Villarreal have been one of the most entertaining teams during the early running in La Liga and look to have an attack capable of powering them into European contention.
Last season was dominated by relegation concerns but ambitions are much higher this time around. After good work in the transfer market to address problem areas in the squad, Villarreal have made a solid start to the new campaign. Seven matches in, Javi Calleja’s side are eighth in the table, with 11 points from three wins, two draws and two defeats.
Their underlying numbers look even better. Villarreal have the second-best expected goal (xG) difference in the league, at 0.59 per match, and have achieved that despite having already faced Real Madrid at home (2-2) and Barcelona away (1-2). It is a better xG difference than they’ve carried through any seven-match stretch over the last couple of seasons.
The attack is carrying most of the weight. At a top-line level, they’ve scored 18 goals, the most in the league and their best-ever total at this stage of a season. While that has undoubtedly been boosted by winning and converting three penalties, at a likely unsustainable rate of 0.43 per match (Getafe’s 2017-18 haul of 0.32 per match is by far the best in either of the last two seasons in La Liga), they are otherwise on solid ground. Their league-leading goal tally is matched to league-leading xG numbers.
There is a degree of over-performance there, but nothing out of the ordinary given that Villarreal are combining good shot volume (a league-fourth-high 12.86 per match) with very good shot quality (unsurprisingly, Atlético Madrid’s insane early shot quality didn’t hold):
Villarreal’s shot volume is very similar to last season, but that increased shot quality (from 0.09 xG/shot to 0.12xG) is being achieved by doing a better job of creating situations in which their collection of rapid and incisive forwards can profit. They are playing out shorter from the back than they did last season, pulling opponents out of position as they work the ball neatly forward, and they are also creating a lot of chances in transition: they are second in the league in terms of shots arising from both counter-attacks and high press situations.
Gerard Moreno has been the primary beneficiary to date. After a down season last time out in which he scored just eight non-penalty goals, he is making a strong case for a national-team call up with six non-penalty goals and one assist (off a combined 5.35 xG and xG assisted) to date. But the variety of attacking options available to Calleja means that plenty of forwards are chipping in. Karl Toko Ekambi, Moi Gómez and Samuel Chukwueze each have two goals apiece. Summer signing Javi Ontiveros has a goal and an assist. Carlos Bacca is yet to score but has acted as a more fixed central reference point when required.
There is plenty of flexibility there. Calleja has switched between 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations this season, and has often done so in-game. Moreno and Toko Ekambi (his hilariously bad flipped crosses aside) can do functional jobs from wide starting positions, while Chukwueze and Ontiveros are capable of terrorising tiring defences with their swift and direct dribbling when called from off the bench.
In Villarreal’s 5-1 win over Real Betis on Friday, the introduction of Chukwueze changed the game. He won the penalty from which they edged ahead at 2-1, found Moreno on the counter that led to the third goal, scored by Toko Ekambi, and then scored the fifth himself, receiving past a challenge, carrying the ball down the flank and then darting into the area to aim an accurate shot off the inside of the post and in.
The forwards are getting a quality supply line from Santi Cazorla. Only Lionel Messi provided more assists than him last season, and the former Arsenal midfielder already has three to his name this time around. At 34, and just three years removed from an injury that seemed likely to end his career, they won’t be able to lean on him too heavily throughout the entire campaign, but he links well over towards the left, consistently makes himself available to receive and has the ability to spot and execute defence-splitting passes.
These offensive improvements have been achieved whilst also refining their defensive output. We are still only seven matches in, and much could still change, but Villarreal have so far conceded three less shots per match than last season and have become much better at stopping teams getting off shots in transition and from passes in behind their defence. The result is than their xG conceded per match has dropped from 1.18 last season to 0.91 this.
Some of that is down to the better balance they now have in midfield, with Cazorla and Vicente Iborra complemented by summer signing André-Frank Zambo Anguissa. Villarreal were seeking a player capable of adding mobility and physicality without being a minus in possession. Getafe’s Mauro Arambarri was also considered, but it was Zambo Anguissa who was brought in on loan from Fulham. His solid performances there were somewhat disguised by the disastrous collective context. When Cameroon’s coaching staff travelled to watch him in person, they didn’t see any signs of individual regression, and he has fitted in well at Villarreal.
The 23-year-old covers the necessary ground in midfield and has also shown himself to be able and often skilled dribbler and ball-carrier. Of all players to have seen over 200 minutes for Villarreal so far this season, only defender Pau Torres has carried the ball further on a per-90 basis.
The defensive improvement can also be traced to the centre of the backline. Last season, Álvaro González, Ramiro Funes Mori and Víctor Ruíz ate up the bulk of minutes there. As I said prior to the start of the season, the arrival of the experienced Raúl Albiol immediately raised the competency level, and he has formed a solid partnership with Torres, back from a good loan spell at Málaga and looking very much at home in the top flight. Assured in his defensive work, he also provides the natural balance of a left-footed player on that side of the defence. A native of the town of Villarreal (the fourth to play for the club), on Wednesday he signed a new deal through to 2024.
That is not to say that everything is now perfect. Far from it. Villarreal’s defending of set-piece situations continues to be a concern. They’ve already conceded three goals and an above-league-average xG from them. They’ve also clumsily given away three penalties, which is somewhat representative of the occasional sloppiness that seeps into their defending. But if they can pair functional defensive numbers with a highly potent attack, there is no reason they can’t compete for top six or seven finish.
With no European football to stretch the squad and removed from the week-to-week worry of a relegation battle, Calleja appears to have found a propitious way forward by focusing on his team’s attacking quality and utilising summer arrivals to sufficiently balance the rest of the side. With a fairly accessible set of fixtures to come until they face Valencia, Atlético Madrid and Sevilla in consecutive matches in December, Villarreal have a good opportunity to establish themselves as a genuine European contender over the next couple of months.
Fran Escribá seems to be hanging by a thread at Celta Vigo after somehow producing the league’s lowest shot count and its second worst xG with a squad brimming with creative attacking talent. Quique Setién potentially awaits.
After conceding six times in their first four matches in La Liga, Real Madrid tightened up considerably over the next three, including last weekend’s 0-0 draw away at local rivals Atlético. Three clean sheets were matched to just 0.35 xG conceded per match.
But then they went and gave up all of this in their 2-2 draw at home to Club Brugge in the Champions League on Tuesday. It seems all is not yet well.