Manchester United are preparing to play Villarreal in the Europa League Final on Wednesday May 26th.
Under manager Unai Emery, Villarreal have been interesting to watch, especially in possession, and even more specifically, during deep possession.
This article will analyse Villarreal’s build-up structure and their general principles when progressing from deep, before switching attention to how United can press them in order to prevent ball progression.
Villarreal’s build-up shape is generally quite flexible. It has predominantly manifested itself in a right-side heavy 4222, with the right-winger, typically Gerard Moreno holding width on the same horizontal line as the centre-forward, and the left-winger, typically Moi Gomez, drifting inside and a little deeper alongside playmaker Manu Trigueros.
The personnel has varied in this shape. Against Arsenal, Samuel Chukwueze played on the right and held width, with Gerard Moreno moving inside to the right half-space, whilst Manu Trigueros moved across to the left half-space in place of Moi Gomez.
However, more recently, Moreno, or the right-winger, has drifted further inside, forming a double striker system. Similarly to the previous setup, Moi Gomez moves infield from the left to join Trigueros in the half-spaces. In the double striker system, the full-backs provide width on both flanks given the narrow structure of the front four.
This section of the article will focus on Villarreal’s main principles in build-up, rather than focusing specifically on shape, as these are evident regardless.
The horizontal stretching, via the full-backs and/or wingers depending on the system, is extremely noticeable.
Stretching the pitch horizontally is paramount to Villarreal’s ball progression because it forces the opposition into a predicament regarding space coverage and compactness.
They must determine whether to remain compact and therefore allow space, and therefore simple reception, out wide, or they cover adequate space horizontally in order to apply pressure onto the ball receiver. However, this naturally increases the distances between units and therefore creates central gaps.
The opposition predominantly opts to prioritise central compactness which ultimately buys time and space for wide players, specifically the full-backs in deeper areas, to receive, which ultimately enhances progression.
Maximum horizontal stretching, i.e., being positioned on the touchline, exacerbates the potential of a switch due to the significant distance between flanks which ultimately manifests itself in greater time and space upon reception.
When the ball is moved wide in deep areas, this is typically the trigger for a more intense opposition press, and therefore, numbers are committed. This ultimately means there is less commitment to the far side, which exacerbates the potential of a switch from a defensive perspective due to the space to drive into and exploit upon reception.
This was prominent against RB Salzburg in the Europa League.
In addition to their horizontal stretching is vertical stretching. Vertical stretching is essentially predicated on depth rather than width.
The consequences are similar for the opposition, as it forces them to either drop deep and concede deep progression in order to ensure vertical compactness, or commit to the high press in order to prevent simple progression, but leave space between the lines which are open to exploitation.
The opposition’s defensive line must drop due to the threat of a long kick forward from the goalkeeper.
Vertical stretching is typically manifested by the centre forward and/or wingers occupying advanced positions when the ball is deep, which ultimately affords a direct option in possession.
This is more advantageous when the opposition commits to pressing high because as aforementioned, this increases the space between the lines which means there is greater time and space for the team in possession to pick up second balls following a direct option to the high centre-forward.
This allows for territory to be gained and the attack to be situated further up with less defenders positioned deep to combat the attack.
The potential advantages of both vertical and horizontal stretching can be made prominent via press baiting.
Press baiting is essentially intentionally holding the ball in deep areas, with the aim of initiating a press from the opponent. The rationale behind inviting the opponent forward is to create space behind or in between the lines, which can be exploited via being comfortable under pressure to progress through the press and the positioning which both vertical and horizontal stretching provide.
Villarreal in general are evidently content with passing the ball backwards to their goalkeeper, and holding the ball in deep areas, sometimes at the feet of the goalkeeper, in attempt to draw the opposition forward.
This strategy does contain element of risk because essentially you’re inviting pressure which in turn results in difficult reception in deep areas (close to the goal) and therefore a loose touch or a misplaced pass may lead to a dangerous turnover. This highlights the importance of technical security in possession when under pressure.
However, Villarreal have this in abundance, and therefore inviting the opposition forward is optimal in order to open space for their dangerous attacking players.
