Unai Emery – Villarreal – Tactical Analysis

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After a brief, relatively unsuccessful spell at Arsenal, Unai Emery is back in Spain and back in the big time, leading Villarreal’s charge toward the top of La Liga. The Spanish giants currently sit second in the table, while playing some fantastic football along the way. Under Unai Emery, The Yellow Submarine also have a coach who won the Europa League three times with Sevilla, and made it to the final once with Arsenal. Given what he’s achieved in the game and the very decent record his team actually had at Arsenal, the Spaniard has become something of an underrated manager since his Sevilla days and is now building his reputation back up as one of the best managers in world football. Here is a Tactical Analysis of Unai Emery’s Villarreal.

system of play: 4-1-4-1

As per usual, Unai Emery has experimented with a number of different formations so far in his time at the helm of Villarreal. The 4-1-4-1 formation has been the most commonly used by the manager, but he’s also shifted to more of a 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1 and even on occasion utilizing a 4-4-2. It is however under the 4-1-4-1, their first-choice formation at this stage, where they’ve had the most success and remain undefeated in the league when deploying the system. The 4-1-4-1 features many distinguished players, some of whom have been at the club for years. Most notably in terms of long-term players, Sergio Asenjo has kept his place in goal under Emery; while captain Mario Gaspar remains the club’s first-choice right-back. At centre-back however, Emery has established the formidable partnership of former Real Madrid and Napoli man Raul Albiol, and youngster Pau Torres. Albiol hasn’t been called up to Spain this year but remains an option for the National Team, while Torres is beginning to establish himself as a future replacement for the likes of Ramos and Pique. At left-back, Emery has shown faith in the 24-year old Alfonso Pedraza, who’s previously had four loan spells away from the club. The young Ecuadorian Pervis Estupinan remains a solid back-up option for Villarreal to use in Pedraza’s place after his move from Osasuna.

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In front of the back-four, Vicente Iborra has been a mainstay, after his failed spell at Leicester City. The 32-year old vice captain was a key fixture in Sevilla’s lineup during Emery’s time in charge and it’s no surprise that the manager has reshown trust in Iborra at his new club. Meanwhile, the creative Dani Parejo has been one of Villarreal’s key men this season after his move from Valencia, and has been partnered most often with another long-time Villarreal player – Manu Trigueros. Emery’s most intriguing tactical innovation of the starting eleven comes in attack where Gerard Moreno has moved out to the right wing to accommodate the arrival of goal-scoring expert Paco Alcacer. With two talented strikers in the team capable of scoring goals, Emery’s fluctuation of formations may continue and the 4-4-2 could remain an excellent option. Finally, the less luxurious Moi Gomez has been deployed on the left to make up the attacking trio, growing more and more out of the ‘number 10’ position that he’s occupied with previous clubs in Spain.

So those are the players, but how exactly do Villarreal play in this 4-1-4-1 formation under Unai Emery? Well, let’s get right into more of this Tactical Analysis.

playing out from the back

Unai Emery has always had a desire to play out from the back and that has continued on so far this season in 2020-21. In build-up and attacking phases, Villarreal’s formation shifts more into a 2-1-4-3. For purposes of simplifying things, you could also call this a 3-4-3, with Vicente Iborra dropping in between or alongside the two centre-backs.

This set-up allows Villarreal a couple of unique advantages. First and foremost, it pushes the fullbacks higher, allowing the wingers to come inside. As Moi Gomez gets his roots as an attacking midfielder and Gerard Moreno as a centre-forward, both have a natural inclination to drift inside anyway. This approach allows the two players to do so seamlessly, while overloading midfield areas alongside the two central midfielders in behind. It aids in achieving numerical superiority in the build-up, and in their verticality in attacking transitions, getting Moreno and Gomez on the ball in central areas.

The diamond shape created at the very back-end also allows Villarreal to achieve numerical superiority even against a high-press, and a route both forward and backwards if things go awry. Further forward you can also see how the diamond shape is continued both on the right and left, and a greater triangle is created between the fullback, central midfielder and inverted winger on both sides. These shapes offer the Yellow Submarine options both forwards and backwards at proper angles to keep possession of the ball and avoid making dangerous sideways passes in their own half.

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However, it would be far too simplistic to say that this shape stays true throughout all phases of their possession and attack. At varying moments the two central midfielders may also drop in deep to pick up the ball and join the back-line in the build-up. Daniel Parejo in particular is a player who always wants to be on the ball and will frequently drop to receive on the half-turn from Pau Torres to drive or play the ball forward on the left-side. Other than the goalkeeper, Torres and Parejo are also the most frequent to play longer passes, particularly successful one’s when Villarreal want to take a different approach. Meanwhile, of the two fullbacks, Mario Gaspar is the one to more frequently come deeper to pick up possession and conversely, Pedraza the one to stay higher. This offers quite a bit of balance for Villarreal in possession to create an extra option in build-up phases on the right with the fullback in Gaspar, or on the left with the central midfielder in Dani Parejo. It also offers space for Trigueros and Iborra to advance into either wide or inside depending on the situation as Gaspar and Parejo drag a player out of position with their movement in deep.

