Javier Calleja’s exciting Villarreal

Manager Analysis
David Selini

David Selini

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Villarreal are one of those truly well-run clubs who always seem to punch above their weight. The club from the small town of Vila-real outside Valencia have consistently been in European competition and in the top six of Spanish football over the last decade and a half. This season, after a poor start, they once again impress, positioning themselves in fifth with 15 league rounds left. The managerial change in late September which saw former player and Villarreal B coach Javier Calleja take over the first team has seen an improvement as Villarreal play exciting football, are getting results and recently won at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid. In this article I’ll take a look at the exciting style of play Calleja implements.

Normally, Calleja implements a very attacking 4-3-1-2 formation as imaged. The named eleven is an example of what the line-up could look like. Two things stand out straight away, on the right of midfield diamond, touchline-hugging former Malaga winger Samu Castillejo has been superb in a more central role while on the left, Manu Trigueros who’s always been used in central midfield has thrived in a wider role. They have contrasting roles in the side however, as we will see later.

Intense pressing

One trademark of Calleja’s side is that they press high up the pitch and they do it with intensity. The centre-forwards often split when the opponent’s centre-backs do the same which sees the number 10 push further which creates a situational front three with the 10 in the middle. The midfield three stay just behind them as a second line of pressure and this naturally means Villarreal press from inside and out to force the opponent wide.

Below is an example of Villarreal’s aggressive pressing. The right-sided midfielder Samu Castillejo starts pressing Levante’s left-back and when he passes the ball backwards Castillejo continues his pressing against the centre-back. The defensive midfielder Rodri and the number 10 Pablo Fornals are man-orientated in their cover on the ball side. As the ball is played to the other centre-back, the ball-far striker awaits his chance to press. Backwards passes are one of Villarreal’s main pressing triggers and the players are very disciplined and awaits the pass before pressing to successfully set a pressing trap.

Here’s another example of the backwards pass pressing trigger. The ball-near striker presses Real Sociedad’s right-sided centre-back while the ball-far striker awaits the pass to the other centre-back before starting his pressing action.

While Villarreal’s pressing is usually very good and organised, it can create troubles if they don’t press as a unit. Here, Fornals has joined the strikers and forced Sociedad to the right. The left-sided midfielder Trigueros has gone to mark the right-back but the defensive midfielder Rodri has failed to join the attackers in the press which leaves Villarreal without a second line of pressure and Sociedad create an easy escape out of the pressure. Had Fornals not gone to press the goalkeeper, he could have prevented that pass, but an unorganised press on this occasion saw the front three’s intensity in vain.

The 4-3-1-2 is naturally a very compact formation. The way Calleja wants his side to play fits well with that description, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Villarreal are very strong in counter-pressing situations. The intensity remains the same as in their normal pressing. Below, I’ve chosen a sequence from the game against Levante. Villarreal have just lost the ball and straight away there are four players quickly putting pressure on the Levante player.

One pass is made, but Villarreal continue their press and will regain possession through Rodri’s tackles. As you see below, Villarreal counter-press with almost the entire team making movements towards the ball. Here there’s seven players pictured, with at least five of them having been very participating in the counter-pressing.

Compact, positionally-orientated defending

If the man-orientated pressing high up the pitch fails, Villarreal settle into a positionally-orientated 4-3-1-2 shape with the strikers around the centre-circle. Below is an image of the back-four and midfield diamond’s compact positioning. Calleja wants his three midfielder’s to close the space between themselves and the back four to create a very compact defensive shape.

Below is another example of their compact positioning.

The role of the midfield diamond is to keep their positions and distances to each other and to the back-four minimal. This means they block central access for the opposition and force them wide. Below you can see how compact Villarreal are and how difficult it is to find space between the lines.

The wider midfielders are supposed to show the opposition wide where the full-backs will press. Here you can clearly see on Castillejo’s body-positioning where he wants his opponent to play the ball.

Below we see it clearly. The strikers and the diamond are so tight and force Sociedad wide. The left-back Jaume Costa is ready to go and press the opponent.

In the away game at Real Madrid, Calleja changed his formation to 4-4-2 but the principles remained the same. Stay compact centrally and force them wide.

