Based in Castellón, the northern district of Valencia; a team whose nickname resides from a Beatles song have been making an impression in Spain and Europe for the past seven seasons. The Yellow Submarines were notoriously a club which hovered around the lower depths of Spanish football and it was not until 1970 before they even reached the Segunda Division. However, since 2000, Villarreal have been a mainstay in La Liga, establishing themselves as European contenders virtually every season. Unlike Alavés, Real Betis or Celta Vigo before them, they have been able to achieve consistency, which the others failed to do with subsequent relegations only years after European qualification. So how has this little team, whose El Madrigal stadium holds only 25,000, been able to punch above their weight?
The strategy has consisted of thorough scouting. South America is a hotbed for talent, with abundance to choose from and players being relatively cheap and Villarreal have found the perfect model to make money. The likes of Diego Godín, Gonzalo Rodríguez, Birmingham flop Luciano Figueroa, Martín Cáceres and Antonio Valencia have all become successful internationals that have been sold for a profit or in Gonzalo’s case, stayed and become a proven talent. With such a vast array of talent, the B team helps to nurture these prospects, and they are now in their third consecutive season in the Segunda Division. Of course by signing youngsters in profusion, you are bound to sign the odd flop. Players like Sebastián Battaglia, Damián Escudero, Mariano Barbosa, Sebastián Viera and American Jozy Altidore did not live up to their potential, but the scheme is generally successful, and you only have to look at the current crop making strides in La Liga like Jefferson Montero, Matteo Musacchio and Marco Ruben to see that the production line is continually developing new faces.
The next stage to help aid these talents in development is sign experienced players who have the hunger, and whose wages won’t strain the club’s budget. Boca Juniors legend Martín Palermo was one of the first to travel, along with teammate Gustavo Barros Schelotto at the turn of the Millennium, but both proved unsuccessful. Juliano Belletti, the man who scored the winning goal for Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final, got his first taste of European football at Villarreal. Then you have one of the greatest signings in El Submarino Amarillo’s history, Marcos Senna. Plucked from Brazilian football as a relative unknown, the holding midfielder eventually became captain in 2005. His biggest impact perhaps was for the national team. Nationalised in 2006, he became a key figure for Los Rojo for four years, with his greatest moment winning Euro 2008, Spain’s first title in 44 years.
Going into their 12th successive season in La Liga, the quality that has been at the club is notable. Juan Pablo Sorin impressed in his short stay at the Camp Nou a year before, and the future Argentina captain provided competition for the left-back spot with Rodolfo Arruabarrena. Astute free transfers like Robert Pires, who only a few months earlier had helped Arsenal knock Villarreal out of the Champions League semi-final, showed even at 32 he had a few more good years in him. Joan Capdevila came with a proven reputation and established himself on the left hand side for the national side during his time there. Juventus fan favourite Alessio Tacchinardi helped give steal to the midfield in a two-year loan spell and forwards Nihat Kahveci and Jon Dahl Tomasson joined with good reputations, although had rather dubious spells and the latest player to follow in this trend is Carlos Marchena, the defender-come-midfielder notorious for his aggressive style and provocative antics.
Yet the clubs most successful ploy has been giving people a chance. Not just anyone (although Pascal Cygan managed a sustained run in the team), but promising talents who need first team opportunities. Look at Pepe Reina, who is regarded by most as the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. Prior to his move to Anfield, Reina established himself as a talented goalkeeper at Villarreal. He had broken through into the first team at Barca before, but a change of manager and the emergence of Victor Valdes meant he needed to leave to get playing time. His path is similar to former Real Madrid reserve keeper Diego López; Villarreal provided them with the platform, and as a result they are both senior Spanish internationals. Reina was not the only Barca player to follow the same path.
Juan Román Riquelme is an Engance, a footballer who needs the freedom to have a role where he can dictate the game. An €11m signing for Barcelona, he did not fit into Louis van Gaal’s plans and was often used out of position on the left. Once Ronaldinho joined, Barca shipped him off with the squad consisting of too many non-EU players, and the romance of Riquelme and Villarreal began. Not blessed with speed, Riquelme preferred to play at his pace. He was always a second ahead of everyone, with skills in his locker that would have impressed even Ronaldinho. If a free-kick was around the D, you knew this man would nonchalantly lift it into the top corner. His greatest moment was his influence in guiding Villarreal to a Champions League semi-final. Unfortunately he had a last minute penalty kick saved by Jens Lehmann, stopping their dream, and seeing Arsenal progress to the final in Paris. After that moment the relationship broke down, Coach Manuel Pellegrini grew frustrated and Riquelme returned to Argentina. However ‘Román’ will always embody a true Villarreal signing, a gifted talent who needed trust to show he was made for European football.
Even two Manchester United forwards needed the move to Spain to get their break. Diego Forlán joined as an unfulfilled talent, but needed only three seasons and 59 goals to prove his worth and subsequently joined Atlético Madrid for €21m. On the other hand Giuseppe Rossi was at a different stage in his career. Eager for first team opportunities, Sir Alex Ferguson reluctantly sold the Italian to the Yellow Submarines for around €10m, a price you would have to triple to sign the forward today.
Lastly, have faith in home-grown talent. Of course sometimes the pressure gets to them, and the result can be the likes of: Marquitos, Héctor Font, César Arzo, Xisco Nadal and Jonathan Pereira who have turned into mediocre players. Or you get a gem like Santi Cazorla – a nimble, quick winger who has become a permanent figure in the Spanish squad and eventually left for €21m to join Malaga this summer. Another example is Bruno Soriano, the man who has replaced Senna in the team and become a senior international. With Juan Carlos Garrido being promoted from the B team to manage the first team, the philosophy is clear, show your talent, and you will get a chance. With his experience working with the youngsters, he has helped nurture the likes of Joan Oriol, José Catalá and Mario Gaspar into the first team.
The strategy which started with giving a young David Albelda a chance on loan to offering Forlan an opportunity, Villarreal have a transfer policy which has been a success. Losing Cazorla and Capdevila will make it a tough campaign, but securing Borja Valero on a full transfer, defender Cristian Zapata and with Rossi and Nilmar now likely to stay, the club based in a town with a population of roughly 50,000 look set to continue the trend of punching above their weight.
As seen on: Spanish Football