Despite the constant use of Dani Parejo and Alfonso Pedraza’s slightly more advanced role, Villarreal actually attack down the right side more often, with players like Manu Trigueros, Mario Gaspar and Gerard Moreno. It is also important to note that although Emery likes to play out from the back, Villarreal are also quite good at keeping the ball in the opposition half and dominating possession once there. They’ve kept 57% of the possession so far this season (4th best in the league) and their possession and positional statistics are very balanced between the three thirds of the field.

midfield superiority in defense

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Villarreal’s defensive stability has been one of the keys to success under Unai Emery so far. They’ve conceded 9 goals in 9 games in the league, 4 of which were against Barcelona. Although this isn’t the best record in the world, it’s still very positive and a slight improvement on goals conceded per game from where they were under Javier Calleja in 2018-19 (49 goals conceded in 38 games). Their defensive stability has come largely out of the 4-1-4-1 shape, in which they have engaged in a mid-block, shifting and sliding with the play rather than pressing vigorously from the front. With Villarreal’s three central midfielders often coming up against two from their opposition, the Yellow Submarine have achieved numerical superiority in defensive phases quite often. If the opposition are then keen to try and bypass Villarreal’s midfield triangle, they are often forced into longer passes or the wide areas, closer to the touch-line. Dani Parejo and Manu Trigueros are the most frequent ball-winners for Villarreal, and in Francis Coquelin they have another player who can do the exact same job when needed. The mid-block with 3 central midfielders has been where Emery has achieved much of his success and the most significant amount of defensive stability, conceding 3 goals in 5 league matches when operating in either a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3. In comparison, they’ve conceded 6 goals in 4 matches in the 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 when moving away from that midfield superiority.

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To give two examples from high profile matches this season, we take a brief look at the 2-1 win over Valencia and 4-0 loss to Barcelona. In their win over Valencia, Emery’s side completely outnumbered Javi Gracia’s 4-4-2 in midfield areas. During Valencia’s build-up, this forced Los Murciélagos into longer passes, particularly from the goalkeeper who became rather frustrated with Valencia’s superior defending in midfield. On the other side of the coin, in the 4-0 defeat to Barcelona (their only loss of the season), Villarreal lacked that numerical superiority in midfield after shifting formations to a 4-4-2. Whilst moving away from midfield superiority, they struggled to stop Barcelona’s quick switches of play to the left-hand-side where Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati terrorized Villarreal’s right side of defense.

With all that said, by in large Villarreal have defended excellently well this season regardless of formation and even if the opposition are able to progress the ball past Trigueros and Parejo, Emery’s side still have a solid base with Vicente Iborra screening in front of the back-four.


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Although Villarreal have fared well in attack and have a high conversion rate, they struggle to get into those positions often enough, especially for a team with Paco Alcacer and Gerard Moreno both in the lineup. It is unclear why exactly the Yellow Submarine haven’t been as fluid in attacking situations and capable at scoring goals as other sides around them in the table. But in this section we provide a few possible suggestions.

Firstly, the Yellow Submarine have been caught offside more times this season than any other team. In attacking transitions they have a very vertical approach and as already noted, Moi Gomez and Gerard Moreno often drift inside. Their verticality naturally increases their use of through-balls down the middle rather than working the ball out to the wide areas and delivering crosses. Although more extravagant, through-ball passes are harder for forward players to time their run onto the end of and statistically less likely to be received than other types of forward passes. So not only has their verticality and through-ball usage increased their off-side total, it’s also potentially limited their chance creation. It is however unsurprising that Villarreal have adopted this approach, as neither of their current wingers are actual wingers. Also contributing to their offside total and perhaps a few wasted opportunities, they sometimes over-dribble the ball by just a second or two before playing in Gerard Moreno or Paco Alcacer, Villarreal’s two most frequent offside offenders. Virtually everyone in the team is a capable dribbler and eager to take players on in 1v1 situations, other than stay at home defensive-minded players like Vicente Iborra and Raul Albiol.

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A final potential limitation to their attack is Gerard Moreno’s position on the right-hand-side. He’s a fantastic dribbler, chance creator and overall neat-and-tidy footballer capable of playing on the wing. But his position on the wing has also exposed some of his limitations such as his first touch, and it hasn’t necessarily gotten the best out of his strong aerial presence. Instead of being a target for crosses like he was on a more frequent occasion last season, Moreno is now needing to arrive late into the box or do it all on his own. This has meant that for every take-on he’s completed, he’s lost an equal amount. He’s also had the fifth most amount of unsuccessful touches per game in the league (3.3), nearly double that of the next highest player on their team. Perhaps this is why Emery hasn’t ruled out the 4-4-2 formation this season and remains likely to use the system to try and get the best out of both of Villarreal’s top attacking talents.

Separately, Alcacer and Moreno have both been positive in front of goal and they’ve scored 9 of their team’s 13 goals. The burden on the two players to score goals is unsurprising and also not terribly problematic. Where the team have struggled is in the art of assisting other players, where only Paco Alcacer and Mario Gaspar have more than 1 assist (2 each). Only five players have assisted goals this season for Villarreal, and Moi Gomez is not one of them despite being their highest chance creator. Meanwhile, for all they do in defense and in possession, none of Villarreal’s three central midfielders are the most creative (to say the least). So with a lack of an actual chance creator like Real Sociedad have in David Silva or Atletico have in Angel Correa, Villarreal may struggle to score as many goals and effectively time passes into forward areas, avoiding offsides in the process.


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Villarreal have been an interesting side to watch this season and currently sit second in the table under new guiding principles from Unai Emery. They’ve maintained positive possession and numerical superiority in central areas during both build-up and defensive phases of the game, while remaining tactically fluid throughout a flurry of formation changes. Emery’s 4-1-4-1 system has been his most successful and preferred choice to start this season, but if he can find a way to make the 4-4-2 work and get Gerard Moreno into central areas again, the Yellow Submarine may find themselves scoring more goals, more often. For now, Emery’s side remain defensively solid and positionally sound in their 4-1-4-1 shape as they sit second in the table with 9 games gone.

So there it is! A Tactical Analysis of Unai Emery’s Villarreal. Be sure to check out more of these Tactical Analyses and share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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