After another underwhelming performance in a 0-2 loss to Real Madrid at El Madrigal on Wednesday evening, Villarreal currently sits in 18th place with only two points from four La Liga matches. In their defense for their showing against Madrid, Villarreal played with one less man for 65+ minutes after Gonzalo Rodríguez received his second yellow card in the 35th minute. In addition, they fought admirably and sometimes looked as though they were playing at even strength, but their legs eventually gave out, as each outfield player had to give that extra percentage in the absence of Gonzalo. Zero wins, two draws, and two losses in La Liga along with a less than convincing 1-0 victory over Levski Sofia in the Europa League group stage has the Yellow Submarine sinking into unchartered waters. Two factors that have led to this ominous start are the absence of Marcos Senna and the general lack of direction and focus of their play.
Marcos Senna is the anchor in front of the defensive line. In tandem with Sebastián Eguren, they halt potential counter-attacks and anticipate the passing lanes before the back four has to be brought in for reinforcement. Senna’s style is quite similar to Chelsea’s Michael Essien, where he controls the center of the pitch, plays from box to box, and scores from long range on occasion. When Essien went down with injury and missed five months of the season, Chelsea lost their way and contributed to their third-place finish. Chelsea lost only once when Essien came back to the squad in mid-February, and Marcos Senna has that similar effect for Villarreal.
In Senna’s absence, Bruno Soriano deputized in the center of midfield with Eguren, and while he is a capable midfielder, he does not have the presence or the ability that Senna possesses. This was evident in Wednesday’s match against Real Madrid, where Guti and Kaká roamed around the final third and created many opportunities for their teammates. For example, in the 23rd minute, Guti back-heeled a pass in the middle of the field to Kaká, who in turn sent a through ball toward Marcelo’s diagonal run in the box, and the resulting squared ball from Marcelo to Gonzalo Higuaín produced a wonderful attempt at goal. Higuaín would scuff the shot high and wide, but any semblance of a decent hit would have been 0-1 to Real Madrid. The sight of Marcos Senna warming up on the sidelines, as a potential substitute in the second half, is a good sign that Senna’s chronic leg and hamstring injuries may be healed sufficiently enough to appear in the first team, but until he makes that return, Villarreal will continue to sputter and be forced to grind out results.
In terms of their play as a whole, they lack a sense of identity and seem not to know what exactly they want to do on the ball. When Manuel Pellegrini became the manager of Villarreal on July 1, 2004, Villarreal was an up and coming team that showed promise and inconsistency at the same time. Pellegrini instilled a philosophy of passing football, using intricate one-two’s, passing triangles, and skillful runs from the fullbacks to generate goal-scoring opportunities.
With Ernesto Valverde, indecisive has been the overriding adjective to describe Villarreal on the pitch. It very well could be that the team is still adjusting from the Pellegrini era to the Valverde era. Pellegrini led them into the deep stages of the Champions League and high finishes in La Liga, and when a new manager comes along that has some decent success with Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol, and Olympiakos but does not have the cachet that, to them, would be worthy of Pellegrini’s successor, there could be a little friction inside the dressing room.
Valverde’s Villarreal has minor differences with Pellegrini’s Villarreal. Valverde has his team play a slightly more physical game and tends to be more structured. In a couple of matches, Villarreal experimented with a pseudo diamond formation that saw Eguren as the holding midfielder, Santi Cazorla and Cani on the wings, and Ariel Ibagaza as the playmaker behind the strikers. Valverde continues to experiment with the team, and when he finds the right blend to fit his philosophy and creates the synergy necessary to compete for Champions League spots, Villarreal will be back to their winning ways and leave this mediocre start behind in the dust.