often against the opposition’s defense. In these final minutes, Chukwueze and Félix had the most impact in the chance creation of their respective teams. Chukwueze dribbled past opponents at lightning speed while Félix smoothly turned amidst multiple opponents and precisely flicked the ball to his teammates. In the end, their efforts had no impact on the score line.
Villarreal have created a fast, fluid, and exciting offense, with attackers running all over the pitch in their attempts to disorder opponents through counterattacks. Distances in the league table are close, so stringing two or three wins in a row can easily take Villarreal from being close to relegation to being in European spots. Will this offensive approach be the right way for Villarreal to achieve their European dream, or will they have to sacrifice offense in order to improve defense?
Atlético’s offense seems healthier than in the previous two seasons, but there are still significant problems. Their counterattacking mechanisms are not as effective as we would expect them to be, there are moments in which the team depends too much on Félix – just like it did with Griezmann in the past – and perhaps most importantly, their strikers are yet to solve their finishing issues.
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