Europa League 2020/21 winners Villarreal head into the new La Liga season full of confidence despite their Super Cup final defeat to Chelsea in Belfast. Unai Emery has added to his squad in the off-season and the club have handed a new long-term deal to key man Gerard Moreno. Thom Harris takes a look at how the side could fare in 2021/22.
Summer Transfer Business
Much like Atlético Madrid, Villarreal look to be doing a fantastic job of quietly consolidating after an unbelievable 2020/2021 season. And, while we can’t jump to too many conclusions from just the one game, their agonising UEFA Super Cup defeat to Chelsea offered plenty of encouraging signs that the Yellows can continue to compete with the very best next season.
Their first order of business was to bring in Juan Foyth on a permanent deal from Tottenham after an impressive loan spell in Castellón last season, before signing solid Algerian centre-back Aïssa Mandi on a free transfer from Real Betis – two sensible signings that add depth and proven quality into the back four.
Most exciting of all, though, looks to be the €14 million acquisition of Senegalese forward Boulaye Dia, whose 14-goal haul in Ligue 1 last season represented 1/3 of Stade Reims’ total outlay. Quick, powerful, and always looking to run in behind, the striker should provide dynamism and directness to challenge Paco Alcácer for the number 9 role.
If Villarreal’s incredible Europa League triumph taught the footballing world anything, it would be to never underestimate a certain Unai Emery ever, ever again. Despite everything – the fact Villarreal hadn’t ever reached a competitive final in their history, or that, when they finally got to one, their rivals’ starting XI cost over ten times as much as their own – there was something strangely inevitable about Emery lifting Europa League number four, such is his astonishing wisdom when it comes to this competition.
Domestically, though, and while the Basque coach led Villarreal to a respectable 7th placed finish, there were frustrations about thrown away points last season, as 13 draws ultimately cost them a top 6 spot. History shows that Emery’s sides tend to perform better in his second season, but the Yellow Submarine will once again face stern competition in the form of Real Sociedad, Real Betis and indeed Celta Vigo for those precious European places.
With an incredible 30 goals and 11 assists in all competitions last season, Gerard Moreno is the best player that this club has had for a very, very long time. And, after his man-of-the-match Super Cup performance, scoring his 83rd Villarreal goal to become their all-time record leading goal-scorer in the process, the talented forward made it abundantly clear that last season’s goal-scoring spree was no fluke.
Between February 6 and April 15 – over two months – Moreno scored or assisted every single Villarreal goal, contributing 25 goals over an extraordinary 14 game run – a streak that’s left him only behind of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé, Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland in the 2021 scoring tallies. An incredibly gifted wide player who just always seems to do the right thing, I imagine that his side will be somewhat reliant on his attacking contributions once again this season.
One for the Future
A club famed for its prolific academy, Yéremi Pino looks set to be the latest superstar to set the world alight, and this season should provide his biggest opportunity yet to consistently shine. Still only 18 years old, the winger hasn’t ever looked out of his depth, even in some of the biggest games in his club’s history, and looks set to push Samu Chukwueze for game time out on the left this campaign.
There could also be opportunities for the talented duo of Jorge Cuenca and Manu Morlanes, both returning to the club after extremely promising loan spells at Almeria. Cuenca, a strong centre-back, alongside Morlanes, a talented creative midfielder, will both be looking to impress from the bench throughout the season.
With the gap between the top 4 and the rest stretching to 15 points last season, it will certainly be a tall order for Villarreal to break into the Champions League places this time around. It will, however, be Unai Emery’s primary target ahead of this campaign, but I think the Yellow Submarine would be more than happy with a Top 6 finish and a decent Champions League run. Maybe they wouldn’t even mind finishing third in their Champions League group, while Mr Emery is still around.