Barcelona takes on Villareal in a critical league fixture today. Coming off a disappointing campaign last year, Villareal has been one of the surprise teams in Europe so far this season. In addition to the successful results they are obtaining, the Yellow Submarine has played a highly attractive brand of football, one that has garnered significant attention for both their style of play and the tactics they’ve deployed. Barça and Villareal is a particularly interesting matchup not only because it pits the second and third place teams in La Liga against each other, but also because the two teams play very different systems. Let’s take a look at some of the tactical issues at play after the break.
Central to Villareal’s success this season has been their return to the dynamic 4-2-2-2/ 4-4-2 formation they originally adopted under Manuel Pellegrini stewardship. Taking over from Pellegrini last season, Ernesto Valverde altered Villareal’s structure, making it more of a straight 4-4-2 oriented around aggressive pressing and a high defensive line. Villareal struggled adapting to this more traditional system, getting off to a very poor start they would never recover from in what turned out to be a lost season. Villareal’s on the pitch problems were matched by financial difficulties off it. These monetary issues forced Villareal into a massive sell off of talent and a reduction in their wage bill by 33%. The Valverde experiment lasted only one year and this season former Villareal B team manager Juan Carolos Garrido was brought in to lead the first team.
The decision to give the first team job to Garrido was both astute and telling. Echoing Barça’s organizational approach, Villareal has implemented a uniform tactical system across the different levels of their club. During Pellegrini’s tenure, Villareal implemented the same dynamic 4-2-2-2/4-4-2 they were using for the first team across their youth system. It was by using this system that Garrido led the Villareal B team’s progressive improvement and their ascendance into the Segunda division (This type of tactical continuity across organizational levels is likely critical to the productivity of a cantera and it isn’t an accident that the two B teams that are in the Segunda belong to Barça and Villareal.)
This season Garrido has restored the dynamic 4-2-2-2/ 4-4-2 to the Villareal first team with outstanding results. Not only has this allowed the returning first team players to operate within a system they are comfortable in, it has allowed the large number youth team players, such as the promising Jefferson Montero, Villareal had to bring in this season to replace players sold to integrate with fewer barriers than they otherwise would have.
Tactically the 4-2-2-2- and 4-4-2 can be theoretically considered to be variants of each other. So why has the 4-2-2-2-/ 4-4-2 been so much more successful for Villareal than the flat 4-4-2? The main reason – the ease of forming triangles in attack.
The 4-2-2-2 originated in South America as an interpretation of the traditional 4-4-2. Rather than playing a straight four man midfield, the two wide play makers were drawn forward and into the center of the pitch becoming interiores rather than “wingers.” At the same time, the other two midfielders were pushed back into deeper holding positions. The 4-2-2-2 burst on the world scene in dramatic fashion through the magical Brazilian World Cup team of 1982, with the brilliant Socrates and Zico pulling the strings as interiores behind the two strikers. Drawing the two wide players of the 4-4-2 into interiores addressed one of the major problems of the European 4-4-2 formation. The flat four man midfield is a linear formation and the relatively straight line arrangements in the midfield and attacking zones can make it very difficult to create the kind of natural triangles needed to pass the ball fluidly and maintain possession. Transforming the 4-4-2 into a 4-2-2-2 facilitated the creation of triangles in the center of the pitch and in support of both the strikers as well as holding players. The fluency the 4-2-2-2 promotes in attack was a significant reason for why Brazil 1982 was such a revelation.
There is no perfect system in football however and drawing two players into the middle of the pitch also creates trade offs that have their own limitations. In particular, the 4-2-2-2 can easily lead to a significant loss of width and narrowness on the pitch as the wingers become interiores. In such an arrangement, the fullbacks become critical to providing width. In fact they often become the only source of significant width. These tactical reasons are part of why Brazil has gone on to produce Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Dani Alves and so many of the most dominant attacking full backs in the modern game. In defense, the 4-2-2-2 can leave the full backs very exposed. Not only can they be easily caught up high on the pitch but they also can be left isolated in 1 vs. 1 situation down the flanks.
Villareal plays a dynamic formation in which they assume a fluid 4-2-2-2 formation in attack. When in possession, the Villareal interiores Valero, Cazorla, Cani, etc. largely remain drawn inwards behind the strikers. They move to wider positions to provide outlets for the ball to be played to when needed. While this helps address central congestion when it develops, it reduces potency as the attackers can become separated in space if the interiores move wide. Passing distances increase and triangular geometries can become disrupted. What Villareal often does to add fluency and enhance support for players who have to move wide to play the ball is to shift its axis, with the entire attack moving laterally when the ball is on the flank in order to maintain triangles and attackers in gaps.
