André-Frank Zambo Anguissa is tearing it up for Villarreal
There is quite a bit of variance in Villarreal’s expected goals difference. At least there was. Javi Calleja took back his old job last season and while there has been turbulence, the Yellow Submarine are now floating above the clouds and trending toward a more steady second half to their season.
Calleja was sacked in December 2018 after 15 months in the job and replaced by Luis García, who lasted less than two months before the club brought back Calleja. The returning coach guided them to safety in La Liga and then went about replacing some key losses during the summer. Pablo Fornals, one of Spain’s most exciting talents, went to West Ham in the Premier League, and both Nicola Sansone and Roberto Soriano left for Bologna. They overhauled their defence with players like Raúl Albiol and Alberto Moreno. Perhaps most significantly, they took advantage of Fulham’s relegation from England’s top flight to bring in a player who, since signing on loan, has been sensational.
André-Frank Zambo Anguissa arrived at Craven Cottage in August 2018 and never settled at the club, being played out of position and never receiving a decent run of games to showcase his ability. There were glimpses but there were also complaints that he wasn’t good enough. Or that he wasn’t worth the money spent on him (close to €25 million). The problem was Fulham's complete lack of vision upon their return to the Premier League unless, of course, you consider buying lots of expensive and exciting players and throwing them on the field together a "vision". At Villarreal, Anguissa has a role. He's started all but two of the team's games in La Liga this season, including the last 14 straight.
Around Anguissa, Villarreal have some of the most exciting footballers in Spain, and Calleja has them playing a thrilling style of football. Santi Cazorla remains brilliant. Gerard Moreno is playing like an elite attacker, Ekambi is constantly dangerous and the whole of the latter’s partnership might even be greater than the sum of its parts.
They also have a high-functioning and energetic midfield with players like summer recruit Moi Gómez and the precocious Samu Chuckwueze, but Anguissa might be the most important.
On Sunday, during a surprising win over Sevilla at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, Anguissa played as the right central midfielder in a 4-1-4-1, protecting Vicente Iborra and picking up the pesky and intelligent mover, Franco Vázquez, as he dropped between lines. He was forced to be more reactive than usual, creeping silently into dangerous spaces, but was also proactive in chasing Éver Banega in an attempt to prevent him from influencing the game.
But it wasn't just his defensive work that stood out. When Villarreal beat the odds to take all three points from Sevilla at home, they did it despite being subjected to intense pressure and precise passing all night, causing them to struggle for very long patches of the game. Their best moments of the attack, however, often came thanks to Anguissa serving as perhaps their most promising attacking outlet, as the passing map shows.
It was a slog at the Sánchez Pizjuá, but Anguissa persisted in offering Villarreal a dribbling outlet. They needed a big-bodied ball-carrier to protect the ball from Sevilla’s fervent pressure and someone with vision to see the runs being made off the ball by Moreno and Chukwueze. They created next to nothing after going 0-1 up. Any time they did get forward, it was Anguissa carrying the load. He had 37 carries, 12 more than Moi Gómez, and received 36 passes, continuing to separate himself from the rest at Villarreal.
After the game, Spanish daily newspaper AS wrote a glowing review showing the world is waking up to how good Anguissa can be. They noted that he's giving the sensation that he has found his place and his best level. The article continued, stating he not only covers lots of ground but has started to manage play, drive the team and arrive in the opponents' penalty area. This shows that, technically, he is amongst the best in his position.
It is difficult to overstate just how good Anguissa is in every facet of the game, doing everything Calleja asks him to do. The Sevilla game isn’t an anomaly, it’s the norm. Villarreal are the highest-pressing team in the league. There is no team with as many pressures per 90 minutes or as many pressure regains. In attack, only Barcelona and Real Madrid have a higher non-penalty xG. This shows they are proactive in how they understand the game. They don’t like to play a game where they are not dictating the terms.
Anguissa also has the highest number of aggressive actions with 21.16. And when it comes to progressing play with the ball, there is just one player, Santi Cazorla, with more deep progressions and carries. Chuckwueze is considered an incredible talent and his dribbling ability is often highlighted, yet Anguissa has more dribbles with 3.3 per game and more successful dribbles with 2.78 per game. He also beats out Gerard Moreno, another exceptionally talented and willing dribbler.
It is Anguissa’s presence on the right side of midfield that allows Calleja’s tactics to work. Moreno often drifts wide and deep, functioning as a right winger/second striker while Chuckwueze moves past him, leaving Anguissa to cover. It’s there where Anguissa applies most of his pressure. He can play further wide, more central as a defensive midfielder, and further forward as well.
Even if Villarreal end up languishing around midtable for the rest of the season, the fact that they have discovered how to draw out the Cameroonian’s best form unlocks exciting possibilities for the future. At 24, he's being compared to the best in his position in the league. Fede Valverde has emerged as the high-pressing answer to Zinedine Zidane’s midfield and transformed Real Madrid from being a team opponents could easily slice through to a far more tricky opponent to play against. He ain't got nothing on Anguissa though.
The radial suggests that while Valverde has a bigger role in attack, Anguissa presses more—and more successfully—and is better at beating opponents. As we saw at Fulham, Anguissa struggled given his role and circumstance. At Villarreal, he is improving, but we still haven’t seen just how good he might be if a team accentuates all of his strengths. Whatever he is asked to do, he does it at a very high level.
For now, he has the side's midfield functioning and is carving out a place for himself as a multi-level threat in LaLiga. The doubts that lingered after his move to Fulham are gone and the club will make a lot of money in the summer after his loan ends. Next season, it will be up to whoever his manager is to help him continue to develop by putting him in a position to succeed.