After a disastrous 2018/19, Villarreal have bounced back in stunning fashion this season, securing a 5th placed finish. The Hard Tackle takes a look at three players who made this possible.
There is little that went right for Villarreal in 2011/12 as they finished 18th in the league and were relegated to the second division. It was one of the most surprising finishes in the history of the Spanish top-flight, especially after they finished fourth in the previous season.
They were able to gain promotion to the top-flight again in the following season, and with the help of some incredible work in the transfer market, Villarreal were able to finish 6th in their first season back. There had been no looking since, as the Yellow Submarines kept shuttling between the top four and top six till 2018/19.
Javi Calleja was appointed as the manager of the side for the 2017/18 season, and took the team to another 5th placed finish, but was left three points above the relegation zone by December 2018. This led to his dismissal, and Luis Garcia was appointed. He was not able to do them any good, either and was relieved of his duties within a month, and Calleja reappointed.
The team was able to secure a 14th placed finish in 2018/19 and were not expected to do much this season, either. However, as fortune would have it, Calleja was able to put together one of the most exhilarating teams in the country, playing some eye-catching football and getting the results to back their performances. They ground out performances against the likes of Real Sociedad, Valencia and Sevilla to get back to fifth this season.
Villarreal might be used to finishing among the best in the league, but their comeback to the top cannot be understated this season. The Hard Tackle takes a look at three players who helped make this happen.
The rock at the back: Pau Torres
Pau Torres received his big breakthrough this season after spending two seasons in the third division of Spanish football. He was placed in the heart of the defence, partnered by one of the most experienced defenders in the game – Raul Albiol. He has gone on to top Raul over the course of the season, establishing himself as one of the best left-footed centre-halves in the world.
His style is eye-catching and extremely pleasing. Quite similar to the likes of Aymeric Laporte, Virgil van Dijk, or Clement Lenglet. It’s not uncommon, but to maintain that level of composure throughout the season deserves applause.
Pau is an adept reader of the game, and it is evident from every step he takes. He has been dribbled past no more than seven times throughout the season, conceding to no more than 0.2 dribbles per game. Moreover, he has committed just one error all campaign that has led to a shot, although he has conceded two penalties, both under stressful circumstances.
While he is an exceptional defender, Pau’s best ability does not pertain to his defending, but his incredible passing. He averages 51 accurate passes per game, with an accuracy of 85%. This may not be seen as incredibly striking, but he also completes 6.3 long passes per game – the 5th highest among outfielders in the La Liga, and 9th best in the top five leagues.
At 23, he could have nearly a decade at the top level if he does everything right. But, he has been instrumental in revitalising Villarreal this season and has already attracted interest from the most prominent clubs including Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester United.
Consistently lethal: Gerard Moreno
On the opposite end of the pitch, Gerard Moreno wreaked havoc on Liga defenders this season. It did not start this well for him, though. He returned to Villarreal from Espanyol in the summer of 2018 and had the burden of the attack on his shoulders after a sensational 2017/18. However, he failed to live up to his own standards and ended the season with half the number of goals – eight – his lowest tall since 2015/16.
There were no two ways about it this season, though, Moreno had to deliver or would be in contention to be replaced. After scoring eight goals in the first four months of the season, the Spaniard slowed down and went goalless for nine games straight. This was when the Yellow Submarine decided to bring in Paco Alcacer from Borussia Dortmund.
One way or the other, Villarreal managed to grind out results and kept rising in the table. Everything started to click once the Spanish international returned to form. They rose from 10th in the table and finished 6th.
Another reason for Javi Calleja’s impressive attacking unit is Moreno’s ability to play just about anywhere in the attack. This has helped in inculcating Alcacer, Carlos Bacca and Samuel Chukweze in more advanced positions. He has played 18 games from the centre, scoring 11 goals. This also includes several matches as part of a two-man strike partnership.
The other seven goals have come playing on the right-wing, either as a winger in a 4-3-3, a wide midfielder in a 4-4-2 or a right attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. His output also changes when he shifts positions. He has created 13 big chances in the league and plays 1.4 key passes per game. Moreno is the complete forward. Additionally, the fact that he has outdone his xG for the season by more than 2 is testament to his clinical nature in front of goal.
His 18 goals for the season put him third highest in the league (29% of the total goals scored by Villarreal), and his 23 goal contributions place him fourth, behind Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema, and Luis Suarez. If he continues this type of production, nothing is stopping Moreno from travelling with the Spanish team to the European Championships next year.
The wizard who brings it all together: Santi Cazorla
One of the most adored footballers on the planet, Santi Cazorla boasts of one of the biggest fairytale stories in modern football. After suffering from a career-threatening injury in 2016, he was told it would be a miracle if he could walk again.
His recovery began the same year with a bone graft operation to his Achilles tendon. After spending 600+ days on the sidelines, Cazorla returned to the sport in striking fashion – thanks to his unveiling – returning to his boyhood club in 2018, after seven years.
It was clear that Cazorla was the linchpin of this team from the get-go. Despite an impressive first season where the 35-year-old scored seven goals and provided 11 assists across all competitions, Villarreal were only able to finish 14th in the league, just seven clear off safety. It has not been the case this season, though, far from it.
The Spanish wizard has taken his performances up a notch this season, and has registered 11 goals, and set up nine more for his team in the league. Moreover, he has created 11 big chances and plays two key passes per game. He also has the fifth-best xA in the league with 7.98, a stat that he has outdone by +1.02.
Cazorla has put in some sublime performances for Villarreal playing in several positions across the pitch. He has assumed responsibility as the focal point of attack playing as an attacking midfielder and has also taken up the role of the anchor in a double pivot. He has also been deployed as a wide midfielder and on some occasions even as a winger. There is little that the 35-year-old cannot do.
Cazorla has played his last game in Europe, ending his season on a high. He is one of the candidates for the Liga MVP award this season, but his most significant achievement will be instilling hope in the hearts of a fanbase which was down and out. He has left the league as a hero, giving fans from across the continent a lot to rejoice.