The relationship between press baiting and stretching the pitch is clear, because luring the opposition into pressing due to potential high reward, prevents them from remaining compact and covering adequate space. For example, when the team in possession is vertically stretching and the opponent commits to a high press after sideways passes in deep regions, they concede space between the lines which is open to exploitation via combinations and/or medium to long range passes from deep.
The goalkeeper holding possession for 8-10 seconds is also beneficial if the opposition do not step up, because it facilitates more patterned/coached movements to take place due to the structured nature of the setup.
Static deep possession allows the shape to become ‘set’, which can be replicated in training sessions and therefore this allows for synchronised movements and patterns to take place.
How United can press Villarreal
In summation, it is evident that Villarreal’s main principles/ideas during deep possession (horizontal stretching, vertical stretching, press baiting) manifest one broader principle: space creation.
Therefore, the focus will now switch to how Manchester United can press Villarreal in order to prevent space and time in possession, and ultimately prevent deep progression during the Europa League Final.
As aforementioned, it is difficult to know the exact shape that Unai Emery will opt for in the final. However, it is predicted that Villarreal will line-up as illustrated below.
If the other previously mentioned shape (both wide players in half-spaces rather than one inside, one wide) is displayed on the night, the principles of the pressing should remain the same as the shapes are relatively similar in structure.
Firstly, it is difficult to suggest a structure which isn’t the usual 4231 man-oriented ball sided press. This is largely due to the familiarity the players have in this shape and also the individual and collective responsibilities which come with it, but also because I believe it is best suited to counteract Villarreal’s impressive build-up.
One important factor to combat from a defensive perspective is the horizontal stretching (especially from the full-backs) that Villarreal persist with in build-up play.
The 4231 is well suited to combat this in general because the three behind the centre-forward typically press on the same horizontal line as the opposition’s full-backs, and therefore their positioning is well suited to prevent simple reception out wide.
The starting positions of the three behind the striker, particularly the wide players, will be crucial. The aim should be to ensure central compactness around the double pivot, most likely made up on Dani Parejo and Etienne Capoue, to prevent simple reception and to guide possession out wide.
Across the horizontal line that Villarreal’s full-backs and double pivot will operate on, United will essentially be underloaded (4v3), and therefore should look to mark zonally when Villarreal have deep possession.
The wide players should look to remain in the half-spaces when the centre-backs have possession to minimise the distance between themselves and Fernandes, who should be positioned in between the double pivot.
When the ball is played wide, i.e., to the full-backs, we should look to shuttle across in order to apply pressure onto the ball side. In terms of dealing with the inferiority, we should look to replicate our performance away at Chelsea (our wingers pressed their centre-backs when the ball went wide, rather than their full/wing-backs due to their system – 4231 pressing is more suited to pressing high against a back three).
The slides below manifest how this worked.
This is why, although his selection is unlikely, Daniel James should be considered to start the final. The winger facilitates greater commitment to ball side on the opposite flank in pressing because his pace allows us to react quickly to switches.
He essentially allows us to be compact on the ball side whilst also possessing good coverage horizontally in the event of a switch.
The narrow starting positions and the selection of Daniel James will allow us to combat Villarreal’s width and therefore apply pressure onto the full-backs and use that as a pressing trigger for our man-oriented intense press.
From a defensive perspective, when the ball is played wide, it is typically the trigger for a more intense press.
Firstly, this is because wide space is closer to the touchline and therefore the constraining effect is greater and easier to produce and secondly, the player in possession only has 180 radius rather than 360 in a central area and thus it is easier to cover and block their passing options, forcing them into mistakes as a result.
The execution of this will be important against Villarreal because of their tendency to pass to players who are under pressure or being marked, trusting the technical security they possess.
This is most noticeable when possession is moved back inside from a wide position (full-back to half-space player). Villarreal compact the pitch centrally with players who are comfortable in tight spaces which ultimately facilitates quick circulation.
This essentially means Emery’s side are quite difficult to constrain, even when the ball is played wide, because of their ability to maintain possession under pressure. This highlights the need to be aggressive in man-orientation when the ball is played wide to nullify central options for the ball carrier.
The responsibility of being tight and aggressive on the players in the half-spaces to prevent simple reception and force mistakes will largely lie at the hands of Scott McTominay and Fred, who should start the final despite recent criticism.
