Friday, January 22, 2021

Real Sociedad v Villarreal: The unlikely challengers trying to lay foundations for LaLiga glory

SoccerNews in La Liga 28 Nov 2020

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Empty stadiums, Barcelona in the midst of an institutional crisis exacerbated by Lionel Messi’s wanderlust, and Real Madrid a world away from the glamour and ruthlessness we often associate with Los Blancos – 2020-21 always looked set to be an intriguing one for LaLiga.

Sunday will see the season’s first meaningful clash between two teams vying at the top of the table, as leaders Real Sociedad go to third-place Villarreal.

By no means is this a fixture steeped in the tradition of title tussles or anything of the sort – after all, La Real’s two LaLiga crowns came in the early 1980s and their most recent top-two finish was 17 years ago, while Villarreal have never won the league.

But in this peculiar time for football, few have adapted better and they are laying the foundations for potential tilts at glory.

Building on a foundation

La Real earned acclaim and attracted many neutral eyes last season as they came close to qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 2003.

Ultimately their form tailed off late in the season, coinciding with losing key man Martin Odegaard to injury, but despite eventual disappointment they showed they were laying the foundations for something potentially special.

Many felt that seeing Odegaard return to Real Madrid would have a major impact on La Real, that they had no hope of bettering themselves without a player of his calibre – but it’s so far, so good in 2020-21.

This is a club and setup that’s already got a strong base. Throughout their ranks they coach a particular brand of football, and there is an onus on progression, both for players and management.

Imanol Alguacil has been at the club in various capacities since 2011, managing the youth team, the B team and then the senior side, of whom he was appointed coach in 2018. Their strong core of homegrown players only benefits them and aids cohesion in the long run.

Arguably La Real’s biggest strength is their pressing intensity – only two teams in LaLiga have averaged more high turnovers in possession than their 5.3 per game, with 1.3 of those in every match leading to a shot.

Yet, this relentlessness isn’t – as it can be – implemented to account for a shortfall in technical ability. They boast an impressive array of gifted players, as evidenced by the fact they’ve scored more goals (21) than they would otherwise be expected to (18 xG) and seen eight different individuals claim at least one assist – Atletico Madrid is the sole club to match this.

Alguacil generally deploys a lone front man and wingers who operate more as inside forwards, which can create central overloads but offers the flexibility of being able to pump crosses into the box, as such they are averaging 13 shots per game and converting 16.3 per cent – both are significant upgrades on Villarreal, for example.

Mikel Oyarzabal has been their shining light, the club academy product having scored more goals (six) than anyone else in LaLiga this term. On top of that, his combination of chances created and total shots (43) is second to Lionel Messi (50), highlighting just how influential the wide attacker is.

But they aren’t solely dependent on attacking prowess. La Real have been seriously shrewd at the back too despite losing Diego Llorente to Leeds United in pre-season, conceding only four goals – that’s second to Atletico (two), who have played two games fewer.

Additionally, La Real face only seven shots per game on average, suggesting they aren’t just relying on miracles from Alex Remiro in goal either.

Alguacil has presided over their joint-best start in LaLiga history. While the result on Sunday – whatever the outcome – won’t decide any titles, it is the first opportunity for La Real to prove they should be taken seriously.

Restoring a reputation

Villarreal’s situation is rather different to that of La Real – they are at the start of a new cycle having decided to up the ante when hiring a new coach in pre-season.

Unai Emery arrived and, while his reputation outside of Spain may have taken something of a knock with Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain, at home he remains highly regarded for his early work with Valencia and then the Europa League three-peat at Sevilla.

It’s fair to say Emery has adjusted well and Villarreal have responded in kind to him – his 4-1-4-1 formation, not too dissimilar to that of La Real, provides the right blend of discipline and flexibility, often morphing into a 4-3-3. A trio of technically proficient midfielders support an attack spearheaded by Paco Alcacer, who is flanked – usually – by Samuel Chukwueze and Gerard Moreno.

Attacking full-backs help complete their outlook, which certainly on the face of it has drawn comparisons with his Sevilla team.

But while they were strongest on the counter, Emery’s Villarreal looks to control possession more rather than explode with quick transitions – after all, the Yellow Submarine average the fourth-most number of passes per game (553.3) in LaLiga and just over half take place in their own half.

This is a patient team. It’s an approach that’s arguably necessary when one considers most of their regular midfielders – the likes of Moi Gomez, Manu Trigueros, Dani Parejo and Vicente Iborra – are certainly not blessed with pace but all possess fine technical attributes.

That’s not to say they lack intensity, either. In fact, they are one of the two teams to create more high turnovers per game (5.4) than La Real, while they also craft more shots (1.6) from those scenarios than their next opponents.

A 1-1 draw against Real Madrid last time out should put Villarreal in a good mindset for another high-profile encounter – they will hope their considered, possession-based approach is the ideal counter to La Real’s more direct style in San Sebastian.

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