Unai Emery’s men got a deserved point on the road against the league leaders.
Villarreal was involved in the marquee matchup of the La Liga weekend as they faced top of the table Real Sociedad on Sunday. Two good teams (neither at full strength) and two good managers squared off and in the first half in particular, you could really tell.
If there’s a weak point in Real Sociedad’s lineup, it’s in their fullbacks, and Unai Emery targeted them, sending 75% of our attacks down the flanks (42% of that down the right). Unfortunately, it did not translate into many quality chances. Half our shots were outside the penalty box and none of them were in the six yard box. By contrast, our opponents took all their shots inside the area, and so while the overall shots were 8-7 in our favor, the expected goals were 1.9 to 1.2 in favor of Real Sociedad (and of course each team had one penalty included in those numbers.) We dominated early then Real Sociedad had a lot of control before things settled out into a back and forth affair the rest of the way.
Overall, we have a pretty good idea at this point of how Emery approaches these big games. Narratives of him being a ‘defensive’ manager are overstated, he wants to play expansive, creative football, but defensive solidarity is definitely his first principle, and in our three biggest tests since the Barcelona loss (Atleti, Madrid, and now La Real) Emery has been satisfied with a cagey tactical battle fought primarily in the middle third of the pitch. Despite Real Sociedad having 55% of the possession, the time each team spent in their respective attacking thirds was equal, while 43% of the play happened in the midfield third. Also in line with this defensive idea, we attempted 22 more tackles than La Real and had 14 more interceptions (while committing fewer fouls).
I will be very curious to see how these two teams play if they are at full strength next time they face one another. I’m fully convinced that if Moi and Paco had played, our chances would have been of higher quality, but on the other hand I think La Real’s buildup would have been much more effective if David Silva had been able to play, and they would have also been more potent if Januzaj and perhaps Isak had started the match.
An unfortunate narrative from this contest was of course Jesus Gil Manzano. The man is an absolute menace, and has a tendency to make matches all about him. This was the case Sunday as well, as he made several bad calls and then carded players who had the nerve to tell him as much. The penalty he called against Villarreal was a little soft, but technically correct in my opinion, however, it came from a corner that clearly never should have happened as it was off a Real Sociedad player. Later in the match, a shot attempt from Gerard was delayed and then eventually blocked by the defense because Gil was standing in his way on a set piece routine. Manzano is my least favorite official in Spain and he reminded me of why yesterday.
Overall, I thought the result of a draw was a fair one. The real beneficiaries of the match were unfortunately Spain’s biggest teams. Atletico Madrid is now just one point off the league lead with two matches in hand, Real Madrid were not overly punished for their loss to Alaves, and Barcelona gained two points on both us and Real Sociedad. We haven’t lost in two months, that much is good, and getting two points out of matches with Madrid and La Real isn’t bad by any stretch, but I really feel like we need to beat Elche this coming weekend if we are going to continue to be in the conversation for top four in this league when it’s all said and done.
Good gameplan from Emery, for me Estupinan was our man of the match. Frankly, I think he could very well be the best left back in La Liga. He’s so fast, he’s so excellent both defensively and going forward. I cannot believe we got him for just 15m. Thursday will be at Sivasspor as we get another chance to wrap up our group, then home to Elche. Endavant!