The way the touchline press will manifest itself will look slightly different on each side dependent on the positioning of the opposition, however, the main principles will remain the same.
On our left (Shaw, Fred, Fernandes, Rashford) the man-oriented press will be archetypal, with each player intensely tracking their respective men in order to apply pressure upon reception.
The only factor which could alter the structure of our press on that flank would be the positioning of the right half-space player (likely to be danger man Gerard Moreno).
If Moreno drops deep into the half-space to offer an inside option to the full-back, Fred should track the Spaniard, as the previous image manifests.
However, if Moreno is more advanced, i.e., positioned closely to our centre-back, Lindelöf (likely to play left centre-back if Maguire is injured) should take over and remain tight, whilst Fred should remain central and look to block the passing lane into Moreno’s feet.
Fred remaining central is an important factor because it will ensure central compactness and will help constrain Villarreal in the wide areas. If he was to jump forward, this would open up space for a diagonal pass into the forward’s feet, which in turn baits our centre-back forward as a result of backwards reception.
However, on our right (Wan-Bissaka, McTominay, Fernandes, James), United should actually have a spare man due to Villarreal’s right side heavy shape.
Who the spare man is largely depends on the positioning of Villarreal’s left half-space player; for example, if they are positioned wider to offer a vertical line pass, responsibility will be passed to Wan-Bissaka to apply rear pressure, and McTominay should remain in proximity to block central space, perhaps specifically blocking the passing lane into the feet of the centre-forward, who will presumably drift across to support true ball side and consequently be tracked by our right centre-back (likely to be Bailly).
On the other hand, if the player (likely to be Trigueros) remains narrow and offers an inside pass, McTominay should look to remain tight and apply pressure upon reception. Wan-Bissaka should again remain in proximity in order to compact the area and also be ready to apply pressure in the event of a loose ball.
The interchanging of roles will require effective communication in order to strike to correct balance between applying pressure and maintaining optimal positioning. The reactive nature is perhaps quite risky, however, I feel it is the best way that United should press without losing structure.
Finally, I’d suggest a lower line of engagement. Pressing extremely high will leave us to susceptible to conceding dangerous space which is open to exploitation via quick combinations, which Villarreal are more than capable of.
The dangerous vertical stretching which forces the opposition into a predicament in regards to space coverage and pressing high should essentially force us to begin deeper and opt to remain vertically compact rather than pressing the deepest line, i.e., the centre-backs and the goalkeeper.
Thus, we should look to initiate the press from Villarreal’s second outfield line, i.e., with the full-backs and the double pivot.
The sole preceding aspect will be the role of the centre-forward, who will evidently be outnumbered (3v1 including the goalkeeper). Their role is quite important in guiding and initiating the press.
The centre-forward should look curve their runs in order to cut off horizontal passing lanes for the ball carrier (to the goalkeeper or opposite centre-back) and guide the ball down one flank. When this is occurring, our defensive unit should be preparing to initiate an intense press when the ball progressed into the second outfield line.
Cover shadow pressing (curving runs) is an effective way of combating an overload from a defensive perspective. Edinson Cavani is excellent at this, and there is no debate that he should start the final.
From the first minute, we should be content with the centre-backs and goalkeeper having unpressured deep possession because prioritising vertical compactness is a low risk strategy which is more suitable for the opening period of a final.
This is of course open to adaptation, but largely depends on the game state. For example, if we are chasing the game, a higher level of engagement would be more appropriate (high risk, high reward).
In summation, considering all aspects of Villarreal’s build-up play that were explained throughout and the way I believe United should look to press them, an idyllic line-up would be: Henderson; Wan-Bissaka, Bailly, Lindelof, Shaw; McTominay, Fred; James, Fernandes, Rashford; Cavani.
However, as aforementioned, this solely focuses on the line-up from a pressing perspective, and therefore fails to consider in possession elements which are of course vital.
Consequently, I expect to see Pogba start the final on the left, given his quality in possession, with Rashford moving across to the right.
Pogba offers great flexibility in that he can, and often does, drop back into the double pivot if we are behind in order to enhance ball progression and circulation into the final third.
It will certainly be an interesting affair, and if Manchester United are able to combat the Spanish side’s build-up, it should help them in their efforts to win the final and lift their first trophy under Ole Gunnar Solskjær.