Villarreal 1-1 Valencia: Emery’s three-man defence copes with two strikers, but not three

November 21, 2010

The starting line-ups. Valencia were in blue.

Valencia had a specific plan to stifle Villarreal’s fluid 4-4-2 system – and it almost worked.

The home side made one change from last week’s defeat to Barcelona. Mateo Musacchio was dropped in favour of the returning captain Gonzalo Rodriguez, so Carlos Marchena moved across to the left side of the centre-back pairing.

Unai Emery made sweeping changes to his side, both in shape and personnel. He went for a 3-4-3 system that sometimes looked like 3-3-1-3 when Tino Costa joined the attacking trident. He used right-back Miguel at left-wing-back and centre-back Hedwiges Maduro in front of the defence. Pablo Hernandez, Joaquin Sanchez and Aritz Aduriz formed a fluid front three.

Emery’s gameplan made sense in theory, and it also worked out pretty well on the pitch. Villarreal’s strength is the movement and interplay of their front four – the strikers move wide to drag the centre-backs out of position, the interiores take advantage of that space, with the full-backs providing width on the outside.

Spare man

This is a particular problem for opponents because Villarreal play with two strikers. Therefore, if you play two centre-backs against them, you have no spare man at the back. Emery wanted a spare man, and so therefore he played three centre-backs, with Ricardo Costa tracking Nilmar, Marius Stankevicius tacking Giuseppe Rossi, and David Navarro generally being the one who swept up behind.

The two wing-backs were charged with taking care of the interiores, and here it was notable that Miguel did quite well up against Cani – Cani always came inside, Miguel was able to tackle on his stronger side. He and Bruno played very narrow. The extent to which Valencia dealt with Villarreal’s attackers can be summed up by the fact the biggest threat from the home side was from Joan Capdevila from left-back, who had two dangerous shots in the first half.

Valencia fluid up top

Valencia kept the general style of play their usual 4-2-3-1 shape features, however. The front three were fluid, both in possession and when they lost the ball. Aduriz would sometimes find himself in a wide zone so would then take care of the Villarreal full-backs for the next attack, with one of the wingers becoming the temporary lone striker. They also maintained their preference for playing on the counter-attack – mainly down the right when Capdevila came forward, and it was a cross from Joaquin on that side that brought the first goal – turned in by Aduriz.

There were a couple of changes towards the end of the first half – Cani and Santi Cazorla switched, and Navarro’s injury meant Ever Banega came on, with Maduro dropping into the centre of the defence. But the situation remained the same – Villarreal had a lot of the ball, but couldn’t create many chances.

After Capdevila's injury, Villarreal went to 4-1-2-3

After Capdevila's injury, Villarreal went to 4-1-2-3

Villarreal change of shape

Ironically, it was an injury to their most promising player, Capdevila, which helped Villarreal get back in the game. Juan Carlos Garrido chose to replace the left-back with a forward, Marco Ruben, placing Bruno Soriano at left-back, a position he played well (he is naturally left-footed). After removing Borja Valero for the more reliable, study presence of Marcos Senna, Villarreal then lined up in a 4-1-2-3 system.

As we’ve seen before, a three-man defence has much more problems against three strikers than it does with two – Emery had come trying to play a spare man at the back, and now he didn’t have one. The addition of a third forward meant Villarreal were much wider at the top of the pitch – the three rotated, taking it in turns to get into wide zones whilst one of them remained in the centre. Valencia’s centre-backs were unwilling to be drawn out wide, and with a one-goal advantage, the natural response was for Valencia to switch to something more like a flat back five than a three-man defence.

Equaliser and red card

Although this can be effective as a pure defensive tactic, it meant Valencia were unable to get the ball forward to relieve the pressure at all, and they kept inviting Villarreal attacks. The goal, Rossi’s smart finish from a Bruno cross, was preventable individually (Valencia had more than enough defenders to cope) but was always likely to come considering the home side’s dominance.

That was in the 73rd minute, and Villarreal went looking for an equaliser. Considering Valencia’s problems with the 3 v 3 (or 5 v 3), they actually seemed to be helped by Stankevicius’ 81st minute red card. That meant they were forced to go to a four-man defence (they’d used all their subs), and the 4 v 3 worked well for the final minutes.

A final point – the sending-off was always likely to occur because Valencia relied so much on tactical fouling to break up play. They received no fewer than nine yellow cards in the game, and committed 26 fouls to Villarreal’s 9.


Top marks to Emery for the theory behind the approach – keeping a spare man at the back worked well, and though Villarreal were on top for most of the game, it was only in the second half – after they went to a system with three forwards, that they really looked like scoring.

In that sense, Emery was maybe slightly foolish to keep a three-man system instead of switching to a four (see Marcelo Bielsa’s tactics v Honduras for how a manager can constantly switch between the two systems, depending on the opposition’s system, to good effect) – but he may have felt that 5 v 3 was an effective defensive tactic to see the game out. Considering Valencia were more than well-stocked at the back for Villarreal’s eventual equaliser, he may have been right.

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