In defense Villareal attempts to fall back into a 4-4-2 in order to create two banks of four and enhance it’s defensive shape. The heart of the defense is the central block of four made up of the two deep holding players in Bruno and Senna along with the two CB, Marchena, Gonzalo/ Musacchio.
While Villareal’s strikers Rossi and Nilmar have received a great deal of attention for their goal scoring exploits this season, the teams’ system is primarily dependent on the play of the interiores Valero, Cazorla, and Cani and on their full backs, Capdevila and Angel Lopez. It’s these positions that the dynamic 4-2-2-2/4-4-2 is most defined by as these are the spots on the pitch where dynamism, movement and creativity need to come from in order to support the play of the two advanced strikers. Borja Valero has received significant attention for his play this season with rumors of Barça being interested in the player. Much of this attention is due to the interesting, dynamic role he plays as an interior in the innovative Villareal system.
While the 4-2-2-2/ 4-4-2 addresses a number of weaknesses in both the traditional 4-4-2 and 4-2-2-2-, it has it’s own weaknesses and these are the areas Barcelona should look to exploit tactically. Barça’s capacity to play defense by dominating ball possession can be particularly effective against the kind of system Villareal plays. Much of this depends on the Barça wingers. Again, if Capdevila and Lopez cannot get forward Villareal’s will either have to become very narrow in attack or shift their interiores wide. In turn they will lose their triangles and that will make it even more difficult for them to retain the ball when they do get it. Villa and Pedro will need to pin back the Villareal full backs by attacking. Similarly, the Barça full backs pressing forward will force Valero and Cazorla to occupy the flanks where they do not want to be positioned. Forcing the interiores wide can disrupt and slow the Villareal attack. If the full backs misread the run of play Barça wingers can get behind them easily. Villareal can have difficulty maintaining its shape at the back and Barça needs to maintain its own width and shift the ball side to side rapidly to take advantage of this.
The other area in the Villareal system Barça can exploit is in transitions. Villareal’s dynamic 4-2-2-2/ 4-4-2 requires a significant amount of movement and shuffling in order for them to regain shape. Often as Villareal tries to drop back into two banks of four they lose shape and positioning and the pitch is irregularly defended. In transitions, the interiores must read the game and react quickly. If they don’t Villareal can be exposed down the flanks as also in the gaps between the full backs and center backs. When Villareal has the ball and shifts its axis laterally they are also very vulnerable because their players have large distances to cover to regain defensive positions on the opposite flank. Switching the ball cross field can open up dangerous opportunities for Barça.
However, at the same time Villareal poses significant tactical threats to Barça, particular on counters at speed, which they excel at. When Barça loses the ball it will be very important for the Barça wingers to not only press to regain possession but to track advancing wingers. This is critical because Villareal is well positioned to counter at speed against Barça due to the aggressive way the Barça full backs push forward, especially this season. When Villareal gains possession they will look to break at speed behind the Barça full backs along the flanks. Look for the Valero and Cazorla to break in straight lines down the wings as they transition from defense in the 4-4-2 to attack in the 4-2-2-2. At the same time the full backs will look to move forward quickly. If the Barça wingers don’t track back the Barça full backs will not only be caught high up the pitch, they will be forced to potentially defend two players on the flank. It is for this reason in particular that Abidal being likely forced to play CB is a negative for Barça. Against a team like Villareal, Abidal’s pace at full back would be extremely useful. If Maxwell is at full back his limited pace will be tested.
Given Villareal’s two man striker formation in Rossi and Nilmar, Pep may likely elect to have Busquets drop into a CB position with the two CB spread wide. Barça has often used this backline formation against two man striker formations this season. Against two players of Rossi and Nilmar’s quickness, technical skill and capacity to link play, a three man back line with Busquets as the CB will be tested. Both Rossi and Nilmar have played as wingers in the past and they will shift laterally to try to drag the Barça three man back line out of shape and to exploit the gaps between the two CB spread wide and Busquets in his central position. At the same time the interiores will look to make diagonal runs in back of the strikers.
Villareal is a dangerous side that plays a tactical system whose pluses and minuses are very different than those of Barça. When two different systems confront each other, tactical adjustments become particularly important. This is a match where the two Barça full backs will need to be very controlled and judicious on when to push forward and when to stay back. The back line will need to watch it’s spacing in the gaps between the backs along the flanks and the center back. The defensive midfielder is going to need to be careful about being drawn out of position by Rossi and Nilmar dropping deep or moving laterally in space. The Barca wingers will need to pin the Villareal full backs deep and track runs when possession is lost. Xavi and Iniesta will need to defend unusual runs and positions assumed by the Villareal interiors. If Barça can maintain this tactical discipline Villareal’s difficulties maintaining defensive shape when they try to fall into two banks of four and their transitions between offense and defense can be exploited.