Villarreal Celtic fans' favourite Spanish team are 2nd in La Liga

All Spain loves American movies, especially popular blockbusters, and it has not taken long for the Spanish media to christen Villarreal’s offensive foursome of Nilmar, Rossi, Cazorla and Valero as the “Cuatro Fantasticos” or Fantastic Four, in an allusion to the superheroes of that name. 

After a poor start when an over-cautious formation cost them a defeat in their first game, Villarreal have rattled off 5 successive league victories on the trot to start the 2 week international break in 2nd place in La Liga, above both Real Madrid and Barcelona. The football Villarreal have played at times, particularly in two scintillating home victories against Espanol and Racing Santander, has been the kind of excellent fast passing, pressing possession football pioneered by Pellegrini over the past few years. Last season, after 6 rounds of La Liga Villarreal had been in second bottom place. This season after 6 rounds they are in second top place. This article will examine some of the reasons behind this dramatic change.

Last year under Pellegrini’s replacement Ernesto Valverde, Villarreal’s stuttering performances in the opening weeks of the season had them actually in very last place in the league after 7 rounds. The patience of President Fernando Roig with Valverde’s total failure to sort things out was finally exhausted at the end of January 2010 and he was sacked to be replaced by the coach Juan Carlos Garrido who had taken the Villarreal B side to an unprecedented 4th place in the Segunda Division. Gallardo stopped the slide, re-established control of the dressing room, and restored a pattern of play similar to the classic Villarreal style developed under first Paquito then Manual Pellegrini.

The team slowly clawed its way back up the league and finally finished the season in 7th place, just missing out on a European place by 2 points. However as was explained in more detail in two recent GGW posts on Villarreal, towards the end of the summer break, after a long well-coordinated campaign by President Fernando Roig and his son, UEFA threw  bankrupt Mallorca who had finished 5th in the league out of the Europa League and awarded their place to Villarreal.

The technicalities, finances  and moralities involved in the application of this decision will be examined much more closely in my forthcoming book “The Yellow Submarine – a voyage in search of integrity, community and friendship in football” due to be published soon by Ringwood Publishing. Whatever the arguments, this decision ensured that the Yellow Submarine would embark on an incredible 9th consecutive voyage of European conquest. 

Marchena and Valera two class recruits

In preparation for the new season no less than 9 of the more experienced members of the 2009-2010 squad were sold or released, including old faithfuls Robert Pires and Javi Venta, and established South American internationalists Diego Godin, Eguren and Ibagaza. To replace this massive loss of experienced talent, only two players were bought; World Cup winner Carlos Marchena from Valencia to replace World Cup star Godin, and midfielder Borja Valero from West Brom to replace both Pires and Ibagaza.

From the time he took over Villarreal as a struggling Second Division club in 1997, President Fernando Roig had a package of strategies designed to make Villarreal a top club in not just Spain but Europe. One of the central strands in these strategies was to make Villarreal a producer of its own high quality players, through their Cantera or youth system. Roig invested his own money heavily in creating a football complex, the Cuidad Deportiva, which is one of the finest in the world. Using these magnificent facilities, Villarreal for the past few years have run more teams at all levels of the game than any other club in Spain. For a frustrating while it seemed all this activity was benefiting teams other than Villarreal, since only two players Bruno and Cazorla had come through from the Cantera ranks to strengthen the first team, a lower ratio than most other Spanish clubs. (Although the two are top quality internationalists worth about 35 million euros between them).Roig however kept the faith and in an amazing climb from obscurity, the Villarreal B team, which did not exist when Roig took over, dramatically fought their way up through the lower regional league system into first the Third Division(fourth level), then the Segunda B Division (third level), until at the end of season 2008-2009 they were promoted to the Segunda Division, making  Villarreal the only Spanish First Division club to have its reserve team in the Second Division. This amazing climb through the ranks was presided over by Roig’s son, Fernando Roig Negureroles, in a way which demonstrated his place in the ruling trio of the club was down to talent rather than nepotism.

Under manager Garrido the Villarreal B team played attractive football faithful to the Villarreal pattern of fast passing possession football, and by January 2010 they were 4th in the league, even though they knew promotion was not allowed for them as a B team. After Garrido left at the end of January , the performances slumped slightly but a final 7th place finish was still a magnificent achievement for the youngest team in the division.

Jefferson Montero one of ten promoted from the B team

The two Roigs and their powerful henchman Chief Executive Jose Manual Llaneza knew their long-term strategy had finally come to fruition and that it was time to promote from within. Over this summer of 2010 no less than 10 players from the Villarreal B squad were promoted to the first team Plantilla. A more detailed description of these ten recruits can be found in the GGW post of  September “Total Revolution at Villarreal”. Of the ten, only highly promising Argentinean centre back Musacchio seemed likely to start the season as a first team regular but others like Ecuadorean internationalist Jefferson Montero, Spanish under21 international midfielder Matilla and Argentinean forward Marco Ruben were sure to be pushing for a place.

