Humbling experiences in the Champions League round of 16 over the past two years meant that widespread trepidation was felt among Juventini when Villarreal were revealed as the Bianconeri’s opponents in the first knockout stage of the 2021/22 competition.
Once again, and as Unai Emery smartly re-iterated ahead of the first leg, Juventus are the favourites. While Massimiliano Allegri’s pragmatic ideals continue to limit the Old Lady domestically, their widely praised January transfer window means expectations are high – or at least considerably higher than they previously were – for Juve to improve upon their recent continental embarrassments this time around.
Those nights in Turin, when Juve were dumped out on away goals to much-unfancied opposition, was when it all come crashing down on the club’s hierarchy. The seemingly innate and perpetual sense of superiority that the Bianconeri possess had come back to bite them.
The only way to move forward was to accept the necessity to rebuild and, thankfully, signs have manifested since Cristiano Ronaldo departed of that being the case.
Now, their short-term goal must be to avoid those miserable Piedmont nights of August 2020 and March 2021 when they face Villarreal over two legs.
Villarreal have improved massively since the round of 16 draw was made
Emery’s side were languishing in the bottom half of La Liga when the round of 16 draw was made in mid-December. However, a fine run of form has seen them leap up to fifth in the table ahead of Tuesday’s first leg in Spain. They’ve lost just one of their last nine in the league.
The prolonged absence of striker Gerard Moreno had proved costly during the first half of the season, but the recent void created by the Spaniard’s recent injury setback has been filled by teammates. Arnaut Danjuma is emerging as a star for the Yellow Submarine and he’ll be one for the Bianconeri to keep a close eye on. The Dutchman has 12 goals this season, including four in the Champions League, and he heads into Tuesday’s bout off the back of a hat-trick against Granada in a 4-1 thumping.
Danjuma could partner versatile January arrival Giovani Lo Celso up top in Emery’s 4-4-2 on Tuesday. The Argentine has shone in his first two appearances for the club and has all the makings of an excellent signing.
What are Unai Emery’s Villarreal all about?
As we just alluded to, Villarreal are a 4-4-2 outfit and their technical proficiency allows them to bypass opposition pressure and build attacks at will. This season, they’ve registered the third-most built-up attacks (defined by The Analyst as “open play sequences that contain ten or more passes and either ends in a shot or has at least one touch in the box”) in La Liga with 68, behind only Real Madrid (125) and Barcelona (91).
The Yellow Submarine’s technical quality was on full display against Manchester United in the Europa League final last season as well as Chelsea in the subsequent European Super Cup.
However, their capacity to control contests via ball retention won’t deter Max Allegri or the Bianconeri, who’ll be happy to let the hosts have the ball on Tuesday while containing their outlets; namely Danjuma, Samuel Chukwueze and Boulaye Dia. Villarreal’s new-found ability to stretch the pitch has added another dimension to the game and I’m sure Emery will look to take advantage of Alex Sandro’s athletic deficiencies down the left by matching one-on-one demon Chukwueze against him.
Without the ball, the numbers suggest that Villarreal press high but not very efficiently. For example, the Yellow Submarine have the third-lowest PPDA (passes per defensive action) in La Liga this term but their 177 high turnovers rank seventh in the division. They’ve also only been able to muster 21 shots from these turnovers – the 14th highest in Spain.
How do Juventus avoid further European embarrassment?
So, there could be scope for Juventus to play out and build attacks of their own on Tuesday. But, they must be brave with possession and attempt to get Manuel Locatelli on the ball as much as possible via player rotations. Danilo will aid the build-up, as does Denis Zakaria, and they’ll have the security blanket of two target men up top to function as focal points for the direct ball.
Overall, I’m expecting Tuesday’s game to be a slog for all involved, but this might be an occasion where Allegri’s ploy of sitting deep and counter-attacking is wise.
While Federico Chiesa’s absence means the Bianconeri lack an elite transitional threat, Villarreal are bereft of athletes in defensive transition. The likes of Dani Parejo, Pau Torres, Raul Albiol and Juan Foyth are not blessed physically and through Alvaro Morata, Juan Cuadrado and Weston McKennie, the visitors could do some damage.
The fear is that Allegri is overly conservative with the incentive of scoring away from home in these knockout ties no longer present. We’ve seen the boss’ default big-game plan work brilliantly at times this season (Chelsea in Turin), but fail miserably as well (Chelsea away) and it’s an incredibly fine line between masterclass and disaster. It all depends on the game state.
Nevertheless, what the Biancoenri can’t afford to do as they have in years past is underestimate seemingly inferior opposition. Such egotism has proved their downfall in Europe since Erik ten Hag’s baby-faced Ajax came to town in 2019.