Why is the Yellow Submarine taking on water?
Background image: Rachel Guerra, CC BY 2.0
How does a club with La Liga’s second-most potent attack and third-best goal difference languish in eighth place? In Villarreal’s case, the answer is all about the individual.
Football is a team sport but we often talk about clubs needing players who will take the game by the scruff of the neck to make a difference. The Yellow Submarine bunks several stars with excellent grips. Most notably, Santi Cazorla pulls strings in midfield but forwards Gerard Moreno, Karl Toko Ekambi and winger Samuel Chukwueze also have their moments. When a side features several individual talents, the risk is their mindset affects the rest of the squad aversely.
Javier Calleja’s rearguard features one star, former Real Madrid centre-half Raul Albiol. Since returning to La Liga after a spell with Napoli, the 34-year-old is the lone consistent performer in Calleja's backline. The others don’t follow his example, apparently too enamoured by displays from teammates further up the pitch. Rather than individual brilliance, however, individual errors have been the result.
Many come from dead-ball situations. The wild 4-4 draw with Granada could have been a much calmer three points for El Submarino Amarillo if they marked players off corners. Against Levante, in a 2-1 defeat, panic in the defensive third cost Villarreal dearly. So did a controversial, belated VAR decision to retake a penalty because keeper Andres Fernandez allegedly came off his line. Images show Fernandez’s left foot clearly on the goal line as Roger Marti strikes his first, saved effort. Fernandez then made two more saves before play was whistled dead for the retake. Regardless of the officiating, disorganization at the back did in the visitors after they took an early lead and dominated the first half.
Villarreal’s four defeats all came on the road, to Eibar, Osasuna, Barcelona and Levante. It’s difficult to castigate any side [other than Real Madrid] for dropping three points to the division’s perennial champions in front of 99,000 angry hostiles but results in the remaining three contests were more realistically anticipated. Eibar and Levante reside in the table’s bottom half. Osasuna's place below Villarreal on goal difference is mainly thanks to the result in Pamplona.
Los Rojillos arrived at their 18 points from the direction opposite the Yellow Submarine. Rather than individuals stepping up, Jagoba Arrasate’s squad fight together for every point in both the literal and figurative sense. Osasuna have drawn half their dozen matches going into this evening’s tilt with Getafe.
Javier Calleja employs a 4-2-3-1 formation more often than not. The shape places Cazorla in the heart of the action where he thrives rather than limiting him on the left of a 4-3-3. Unfortunately, three of the side’s four defeats have come in the seven games in the manager’s preferred formation. On the two occasions when Calleja opted for a flat 4-1-4-1, Villarreal played brilliantly and took four points but d-mid Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa looked out of place in an advanced role to Cazorla’s right.
For obvious reasons, Calleja doesn’t want to tweak his attack but a change of some sort is needed to shore up the back. Albiol is the right-side centre-half and Villarreal is clearly weaker on the left. Asking Cazorla to drop deeper to help is counterproductive in the extreme. At 34, with a severe Achilles problem in his recent past, the Spaniard lacks the pace to cover enough ground to contribute at both ends. Nor is he as effective if shifted to the right.
Vicente Iborra, the other half of Calleja’s double pivot, is a capable defender but has no support from centre-half Pau Torres or left-back Xavi Qintilla. New signing Alberto Moreno is hardly the answer defensively. Premier League fans remember his hapless efforts as Liverpool’s left-back. Tracking back still knocks him for a loop.
If Calleja can’t inspire more discipline and consistency from his rearguard, he may need to return to the market in January. Quality won’t be easy to find but 2019/20 might be Santi Cazorla’s last hurrah. It would be a shame to waste his genius through inaction.