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Know Thine Enemigo: Atlético Madrid-Villarreal Q&A with Villarreal USA

Zach Hicks from our SB Nation sister site answers a few questions about this matchup between Champions League clubs.

RCD Espanyol v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander
Gerard Moreno was Villarreal’s top scorer last season, but has yet to get on the board in LaLiga this term.
Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

It hasn’t been the easiest start for Villarreal this season — a nail-biting Super Cup loss followed by two goalless draws in LaLiga. What’s not clicking, and is it fixable?

Oh, it’s definitely fixable. We have a Dani Parejo-sized hole in the middle of our team shape and it has just crippled us. I actually wrote about it on the site here.

He averages more touches than anyone on the team, and when he’s gone we don’t really have anyone who can step into that gap. He doesn’t deliver the final ball so much as he gives it to the guy who ends up making the final ball, and without that crucial link in the buildup play our offense has been really messed up.

Olympique Lyonnais v Villarreal CF	- Friendly Match Photo by Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

The natural reaction would normally be to change from a possession-based scheme to a counter-attacking one, but Samu Chukwueze is still recovering from his surgery near the end of last season and our other best counter attacking player, Arnaut Danjuma, is brand-new and hasn’t learned Unai Emery’s system yet. To make up for Parejo’s absence, Gerard has been dropping deeper to help in possession, making him less of a threat in front of goal — and to top it all off, Pau Torres is missing as well.

We’ll be totally fine, we just have to actually be able to get something close to our best team on the field first.

Villarreal spent some cash this summer — in fact, they have been the second-highest spenders in Spain behind Atlético. Who is your favorite signing from this summer, and why?

On early returns it’s Boulaye Dia, which I know may sound a bit odd since our offense has so many problems right now.

Dia is a really, really smart player. The backheel assist he had against Chelsea is the showpiece moment so far, but every match he’s played, I’ve seen him make decisions that add a new dynamic to the team. He’s better in holdup play than anyone we had last year, and he has a knack for timing pressure that has already paid off with multiple chances.

RCD Espanyol v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

For the person who likes to watch the whole of a striker’s game and not just when they have the ball at their feet, he’s a joy to watch.

If you could pick just one current Atlético Madrid player to suit up for the Yellow Submarine, who would it be and why?

I wanted to be dramatic and answer this using Jan Oblak’s middle name but, apparently... his name is just Jan Oblak? Can you confirm this?

(Editor’s note: It appears so!)

It’s Oblak. Generally, I think keeper is an overvalued position in the transfer market, and I think if you take the top 5-8 and give them comparable systems, you’ll get comparable results. For instance, Thibaut Courtois in his last season at Atleti gave up 0.65 goals per 90 minutes, Moyá came in the next year (not even being an elite keeper) and gave up 0.85, and the year after that Oblak gave up 0.45 per 90 before posting right around 0.70 three out of four years between ages 23-26.

Atletico de Madrid v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

It’s a simplistic metric to be sure, but point being, better-than-average defensive talent with an elite defensive mind as manager means the difference in goals given up are not that different.

That said, keeper is the weakest point on our roster right now. They say in the NFL here in America that if you have two starting quarterbacks you don’t have any — the idea being if you don’t know for sure which guy is good enough to lead your team to wins, then neither guy is good enough to win in the league.

That’s kind of the situation we have at goalkeeper right now. Sentimentally, I love both Asenjo and Rulli, but neither guy is a Champions League-level keeper and I think that’s going to cause us problems this year.

What’s your confidence level entering this match, and what is your predicted scoreline?

I feel okay about it. The analytics-based prediction model we use here at the site is predicting a 37% chance of an Atleti win as the most likely result, but also says the most likely scoreline is a 0-0 draw. That’s about where I am.

I think Emery is going to be fine with three draws in a row to open the league, knowing we’ll be a lot healthier after the break and so that’s what he’ll play for, but you guys are the more talented team and if your finishing boots are hot then I don’t know we’ll be able to keep up.

I’ll stick with our model and predict a 0-0 draw, with a 1-1 being possible, but if you guys score two or more goals I just don’t think we’re equipped to keep up with that right now.