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Villarreal’s transposable system – the return of the Brazilian 4-2-2-2

November 5, 2010

The re-birth of Villarreal has come with the fruition of several events.  Firstly, the partnership that Brazilian Nilmar and the Italian-American Giuseppe Rossi has cultivated week-on-week will continue to be one of the most dangerous in La Liga.  The two have scored eleven of Villarreal’s nineteen goals and Rossi has shown ruthless finishing that was once missing; Nilmar, as well as scoring five goals, is joint third in the assist rankings up to this point.

There has been a significant structural change to the Villarreal side too this season.  Under Juan Carlos Garrido, who was the Villarreal B manager for eight years before his promotion to the first-team, they have returned to the tactical structure employed during Manuel Pellegrini’s stint at the Valencian club.

At Villarreal B, Garrido oversaw the promotion from the Tercera División after finishing third, fifth, first and then second.  This saw them get promoted to Segunda División B, and after two seasons, saw them get promoted to the Spain equivalent of the Championship, the Segunda División.  This success was in glorious alignment with the rise of Villarreal in La Liga and increasing competitiveness in Europe under Pellegrini.

The now Malaga CF manager was a firm believer in his Brazilian style 4-2-2-2.  The attacking midfielders, also known as the interiores, played very narrow and looked to form a creative spine in the middle of the field – while the full-backs provided the width.  This blueprint changed under interim manager Ernesto Valverde who looked to press higher.  The implementation of such strategy failed and Villarreal subsequently dropped to the terrifying depths of the Relegation zone.  As the Blue Öyster Cult once sang, “Oh no, they say he’s got to go.”

With Garrido, this samba style is back! (Yes, yet another song – if you read the rest of this blog post in the background it will give you a whole new blogging experience) It is the revival of the interiores and with it has come the sparkling football that the El Submarino Amarillos were once revered for.  Filling in these fundamental slots in the side is the ex-Baggies midfielder Borja Valero complete with a new bald head and Santi Cazorla, and when either of them are out, the €11 million man, Cani.  Their defensive responsibilities in the team have been delegated to Bruno Soriano, a product of the heavily-invested (€42m don’t you know) Villarreal academy, and the ever-present yet never-ageing Marcos Senna.

The transformation of this Villarreal scarily bears resemblance to many men’s sexual feelings towards Twiggy.  You definitely would have in her younger form (Pellegrini era), then you kind of forgot she existed for a bit, and now with M&S advert-Twiggy, of you course you bloody well would.  Juan Carlos Garrido is what RKCR/YR is to Twiggy.

An examination of Villarreal’s 2-0 win over Atletico shows the resurrection of Pellegrini’s 4-2-2-2 perfectly (and takes readers away from the plodding analogy that delves deep into my sexual consciousness).

Defenders are marked white; deeper midfielders, yellow; interiores, pink and strikers are marked cyan


This system is not as rigid as the classification of formations suggests.  The aforementioned interiores move at will to the wide positions if the full-backs are deep, which helps the movement of the ball forward.

Cani (yellow) shows that the system is flexible

A quick examination of Cani’s counterpart Santi Carzola’s heatmap shows the role of both players.

Santi Cazorla and his drifting around the pitch

Nevertheless, it is not in the wide positions that the likes of Santi Cazorla are dangerous – it is when they move inside and as well as providing ammunition for the front-two, they can run in beyond the defensive line.

This movement is helped by the mobility of both Nilmar and Rossi, who both drop deep to close down and to link the play.  For the first goal against Atletico, Nilmar fought for the ball against two opposition players before running  at the back-four and passing the ball through for the on-rushing Cani, who had found space in between the centre and full-back due to Rossi’s run wide.

Villarreal's first goal against Atletico illustrating the flexibility of the front-four.

It is this strong central area that allows Villarreal to play attractive football; they can keep possession by finding triangles through the middle as well as spreading the ball wide thanks to the full-backs.  The strength in the middle of the park constricts the opposition defence too, as quite often a back-four narrows to restrict the spaces in the middle.  The result is that Villarreal’s full-backs often have plenty of space in-front of them to run into and can be found easily.  Juan Capdevilla’s heatmap shows how progressive he is in this system.


Juan Capdevilla's maurading runs and constant backtracking is impressive.

Going back to the previous point; the formation really allows for several players to play in between the lines.  It’s quite obvious how this happens, but an examination of how the system cultivates attacking options for Villarreal has some value.

It gives Villarreal plenty of options with the ball for starters; (1) the interiores,if they are marked by the central midfielders, can move to the wings to free up some space.  The central midfielder marking Cani or Cazorla can chase them, but this would leave space for a pass to be made to the front-men.  However, if the interiores movement out wide is the responsibility of the full-back to cover, then the centre forward can move into the space left by the departing full-back (2).

What was commonplace however was that the Atletico central midfielders attempted to close down Senna or Bruno, which left huge gaps in-front of the central defence for Cani and Cazorla to move in to.   There was always an easy pass to play for them to link midfield with attack.

Cazorla & Cani always found space between midfield and defence

This inevitably sucks in the full-backs, which then leaves acres of space open for the full-backs to wander into.  The flexibility and ability to move the opposition defence around is what makes the interiores such a valuable position in this system.  This space creation for the full-backs led to the second goal, a Giuseppe Rossi masterpiece, but founded in the forward-thinking left-back, Juan Capdevilla.


