Finishing in sixth place during their first season back in the top flight and earning a Europa League spot was a fantastic achievement for Villarreal. However, questions arose at whether they would cope in following campaign. Many clubs, whether in Spain or elsewhere, had suffered from second season syndrome after a productive first year in the top flight when promoted.
But Coach Marcelino and his players have risen to the doubters. Currently El Submarino Amarillo stand in sixth place, just three points behind fifth-placed Valencia and just four behind Sevilla, who are fourth. They are unbeaten in nine League games – dropping points on just two occasions during their current streak.
The club’s shrewd acquisitions in the transfer market are the crux behind their strong second season in La Liga. Two signings have stood out for Villarreal – Denis Cheryshev and Luciano Vietto. Cheryshev has developed well at El Madrigal after spending last season on loan at Sevilla. The 24-year-old has been their main creative outlet, contributing nine assists in 18 games.
But Vietto has been phenomenal since moving from Racing Club in the summer. He is Villarreal top scorer this season with 13 goals [eight of them in La Liga] in just 18 appearances. The 21-year-old is an excellent dribbler and expertly uses his pace to skin defenders at ease. One of his most seen and most successful attributes is cutting inside before expertly placing his shots. In the Europa League he has been equally impressive, scoring five goals in eight games.
Credit must go to Villarreal for buying the youngster for just €5.5m. Cheryshev has struck up a good partnership with Vietto and it has led to Giovani do Santos, a regular starter last season, having to make do with a place on the bench.
In addition, Villarreal have been resolute in defence as well as in attack, conceding just 17 goals in 19 League games. Notably, Marcelino’s team have been without arguably their best defender, Mateo Musacchio, for three months. In the meantime, Gabriel Paulista [pictured above] and Victor Ruiz have soldiered on, forming an effective partnership.
While the resurgence of Villarreal brings several benefits, it comes with one main drawback, which is gaining the attention of Europe’s big clubs. Villarreal’s defensive partnership forged while Mussachio was injured could become a casualty of this drawback.
Arsenal opened talks with Gabriel this week, as Spanish and English media report the North London club are willing to pay the Brazilian’s €20m buyout fee. The fact Paulista is omitted from Villarreal’s squad to face Levante this weekend indicates how advanced talks are.
Mussachio’s return to fitness is timely for Marcelino should Gabriel leave, which will be a blow to the club. The Brazilian is quick, physical and loves to break down opposition moves with his anticipation. The 24-year-old has the second highest number of interceptions in La Liga behind Atheltic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte.
However, Marcelino would have been aware his top players would be susceptible to the interest of Europe’s big clubs. But a club of Villarreal’s stature will no doubt endure and look to replace Gabriel if the transfer is confirmed.
The fact Arsenal are willing to pay €20m on a player Villarreal spent less than €4m back in July 2013 is a glowing assessment of the club’s progression since their return in La Liga nearly 18 months ago. The challenge will be to continue it.