Villarreal – Barcelona: Toothless Villarreal Cannot Break Down Barcelona (0-1)

In what was a drastic change from the norm, Barcelona ceded control to their opponents and let Villarreal play the match on their own terms. Without a brilliant goal from Pedri it might have cost them, but Barcelona’s sound defensive structure (and some fantastic individual defending) allowed them their twelfth straight win. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Charlie Tuley

We decided to make this article free to read. If you want to support our work, consider taking a subscription.

This match was an opportunity for revenge for Quique Setién, who was sacked by Barcelona in August 2020 and had not held a job since, before taking over for Unai Emery in October. Setién has had a slow start to life with Villarreal, taking ten points from the nine matches he has had in charge in LaLiga. The team is coming off of poor losses to Rayo Vallecano and Elche, though Villarreal still had the chance to move into fifth place if they could manage to beat Barcelona. 

Setién was without Gerard Moreno, Alfonso Pedraza, Giovani Lo Celso, and Nicolas Jackson for the match against Barcelona. Veteran goalkeeper Pepe Reina started in net, with Juan Foyth, Raúl Albiol, Pau Torres, and Alberto Moreno making up the back line. Étienne Capoue, Dani Parejo, Francis Coquelin, and Álex Baena made up Villarreal’s midfield, with Yeremy Pino and José Luis Morales as the two forwards. 

Xavi’s Barcelona are flying at the moment, having won their last eleven matches in all competitions. They came into the trip to Villarreal with an eight point lead over second-placed Real Madrid, with the opportunity to open that gap to eleven points with a win. The team is performing brilliantly, in a sort of form that absolutely no team would be wishing to play them in. 

Ahead of Barcelona’s incredibly important Europa League tie with Manchester United, Xavi elected not to rest any of his most important players. With Sergio Busquets and Ousmane Dembélé both set to miss both the Villarreal and the Manchester United matches, Xavi decided that the LaLiga game was too important to risk not playing his best available eleven. Marc-André ter Stegen started in goal, with Jules Koundé, Ronald Araújo, Andreas Christensen, and Alejandro Balde making up the back line. Franck Kessie, Frenkie De Jong, Pedri, and Gavi made up Xavi’s four man midfield, with Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski playing in the forward roles. 

Villarreal make it tough initially…

One of the most consistent facets of Barcelona’s play under Xavi has been the domination of the beginning of matches through sustained possession and a high counterpress. However, Setién did not allow Barcelona to play their typical style, as his side took a hold of the match right from the off. Villarreal controlled the majority of possession early on, keeping Barcelona from setting the tone. 

Despite having much of the ball early on, Villarreal could do little with it. Unlike many of Barcelona’s LaLiga opponents, they were able to evade their aggressive press through their intelligent and hardworking midfield play. Capoue, Coquelin, Baena, and especially Parejo all worked diligently to make off-ball runs to create space in their own half to evade Barcelona’s chasing players. Often, the four would stagger themselves to make it even more difficult for Barcelona’s midfielders to track them, then use their differences in depth to shift their opponents enough to move the ball out of their territory. 

5th minute. Villarreal in the buildup phase, with Capoue and Baena making crossing runs that confuse the Barcelona midfield and create space for both players. 

… but Barcelona still find a way

After eighteen minutes of neither team budging, Barcelona found a lead from nearly nothing. Koundé won the ball just outside of the Villarreal defensive third and the ball was quickly moved to Raphinha near the top corner of the penalty area. The Brazilian played a quick square pass to Pedri at the top of the penalty area, who completed a brilliant one-two combination with Lewandowski to get himself behind the Villarreal back line and set himself up for an easy finish past Reina. 

Villarreal played more aggressively for a short spell after conceding, which invited Barcelona to take their usual dominant foothold in the game. With Villarreal playing more recklessly, it offered Barcelona better counterattacking chances, and the away side began to establish control through their quick movements forward and sustained possession in Villarreal’s defensive third. Whenever they lost the ball, they would throw numbers at Villarreal, hoping that their more direct approach would allow for easier avenues to intercept passes. 