After the poor start where Nilmar was left out and only Rossi played up front, Garrido quickly settled upon his best team, in a 4:4:2 formation and the results have rewarded his consistency and boldness of selection. Villarreal are joint top scorers in the league and have had 4 clean sheets in 6 games. More importantly Villarreal are once again playing to a pattern that produces football that is both attractive to watch and successful. Not every game has produced play of high quality. They struggled to win narrowly away to Levante,  a result made to look better by Real Madrid’s failure to win there the next week. But overall their play has been of  a high standard equivalent to that played in the best of the Pellegrini years.

Sandwiched among the league successes have been two games in the Europa League. In the first, away to Dynamo Zagreb Garrido made too many changes, six in all, and a unsettled team lost 2-0. It is a strange phenomenon to struggle hard all season for qualification for Europe, then not give it your best shot when you get there. Garrido remedied his mistake in the second game, home against Bruges and without playing brilliantly his team restored their hopes with a comfortable home victory.

The defence has played well in the league with Diego Lopez shrugging off his legitimate disappointment at missing out on the World Cup to show again that he is one of the best goalkeepers in Europe not just Spain. World Cup star Marchena has fitted well into the defence alongside fellow World Cup winner Capdevila and playing in partnership with Musacchio has created a centre back pairing “Super M”, that threatens to be even stronger than the old  G Force of Godin  and Gonzalo. Only right back remains, as ever since 2004, a source of weakness though, to be fair, Angel seems to have benefited from not having Javi Venta competing with him. GGW would prefer to see Musacchio moved to right back with a rehabilitated Gonzalo partnering Marchena.

Nilmar who needs Forlan

It is the front two pairing of Brazilian World Cup star Nilmar and Italian internationalist Rossi that have had most publicity and public credit for Villarreal’s bright start. They have contributed 9 league goals between them, Nilmar with 5 and Rossi close behind with 4. And both have been in great form. Sunday against Racing Santander both scored but with a little more luck could have had 5 or 6 goals between them. At last the ghost of all time Villarreal top scorer Diego Forlan can be laid to rest. While he is still probably marginally better than either of them individually , Nimar and Rossi together are far more potent than Forlan and any of his old partners ever were. They are already the top two in the race to be this season’s Picchici (top scorer) and either would be a good bet to still be there at the end of the season.

But is in midfield that the strength of this Villarreal team lies. Fortunately Marcos Senna seems to have recovered the full confidence of manager Garrido. Restored to full fitness, he has been a veritable colossus in midfield, ably partnered by Bruno who has just received a well-deserved second call up to the Spanish international squad. Further up and wider out the midfield, Santi Cazorla and new boy Borja Valero have been outstanding. Despite the worries expressed in the Bad News section of the last GGW article, Cazorla seems to be enjoying a new lease of life after last season’s debilitating back problems and has been in cracking form.

Borja Valero Scotland beware the new Villarreal star

On the other side of midfield, new boy Borja Valero has fully justified the decision to invest 6 million euros on him. Last season he had been the key player in Mallorca’s very successful season and ended up winning the Don Ballon Rankings for Player of the Season in La Liga. This season he has fitted in quickly to the Villarreal patterns, offering strength, skill and fire power all across midfield. Yesterday he received the best reward for his consistent high quality play by being called into the Spanish squad for the first time. Scotland should beware if he is brought on as a substitute at Hampden Park next week. 

One more leap and the Cuatro Fantasticos could do something unique for Villarreal and surf right to the top of the league.

On Saturday night myself and my two pals over from Scotland Bill and Ian, watched Valencia play Bilbao. Anything short of a Valencia win would have meant that we could have watched Villarreal go to the top of the league on Sunday by beating Racing, but despite our best physic efforts a poor Valencia held out for a narrow win. Then after watching Villarreal perform brilliantly at the Madrigal in thrashing Racing 2-0 we had gone along with the two wives Mairi and Harriet, to the nearby Madrigal Bar to watch Barcelona fall further behind Villarreal by failing to beat Mallorca.

Based on watching these two games GGW is very confident that Barcelona will defeat Valencia in their game in Round 7. Such a result would mean that Villarreal would be guaranteed the place at the top of the league by beating Hercules in Alicante. Last season Villarreal ended Round 7 in very last place in the league. This season there is a very good chance they will end Round 7 in top place, something the club has never achieved in its short history in La Liga. GGW will report on the outcome of Round 7, hopefully with the headline “Villarreal are top of the league”

Such an unprecedented outcome would also be a good point to finally end the Villarreal miracle story in my book.