Following a disastrous couple of seasons in which The Yellow Submarine appeared for all the world to be sinking without trace, 2013/14 was the year in which Villarreal surprised everybody by coming victoriously back up breathing rather than gasping for air. After a sobering season in the Segunda División, manager Marcelino García Toral led Villarreal back to the upper echelons of Spanish football, into the Europa League with a sixth place finish, though the gap between the title challengers and 'the rest', predictably, remained as evident as the difference between night and daylight, as they finished 28 points behind the top three, and even 11 points behind the fourth placed team.
"It was a season not without its low points", according to Sam France of the Vavel. He continues: "A fine for a tear gas canister being thrown onto the pitch mid-game (against Celta Vigo) and the Dani Alves banana-throwing incident come to mind - but overall, it was a year with plenty of promise."
It must be said that the ‘fans’ who threw a banana and a tear gas canister onto the pitch are an extremely minute and idiotic minority that should not in any way be associated with Villarreal.
As a result of the exemplary reaction of the fans before, during and after the evacuation due to the throwing of the tear gas canister, a tribute was held by the club at the following home game (against Betis). The club started by gifting tickets to all the members who were at the previous home game, which ended up filling the entire home section. The club also provided heavily discounted tickets for away fans in order to ensure there was a full house.
Regarding the festivities themselves, the club started with a public lunch, with free food stalls available for the fans. This was joined by activities organised for children in the vicinity of the pitch. Villarreal also identified the banana thrower and rightly gave him a lifetime stadium ban. Not to mention Villarreal’s outstanding tribute to Tito Vilanova. In a world where football clubs are largely worlds apart from their fans, Villarreal and others are bucking the trend. Respect.
Villarreal have not spent the most in La Liga by any stretch of the imagination, but they have made some very good new signings. They have invested in Luciano Vietto from Racing Club for £4.84 million; not bad considering the highly rated Argentine has regularly been likened to Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero. They have also bought Sergio Asenjo from Atletico Madrid for £4.40 million as a result of his very successful loan spell at the club last season and Jonathan Dos Santos from FC Barcelona for a nominal £1.76 million fee.
Potential hidden gems in Javier Espinosa from Barcelona and Antonio Rukavina were signed on a free. Espinosa is a fascinating case. Not only was he one of Barcelona B’s best players last season, but he was also the star of Villarreal’s pre-season.
Robin Stacey of Villarreal USA SB Nation writes: "Javier was never given a chance in the first team at Barca. As one commenter put it, he became too good for the B team and not good enough for the first team. So Villarreal gave him a life line (on a free transfer!!) and it looks to be a shrewd bit of business. At only 21, this young star could prove a key for Villarreal. I suspect that as we are lacking a right winger he will be expected to play there."
Daniel Cheryshev and Victor Ruiz have been loaned from Real Madrid and Valencia FC, respectively. The likes of Gerard Moreno and Hernan Perez have returned from a loan at Mallorca and Olympiacos, respectively.
Villarreal have sold Jonathan De Guzman to Napoli for £5.28 million and speedy as well as skilful Jeremy Perbet to Turkish club Basaksehir for £1.32 million. Pablo Iniguez, Aleksandar Pantic, Jonathan Pereira and Javier Aquino have all left on loan.
The Yellow Submarine have made some brilliant signings without letting go of any key players. All the players who left have been replaced with bags of potential. It’s a calculated risk. Swapping the likes of Perbet, Pereira and Aquino (the latter two surprisingly on loan to Rayo Vallecano) for Vietto, Dos Santos and Espinosa seems like a good deal. But you won’t have to look far in the history books to see what happened the last time they played in Europe. Despite their Europa League distraction, they should be better prepared this time and therefore able to go far in Europe as well as consolidate the 6th position they achieved in La Liga last season.
Villarreal mean business again this year, that much is clear. They have had an almost perfect pre-season, with a 3-0 win away to Swansea the highlight and the only blip being a 1-1 draw away to Elche.