Capdevilla & Angel are always available to stretch the pitch

The success of this system relies fundamentally on the talents of the full-backs and the interiores. It is these players who are the ones who have the potential to change the dynamic of the attack and the organisation of the defence.  The full-backs are fundamental space creators in this system, as they can stop the opposition defence becoming too narrow and restricting the space for the interiores and strikers to work with.


The sturdy defensive block that makes it hard for the opposition to play through

As shown by the lack of goals conceded this season (7 in total), it has a strong defensive foundation based on a solid quartet in the defensive third.  Senna, Bruno, Carlos Marchena and Gonzalo Rodriguez look to move together tightly, never allowing space to appear between them.  In the majority of cases, this forces the ball wide where it is less dangerous – and even if a ball makes it into the box, Carlos Marchena will most likely be on the end of it.

Such defensive stability and attacking flexibility has led to an outpouring of love in the Spanish media.  From AS to Marca, the dailies have been banding around poetic verses that even the Poet laureate would find hard to equal.  Have a look at this chef d’oeuvre from El Pais, “there is a team coming up behind those footballing locomotives Madrid and Barcelona: Villarreal, a delight of a team that builds passing triangles, that links up wonderfully, that moves like angels …”. Biblical undertones make everyone feel warmer inside I feel.


Regardless, the quality of the football on display at the El Madrigal is tantamount to the quality on display in the previous seasons under Pellegrini, where they over-achieved with minimal fuss and maximum flair.  Garrido has reintroduced the unvarying principles that were a constant under the Chilean’s reign and the reintroduction into the Champions League is surely no less than a certainty this season.


10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2010 11:21 am

    Very interesting article again Tim, a really enjoyable read!

    Can’t wait to see Barcelona v Villarreal a week tomorrow. I’ll be watching to see how Villarreal’s tight defensive unit cope with Barca’s pressing game, and if the interiores can get free somehow. Should be an exciting game!

  2. November 5, 2010 12:38 pm

    Great piece mate, yet to see Villarreal this season so far, but glad to learn how they have been playing. Keep up the good work.

  3. November 5, 2010 2:51 pm

    villareal are definitely in the running for “favorite club that isn’t my club” (which is sevilla, just so we’re clear). great article.

  4. Bosnian permalink
    November 6, 2010 5:14 am

    Great article. As allways…
    I like “no wingers” formations, with attacking full backs, or wingbacks, 3-3-2-2 is my favourite.
    But I offten play 4-2-2-2 on PES, becouse of what I call “magic 4”- two CB and two DMF. And real magic 4 of two “interiores” and two mobile CF 🙂

  5. Matt permalink
    November 6, 2010 2:14 pm

    Roberticus, of Santapelota, and Michael Cox of Zonal Marking are way ahead of you on this one. Still a good article, but Roberticus in particular made these points weeks ago, in a brilliant piece from a Brazilian perspective. As an American, i recognize the formation from our national team, but the US team didn’t have the strikers who could pull the back line out of position for our interiores Dempsey and Donovan to exploit (we could really use Rossi, born in New Jersey!!!). Roberticus also made the point a year ago that Madrid sold Wesley Sneijder against Pellegrini’s wishes. Sneijder is comfortable playing horizontally as well as vertically, and is good on the wing and great in the center. In short, the ideal interior player.

    • November 13, 2010 1:09 am

      I just dabble in what I like, I’m not for competition. If people want to read it, then they will – – if they don’t, then they won’t.

      I’ve done some stuff previously in the World Cup about USA’s formation – you may be interested.

  6. Roland permalink
    November 7, 2010 4:05 pm

    Excellent piece Tim! Out of all the tactic blogs, I look foward most to yours because of your pictures and understanding of starting simple and than building.

    As far as Matt goes, this is not a race. Each of them is entitled to have a different view when needed. You could easily say ZM has copied his reaction on Mainz from other tactic websites. As far as Sneijder goes, I have said this for years but get ridiculed – Sneijder is not a true #10. He has done well in the position but he is much better if he were in the old Milan Christmas formation where he can take advantage of his shots from long range

  7. Haugstad1006 permalink
    November 12, 2010 12:29 pm

    Great piece Tim. One question though: If the defensive midfielders defend so close to the central defenders, doesn’t that set out a very defensive pressing game. In a 4-2-3-1 the three offensiv midfielders can take responsability for the opposition midfield a bit more. But with a 4-2-2-2 system, who is pressing the opposition central midfielders?


    • November 13, 2010 1:04 am

      Hey Thore!

      Well, in Villarreal’s system it seems to be the interiores who do the pressing of the opposition central midfielders. The result is that there is plenty of space for the full-backs to get forward, which is one of the criticisms of this system. Luckily for Villarreal, Atletico don’t actually have a great pair of full-backs (apart from Felipe).

      • November 18, 2010 8:43 pm

        Just a thought then. I once had a very innovative coach who wanted the two strikers to man mark the opposition full backs. It’s an interesting idea, especially against central defenders who are poor on the ball (Bayern etc).

        Do you reckon this could work in practice – maybe in a very defensive system were pressure starts at the half-way line? Full backs/strikers w

        Would be backed by two holding midfielders who can shuffle wide to make it 3 vs 2 against opposition winger and full-back (like Mourinho often does in his 4-2-3-1 system, especially with Inter).

        The strikers are screened by the other holding midfielder, while the interiores block angles for the central defenders to find the opposition central midfielders.


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