Villarreal quickly realized their mistake, and they drifted back into their usual patient approach. However, the damage had been done at this point. Barcelona were hungry, and they maintained their aggressive approach much later into the half than what they usually are able to sustain. Villarreal were still able to evade the majority of Barcelona’s pressing efforts through their technical quality and intelligence, but Barcelona’s high defensive line restricted their upfield options. This resulted in Villarreal being forced to move the ball around the back without being able to get the ball to either of their center-forwards. 

Barcelona’s defensive structure was integral in limiting Villarreal’s chance creation throughout the match. Their high line gave Villarreal little room to work with when playing out of the back, and the double pivot of De Jong and Kessie were excellent in cutting off the passing lanes to either of the strikers. Along with restricting Morales’ and Pino’s ability to get onto the ball, Barcelona’s two defensive midfielders were also expected to man-mark Villarreal’s two more advanced midfielders (as Villarreal’s four midfielders all took up central roles in possession). With Villarreal largely unable to bring their four most advanced players into the game in the first half, they struggled to create many chances that were not individual errors from Barcelona defenders. 

31st minute. Barcelona’s defensive structure as Villarreal have a rare spell in their opponents’ territory. 

Villarreal try to fight back

The second half saw Barcelona ease up on the intensity of their press, giving Villarreal much more freedom in the defensive and middle thirds of the pitch. Villarreal’s ball movement was excellent and they had little trouble breaking through Barcelona’s initial line of defense, but they struggled in the final third. With the central areas so constricted, Villarreal began to aim at getting the ball to the wings where they could put crosses into the penalty area. Their fullbacks took up high positions in possession, which afforded Barcelona quite a bit of space on the counterattack. 

With Villarreal’s fullbacks pushing forward, there was quite a bit of space on the wings for Barcelona to exploit on the counter. Raphinha especially took advantage of this, and he often had acres of space ahead of him to run into when he was played into Villarreal’s territory. However, Barcelona were not able to take advantage of this and they squandered a number of quality chances, keeping Villarreal in the game. 

Villarreal controlled possession for much of the second half, and Yeremy Pino really came into the match. He made a number of off-ball runs, usually making diagonal runs from his central areas into spaces on the wings in behind the Barcelona back line. The runs were well-timed and Pino usually got the delivery he asked for, but he was unable to do anything due to the defensive prowess of Araújo. Araújo did not put a foot wrong the entire match, and he made a number of important defensive interventions (especially on Pino) that kept Barcelona ahead of their opponents. 

Even as the match wore on, Villarreal did not stray away from their patient style, relying on structured buildup and ball movement to create chances. They nearly scored in the final moments, with substitute Samu Chukwueze’s goal being chalked off due to the assist provider being offside. Throughout the second half, they created enough chances to have earned an equalizer, but a defensive masterclass from Araújo and some confident goalkeeping from ter Stegen kept the ball out of Barcelona’s goal. 


Villarreal were unlucky not to at least take a point from the game, but that has been a bit of a consistency under Setién. After how their recent results look on-paper, one might think that Setién might be feeling like his time at Villarreal might be coming to an end if he cannot turn these results around. However, performances like this prove that Villarreal can play quality football under their new manager, and the side’s injury issues are not helping Setién at all. Fielding the team’s fourth-choice striker alongside a traditional winger in a front two was never going to be a smashing success, especially against the best defense in world football. Though Villarreal have a lot of problems, this performance should not be used to judge Setién or the players as a whole. 

Barcelona were again great, and this win will be excellent in carrying momentum into the Europa League tie. The performances from the back four and the midfielders were all that Xavi could ask for, especially in the absence of Sergio Busquets. They largely did quite well in limiting the chance creation of Villarreal’s makeshift attack, though it might have been different had Gerard Moreno or even Nicolas Jackson been involved. All together, it is another narrow win for Xavi’s side, something that has become a pattern lately. They have the defensive solidity to make these kinds of wins happen, but one has to expect the variance to even out and they will begin to drop points at some point. 

Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots. Click to enlarge.

Check the match plots page for plots of other matches.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Charlie Tuley is a junior studying sport management at the University of Michigan. He currently works as a data analyst for the San Jose Earthquakes, and does freelance football analytics on Twitter under the name @analyticslaliga. [ View all posts ]


Be the first to comment on this article

Leave a Reply

Go to TOP