In Sunday’s late La Liga match, second-half strikes from Ikechukwu Uche and Denis Cheryshev were enough to get Villarreal's campaign off to a winning start with a 2-0 triumph at Levante. Marcelino Garcia Toral's men had made light work in a 3-0 away win over Astana in the first leg of their Europa League play-off tie as well as in a 4-0 home win against the same opposition, but they, understandably, found Levante harder to break down.
All in all, Villarreal have had a great summer on both the transfers and form departments, and should therefore not be taken lightly. Whether they have what it takes against the biggest of teams, especially with other European commitments, remains to be seen.
In terms of tactics, Villarreal stuck mainly to a standard 4-4-2 last season but mixed it up in places to a more modern 4-2-3-1 with Giovani usually the man to drop back into a midfield attacking trio. The 4-4-2 is more likely to be seen against the ‘smaller’ teams while the 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 favours midfield solidity, something likely to be seen against the ‘bigger’ teams at some stage. With an abundance of pace all over the pitch, Marcelino favoured a heavily counter-attacking style and little is likely to change this season, especially considering the exciting signings made.
Luis Enrique has, of course, already played at the El Madrigal, where he recorded a very impressive 2-0 win last season while still at Celta Vigo. The match could have gone either way, but Luis Enrique’s players were all over Villarreal’s like a rash and fully exploited their opponents’ lack of width at the time, albeit with having several key players out due to injury. Regardless of whether the Yellow Submarine go with a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, it is likely Marcelino will have learned from his mistakes and will try to stay deep and compact when defending, but go from the flanks when attacking.
Sam France of the Vavel writes: "Dos Santos' runs are vital as he provides the main outlet for deeper players such as Bruno and Cani to pick out once any danger has been cleared up at the back. A high-tempo, fast-breaking approach means that their passing and possession stats are no better than average but when they do have the ball, they make good use of it with an average of closing on nine chances created each game and they do not crumble against the big boys, scoring eight goals in their six games against last year's top three."
A Few Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Villarreal FC
Only less than 20 years ago, Villarreal’s home stadium had a capacity of just 3,500, that’s about 1,750 smaller than Eibar’s stadium capacity currently is. Interestingly, Villarreal’s youth academy is built on an old orange grove. President Fernando Roig is a local ceramics magnate, and the Yellow Submarine spent most of the 1980’s in the Spanish third division.
Sergio Asenjo, the former Atletico Madrid flop but also one of Villarreal’s revelations last season, is injury permitting, guaranteed to start. Asenjo will be well-known to Barcelona as a result of being heavily-linked to Barcelona a few seasons ago. He was not trusted enough at Atletico Madrid by Diego Simeone but he was competing with one of the best goalkeepers in the world (Courtois). Asenjo has since become a regular starter for a good Villarreal team.
The choice is far less guaranteed in defense. Mario Gaspar and new signing Rukavina will fight it out for the right-back position. The two centre-back positions are even more problematic. The young and promising Gabriel Paulista has been described by many Villarreal fans as a tank in defence and he seems to be a favourite of Marcelino, so he is most probably starting. The other position is between Matteo Musacchio and new signing Brian Ruiz. The left-back will be Jaume Costa, but Bojan Jokic is an able deputy who is doubtful due to injury.
The rest of the team pretty much picks itself, unless Marcelino decides to tinker specifically to counter the threat of Barcelona. A central midfield pairing consisting of Bruno Soriano (the man who bleeds yellow) and Trigueros is likely to be deployed. Cani is likely to line up on the right wing and Cheryshev on the left, with Giovani Dos Santos in something of a free role as a forward with Uche up top, if fit. If not, Vietto should get the nod.
The exciting trio of Vietto (unless Uche is injured), Moi Gomez and Javier Espinosa (watch out for him, he was one of Barcelona B’s best players last season, even once touted by many as the next Iniesta in Spanish football) are likely to be used as impact substitutes. Sadly, for those hoping to see the two Dos Santos brothers (who are a paradigmatic case, by starting at Barcelona and then taking completely different paths in professional football before being reunited at Villarreal) play together against Barcelona, are likely to end in disappointment with Jonathan Dos Santos unlikely to make the 18-man match-day squad.
