Villarreal, Atletico Madrid prove that strong defensive soccer belongs in Champions League, modern era

Real Madrid vs. Manchester City is undoubtedly the most glamorous duel of the two semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, but the other offers a break in style that is becoming increasingly rare at the highest level of football. Judging by the performance in the quarter-finals against Bayern Munich, Villarreal will likely be set up in an extremely defensive system where all players are close to their own penalty area and opponents Liverpool will enjoy the vast majority of possession while trying , to break with the “Yellow Submarine”.

Matchups in which one team has three or four times as many shots and time on the ball as their opponents are often wrongly labeled as “boring.” Not all defensive football is anti-football and Villarreal adds a refreshing slice of variety to a competition that doesn’t feature as many different tactical styles as it once did. After all, the tactics of the top teams seem to be becoming more and more similar.

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Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, once characterized as managers with opposing philosophies, have become closer during their time in the Premier League. There is no Tiki-Taka vs. counterpressing no more; Indeed, if you missed the last decade of men’s football at elite level, it would be difficult to tell from a single match between Manchester City and Liverpool which team was spearheaded by an innovator in the style of play without the ball and managed by an innovator in the style of play With it.

Whilst battling for all the major titles, these two formerly opposite styles have clashed and morphed into something sophisticated that the majority of clubs around the world are keen to emulate. City have become a more aggressive pressing team in recent years, while Liverpool have gradually become more possession oriented, something Klopp himself pointed out ahead of the Premier League game between City and Liverpool on April 10.

“City has the most possession in the league, we’re not far behind,” said Klopp in an interview with Sky Sports. “We have similar possession numbers. There are differences in our lineup, but there aren’t as many differences as there used to be. Both teams rely on counter-pressing and want to win the ball back high up.”

Thanks to advances in nutrition and fitness training, as well as wider acceptance and trust in the collection and analysis of video and data, it’s easier than ever for clubs at all levels to build teams that play beautiful football from the back of their opponents aggressive under pressure. The quality that mid-budget teams in top leagues can show with this style is extremely impressive – Atalanta and Real Betis from Serie A in LaLiga come to mind – and there are more teams than ever who play so popularly referred to as “good football”.

However, this comes at the expense of tactical diversity, and there are very few true breaks in style at the top level of the game. All teams at the top tier of financial resources seek to achieve the same macro-level vision of how the game is intended to be played, with micro-level tweaks to maximize individual talent and exploit matchups.

That’s why some of the recent quarter-finals in the Champions League brought a breath of fresh air.

Atlético Madrid, the only side to consistently buck all of these tactical trends under coach Diego Simeone, opted to camp all 11 players within 30 meters of their own goal in the first leg against Manchester City. Phil Foden brought City onto the board once, but Atléti stuck to their tactics in the first half of the second leg, albeit with a little more ambition on the counterattack. Simeone’s side had to be chasing goals in the final 45 minutes of the game, but their performance over the previous 135 minutes gave them a chance of progressing to the semi-finals.

Given the gaps in form and technical talent currently separating the two teams, a tie against Manchester City in a tactical mirror game would likely have seen Atléti lose by well more than a goal.

Atléti’s tactics created a spectacle that used to be quite common but is becoming rarer at the highest level: a team with top attacking talents struggling to tear down a perfectly organized bunker. It wouldn’t be very entertaining if most football matches played like this, but in the current era of more homogenous tactics, it felt like a nice little treat.

A similar duel between Villarreal and Bayern Munich, but with a little more counter-precision for the underdogs, leading to an even better result. Villarreal bunkered deep with two ‘banks’ of four in a defensive 4-4-2 formation and ended the tie with 35% possession for 65% Bayern and 16 shots for 45 Bayern.

These astounding gaps suggest Bayern were the significantly better side and unlucky enough to get stuck, but according to Michael Caley’s expected goals model, calculated using Opta data, Bayern generated from those 29 additional ones Shot only 0.5 xG more than Villarreal. The Yellow Submarine’s deep and organized defense frustrated their opponents, leading them to unload many poor shots from outside the box. In other words, the team that was supposed to dominate the game (Bayern) and the team that was behind (Villarreal) ended the 180 minutes with the same number of high-quality chances from the middle of the penalty area.

Build around the players who fit your style

When you’re Villarreal you can’t have everything when it comes to recruiting players. Bayern Munich can sign players with no real weaknesses, but Villarreal will have to choose which skills to emphasize in specific positions and build a squad with individual skills that complement each other while masking each other’s weaknesses. And Villarreal manager Unai Emery’s style of play in the quarter-finals maximized the talent of the players at his disposal.

In midfielder Dani Parejo, Villarreal have a player who doesn’t have the athletic qualities to succeed in a switching game against a Bayern-quality side, but he does have the passing ability to create dangerous attacks from very few opportunities – including being a central one Midfielder, he ranks in the 97th percentile for expected assists in Europe’s top five leagues. Striker Gerard Moreno is also not a pressing machine, but technically excellent. Fellow striker Samuel Chukwueze is not yet a consistent goalscorer and assist provider at 22 but has the ability to create something from nothing when he comes off the bench.

If Villarreal had tried to match Bayern in style, they would have been humiliated. Instead, Emery created conditions in which his players could thrive and this trio capitalized on their best opportunity in the second leg with a precision counterattack to win the tie.

Champions League encounters like these two quarter-finals – ones where one side has a significant talent advantage and the other has to figure out how to get the best out of the players they need to have to have a chance – are just as compelling like games in which two equally strong sides throw wages at each other.

Football is at its best when there is variety and we are blessed to have been presented with two very different Champions League semi-finals. Manchester City vs. Real Madrid, an encounter between two sides who would not know how to recline in a bunker in the unlikely event that they are asked to, was a back-and-forth thriller on Tuesday multiple goals for both sides first leg at Etihad. But it’s just as fascinating to see Liverpool, a team that thrive on attacking quickly into open spaces, taking on a side from Villarreal who have proven they can choke out Europe’s best with their low defensive blocking.

Everton were kind enough to give the Reds a test run in Sunday’s Merseyside Derby and kept Liverpool off the scoreboard (and with zero shots on target) until the 62nd minute by defending deep in their own half with all 11 men, but ultimately 2-0. Liverpool meet a side at Villarreal that should be similarly deep-set, albeit with a little more quality to bail out and execute on the counterattack.

A lot of fans – maybe even Atléti and Villarreal supporters – would prefer to see these defensive teams break out of their shells and show a little guts, but if every team plays the same football and the game becomes tactically homogenous, we’ll stay something left that frankly isn’t interesting and loses its value as an entertainment product. If you’re just watching the game to see nice goals, save some time and take a trip to YouTube. You can consume hundreds of them in 20 minutes. The presence of great defensive football is what makes great attacking football so satisfying.

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