How Villarreal’s cagey approach left them trapped against Liverpool

Andrew Robertson is brought down by Giovani Lo Celso

In the aftermath of a night that had often represented a chore for Liverpool rather than a challenge, Jurgen Klopp made something that amounted to an admission.

“The way they organise is a kind of a lesson,” the Liverpool manager said of Villarreal’s intensely defensive approach. “It is like a duel on a really high level, who can push it through a little bit more.”

Klopp was of course insisting Liverpool “cannot respect Villarreal more”, but there was a hint of a revelation there, too. Basically, the German no longer really faces this kind of approach. Certainly not at this kind of level.

This semi-final first leg did feel so incongruous, especially amid the general chaos of the Champions League these days. Consider this season’s knockouts alone. It has had so much that it could match any campaign in recent memory. There’s already been Real Madrid’s comeback against Paris-Saint-Germain, Liverpool’s mayhem against Benfica, Real Madrid’s entire tie against Chelsea and the raucous last 10 minutes of Manchester City-Atletico Madrid, that made the long build-up worth it. There was then the release of City-Real Madrid, in that first semi-final.

It only followed – and escalated from – that vintage 2018-19 season, especially since the seasons in between were so disrupted by Covid. Magical European nights just aren’t the same without the magic of a crowd, and it did seem to ensure what was on the pitch was slightly subdued.

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But we’re back to the real thing now, and it was more raucous than ever… until Villarreal stepped onto the pitch against Liverpool.

This was far removed from the entertainment that has almost become routine at this level. That’s another reason it was so different.

Villarreal’s own contribution to the season shouldn’t be discounted, of course. Their eliminations of Juventus and Bayern Munich elevated the drama of the competition, but it felt like they were more down to the shock of the end results rather than the entertainment of the games. The emotion primarily came from the desperation of the bigger clubs against that resolute defence, rather than anything Villarreal necessarily did.

There’s also another aspect to that, as has been proven by so many similar runs throughout history. The upstarts gradually run out of steam. Such energy proves very difficult to sustain.

It felt like there was an element of that against Liverpool, as Villarreal were always just hanging on, as they hung around their own box.

And yet there was still the lingering feeling they hadn’t gone to their own limits, as became a theme of Unai Emery’s post-match press conference. There was the slight regret, articulated by the manager himself, they hadn’t done more.

“We played a game below what we expected, below my standards.”

That, however, is sometimes the inevitable end product of playing a limited game plan. Conscious of the “power” of what might be the best attack in world football, Villarreal were clearly most concerned with limiting Klopp’s team. It was like Atletico Madrid without the edge, instead just putting seven men on the outside of their box.

Liverpool celebrate breaking the deadlock in the second half

Most of football history offers evidence of the obvious logic to this approach. So, to be fair, has Emery’s impressive success in Europe with both Sevilla and Villarreal.

There is a reason it has long been called “small team” football. It has long been seen as the best way to disrupt the superior abilities of a better team, and increase your chances of nicking something. You limit the scoring in the game so one moment can be decisive.

It’s just that a lot of evidence suggests that is no longer so logical in the modern game. The spread of high pressing, to go with superior sports science, has ensured that it’s almost a case of more maths applying. It becomes close to impossible to keep the biggest clubs out for long.

It is precisely why so few coaches now try this, especially at the top level. Liverpool know this themselves, which was why this was such a different challenge. These days, even clubs as modest as Brighton and Hove Albion look to come for you; to force mistakes.

It all reflects a thought-provoking comment from Ireland manager Stephen Kenny, when he discussed how he might set up against Belgium.

“You could play a mid-block against them and not get out and it’s a slow death.”

That is exactly what Villarreal had against Liverpool. It was just a case of trying to keep them at bay and, once the levy broke, they had little else. Liverpool were released.

Villarreal now have to find a way to somehow bring the tie to life. Emery, for his part, recognised this.

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“They have not felt any threat today but we know we can create problems for them over there. That is our aim. We are here, in the semi final and with a smile on our face. We have still got a chance. There was an amazing game last night, Manchester City-Real Madrid… It is going to be an amazing night. They are 2-0 up favourites, we know they are very powerful and in a great run of form but we are going to do our own thing and see what we can do. We tried to play our own game but they didn’t let us. It is a personal challenge, for the team the club, let’s see if we can turn it around and do better.”

If they do, on the evidence of the first leg, it will offer something to rival anything we’ve seen this season or before.

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