Be afraid Liverpool, be very afraid. When the Reds were paired with Villarreal in the draw for the Europa League semi-finals, there were, quite incredibly, many Liverpool fans and commentators seemingly pleased to have drawn the tiny Spanish side. Yet what Villarreal, from a town of 50,000 people, lack in size, they make up for in footballing excellence. Especially this season.
The team nicknamed the Yellow Submarine on account of their all yellow attire enjoyed their most famous moment in the 2005-06 Champions League when they were a Jens Lehmann penalty save away from taking Arsenal’s place in the final. Since then that Yellow Submarine has sunk all the way to the second division in Spain, but it has surfaced again and is now on course for a return to the Champions League next season.
Unlike Thursday night’s opponents, Villarreal do not need to win the Europa League to book their ticket to Europe’s premier competition as they find themselves in fourth place and enjoy a four-point cushion with just three matches to go.
It has been quite a remarkable evolution for Villarreal over the past few years in order to get to this point. Under Coach Marcelino, Villarreal won promotion from Spain’s second tier to La Liga in 2013 with an attacking and possession-based brand of football, one which also saw them qualify for the Europa League in their first two seasons back in the League.
Yet this year Villarreal have become one of the best defences in La Liga. They have kept 16 clean sheets and conceded just 31 goals, which makes them the third best defence in the country behind Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. The number of goals they are conceding per match has gone down from 1.16 in 2013-14 to 0.97 last year and now to 0.89 this campaign, while the number of goals they are scoring per match has also fallen from 1.58 to 1.26 to 1.20 over the past three years. It doesn’t take much statistical analysis to notice their shift in priorities.
This Villarreal side is expert in soaking up pressure before breaking quickly. As soon as they win possession, which they either do from pressuring opponents high up the pitch or else from trusting their back four to steal the ball, they play long passes to their front men Cedric Bakambu and Roberto Soldado. That is not to say they are a team that just hoofs the ball up the park, rather Villarreal play long direct passes along the ground and into feet, making them all the more dangerous.
Soldado has found a new role as this team’s playmaker and is thriving in it, something that should worry Liverpool fans who most recently remember Soldado as a Tottenham Hotspur flop. In Soldado’s last season in Spain he scored 0.74 goals and provided 0.12 assists a match, but now he is scoring 0.21 goals per game and assisting 0.33. He now drops deep to collect the ball and has proven an expert at feeding Bakambu, who has scored nine goals in 11 Europa League matches.
With those two on top form and with a solid defence behind them, this is a team that can not only defeat Liverpool, but that can win this tournament.