And in the final image we again see the full-back pressing while the ball-near midfielder provides cover and support. Look at the compactness of those lines by the way.

Ruthless counter-attacking

Villarreal are now one of Europe’s best counter-attacking sides. That is no exaggeration. There are a few reasons behind their quality in attacking transition. The first one is the set up of their shape; when they win the ball they instantly have three central players ready to attack the opposition’s defence. Usually, this means only three or even two defenders. The second reason is that as soon as possession is won, Villarreal’s attacking players makes runs to get in behind the opponent. In the image below, both strikers and the right-sided midfielder starts runs as Fornals carries the ball forward.

Below I’ve chosen an image from the win at Real when the left-midfielder Castillejo quickly recognizes the opportunity to get forward as soon as the ball is won.

This is their winning goal in that Real game. Real’s corner has just been cleared and straight away Villarreal have three players making runs to get in behind Real’s defence.

Seven seconds later, it’s a 3 vs 3 and Unal is played through on goal. His shot is saved, but bounces out to Fornals, just out of shot here, who chips it over the goalkeeper.

The combination play they show when running at high speed is impressive and makes them such a dangerous side from counter-attacks. But most importantly, their players make the runs that needs to be made.

Clever build-up play

Villarreal are not only counter-attacks though, they are very good in build-up play too. Here is how they often try to start their goal-kicks, both centre-backs split while the full-backs push higher. The defensive midfielder drops in and on this occasion the left-sided midfielder Trigueros has also dropped in to help with the progression of the ball.

Otherwise, the left and right-sided midfielders sometimes start really wide like seen below to then come inside further up the pitch when the full-backs come forward to maintain the width.

Here Villarreal are switching the play from left to right as the centre-back Daniele Bonera passes the ball wide. The high positioning of the full-backs (yellow) is clear to see. It’s up to the full-backs to maintain width in the attacking third. The midfield diamond have now moved centrally behind the two strikers.

The two strikers often split wide, as Carlos Bacca has done below with Trigueros on the ball just behind him. The attacking players are also very clever with their movement as this image highlights. Castillejo makes a run into the space vacated by Bacca while Fornals drops off the front and into the space between the lines where Castillejo has started his run from.

Fornals excels at this type of movement, as he often starts high with the opponent’s defensive line before dropping into the space between the lines to pick up possession. Below, he does just that as Villarreal take advantage of Sociedad’s man-orientations in midfield.

Villarreal’s build-up play is well-organised with the movements of the players orchestrated to help them find space. Here, the closest striker makes a run in behind to give the ball-carrier an option as well as to push the defence deep. Castillejo gives an option in the right half-space while Fornals again finds space in the number ten space.

Another way Villarreal look to progress the ball forward is using third man passes. The example below highlights this as the ball is played to Fornals who attracts a marker before laying it off to Castillejo to run into the space between the lines with the ball at his feet. This is a role Castillejo thrives in. A previous winger, he excels when dribbling at full flight and often picks up a wider position than the central midfielder Trigueros on the left. Perhaps Castillejo’s transformation to a more central and combination player has been Calleja’s biggest individual success so far.

Here’s another example of a third man pass to progress the ball. Rodri lays it off to Trigueros who finds Castillejo with a first time pass. Castillejo then continues the attack when running forward with the ball at his feet.

The below image is a continuation of the above as Castillejo plays the ball wide to Bacca who’s split wide. Trigueros now attacks the central space vacated by Bacca as the Colombian then tries to play Trigueros through on goal. A third man combination, the attackers using each other’s movement to threaten and deep runs from the midfielders, this is Calleja’s attacking to a tee.


Javier Calleja’s work with Villarreal has been fantastic. They are fifth, have beaten Real Madrid and Valencia away from home and are through to the Europa League knockout stages. On top of that, they play an exciting brand of football. Their clever possession play when building attacks is combined with ruthless counter-attacking at high speed. Defensively, their aggressive high-pressing is combined with an organised positionally-orientated deeper defence when needed. To summarise, they are a brilliant and exciting team you should be watching more.

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