Possible XI (4-4-2): Asenjo; Gaspar, Musacchio, Gabriel, Costa; Cani, Bruno, Trigueros, Cheryshev; Giovani, Uche
Giovani Dos Santos v Jeremy Mathieu – You do not have to look far for Villarreal’s key player. Giovani Dos Santos, the former La Masia product, mentioned as a flop in many Barcelona quarters, is an absolute menace in Villarreal’s yellow kit. The responsibility will be on Mathieu to predominantly minimise his threat. Mathieu has pace and tactical know-how, in theory, just the two perfect ingredients to counter the threat of Giovani Dos Santos. But Dos Santos absolutely tore Mathieu, who also conceded a penalty, to shreds at El Madrigal last season when Villarreal beat Valencia 4-1. He scored twice, assisted once, hit the post and made some great through balls. It was an electric performance for Dos Santos in an excellent season.
Winner: It will be a very tight battle and it’s therefore anyone’s guess as to who will come out on top. Mathieu (with the assistance of Alba) should edge it, but this one is worth keeping an eye on.
Ikechukwu Uche v Gerard Pique - The in-form hitman will take turn with Giovani to be up against either a seemingly out-of-sorts Pique or an inexperienced Bartra. With explosive pace, raw strength, sheer power and a personal record on the horizon (scoring in four consecutive La Liga games), it will take a very good and organised Barcelona defence to keep him at bay. However, he was taken out against Levante with an injury and while he should be able to start against Barcelona, he is still a doubt.
Winner: Uche is a proper goal poacher of supreme quality, home advantage and the personal record should give him the edge if he starts. If Vietto (who scored twice in an immensely impressive performance against Astana on Thursday) starts instead, expect the Pique to win the battle based purely on experience and know-how.
Denis Cheryshev v Dani Alves - Arguably the most exciting bout. This battle features an on loan Real Madrid youngster against a much criticised Dani Alves. Cheryshev had a great game, even a MOTM performance v Levante and Alves also played well v Elche. Cheryshev is raw but inexperienced and Alves had one of the best games of his season at El Madrigal against the Yellow Submarine in an otherwise poor season.
Winner: It’s another difficult one. Both are better at attacking than defending. Will experience or youth edge it? The key for Barcelona will be to cut distribution to Cheryshev by disrupting Bruno. Tempted to go with a deadlock but I’ll go with Cheryshev by a fingertip.
Gabriel Paulista v Lionel Messi – Known for an explosive turn of speed, his good ball control and his brilliant tackling and interceptions, Gabriel is also strong and good in the air. He has been described as a ‘complete defender’ in some quarters. One thing is for sure, it won’t be long before his talents are recognised on a wider basis and to a larger audience. In contrast, the marvelous Messi needs no introduction. He is on fire and back to his best.
Winner: It’s not quite a no contest, but Messi should win this one quite comfortably. Don't be surprised to see Gabriel and the likes of Musacchio make it difficult for him though.
A notable mention goes to the Bruno v Busquets battle, with two of the best defensive midfielders in La Liga going head-to-head.
Villarreal absolutely demolished their Europa League opponents Astana 7-0 on aggregate, with their most recent outing having been on Thursday, albeit with a slightly weakened team, yet a good amount of their predicted first eleven for Sunday started. Their season (including pre-season) has so far been near flawless, but pre-season is one thing and the real season another.
In any case, the totting up of competitive matches are likely to have an effect (even if only an iota of a difference) on teams even at early stages of the season; just take a look at the seemingly fatigued Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. Importantly, these matches are always decided by the smallest of margins.
Barcelona’s recent record against Villarreal at El Madrigal is simply fantastic. They have won four of the last five matches (the other was a draw), so this bodes well for Barcelona fans who look at the previous meetings.
Barcelona have injury problems and usually tend to start the season well, but Villarreal usually do too. Taking everything into account, it is likely to be a tight affair and we are likely to see goals scored by both sides, it is therefore predicted that Barcelona will win by the odd goal.
I have to say, in writing this article, I have grown quite fond of Villarreal. I will be sure to follow their progress and I wish them the best of luck for the season ahead.
Thank you for reading, take care and goodbye until next time!