In Spain’s Primera, there exists a small, sub-elite sector of teams dwelling just below Mount Olympus. These are the sides battling to shatter the figurative and cultural penthouse that’s been constructed by Barcelona and Real Madrid atop La Liga’s leaderboard.
Within this category lies Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal. Other teams temporarily take up residence here (in recent years: Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Malaga, etc.), and Atleti have even threatened a permanent next-level jump. But generally, these are the usual suspects, and third is about the best they can hope for.
As dreadful as that may sound, in the grand scheme of the beautiful game and the attempt to create something special, it remains a worthwhile endeavor. Of course, the erratic framework of football, the actual game, makes room for aberrations. In the case of Villarreal, that aberration has come in the form of an extended holiday.
In 2006, Villarreal stood a Juan Roman Riquelme penalty kick away from a Champions League final. The Argentine wizard had his shot saved by Jens Lehmann and that was pretty much that. Ten years, multiple rebuilds, a relegation, and promotion later, and here the Yellow Submarine sit, back in God’s good graces, but still only in sixth place in La Liga. Regardless of the tumultuous last decade, the mood around the Madrigal is cautiously optimistic; and for good reason, the biggest perhaps being their boss, Marcelino.
The Madrigal has become a managerial cemetery over the last decade. Since Manuel Pellegrini — who coached that brilliant 2006 side — set sail in 2009, no Villarreal manager has lasted a full year in the position. They hired Marcelino Garcia Toral in 2013 after splitting ways with longtime reserve coach Julio Velasquez, who lasted a mere five months. The hiring of Marcelino was viewed as sneakily keen, seeing as the Asturian wasn’t exactly a hot commodity after failing swiftly with Sevilla in 2011-12, but still had some lasting high-points on his resume nonetheless.
Early on in his coaching career, Marcelino led Recreativo to a top-flight promotion and subsequent mid-table finish in La Liga. However, as with many rising young managers, Marcelino left Huelva the season after for a more attractive post at Racing Santander. Still, despite leading Recre to a European qualification, he was again on the move after just one season. Since then, it’s been a journeyman’s adventure for the Spaniard; a spell at Zaragoza, followed by another Santander term, and then finally Sevilla, before finding a seemingly fitting home at Villarreal.
The point here is that Marcelino has shown great savviness as a football coach when he’s been given time and trust. He’s set and achieved notable goals at places like Recreativo and Zaragoza, where the matter of staying in the Primera isn’t even foregone.
Earlier this month, FourFourTwo even ranked him as the 20th best manager in all of world football. But the modern-day carousel of short-term fixes and here-today-gone-tomorrow hires has prohibited Marcelino from truly developing a side in his image. Sure, his decision to leave Recreativo in 2007 was probably an ill-conceived one, but he simply hasn’t been given a proper chance since then.
Thankfully, he’s being given the keys at Villarreal. Now it’s time for him to shift this never-ending project into overdrive, which he seems to be doing.
The plight of any thriving side outside of the Top However Many is maintaining burgeoning talent, in whichever capacity available, and Villarreal have admittedly taken a few of knocks this offseason. The first came in late June when star striker and last year’s leading goalscorer Luciano Vietto left for Atletico Madrid.
As if that wasn’t enough of a production hit, things got a little worse last week when Giovani Dos Santos signed by the LA Galaxy of MLS. Also, both Ikechukwu Uche and Javier Aquino have fled for Mexican club Tigres, while last season’s loan spells of Denis Cheryshev and Joel Campbell have come to an end.
The process of rebuilding every season is especially arduous and takes a certain level of cunning that most professionals lack. But Marcelino seems to know what he’s doing and how he wants to do it.
In the middle of last season, Arsenal came calling for the services of central defender Gabriel. Rather than fight the transfer, Marcelino and Villarreal chose to trust their economic system. They allowed Gabriel to leave for a €15 million fee and replaced him with the ridiculously talented Ivorian centre-half Eric Bailly from Espanyol for less than €6 million. See, it’s not a death sentence to allow Gabriel or Vietto or Dos Santos go. Just so long as there’s a plan.
Marcelino further flaunted his astuteness this summer via the double signing of Samu Castillejo and Samuel Garcia from Malaga for €8 million apiece. Aged 20 and 24, respectively, Castillejo and Garcia represent the 2015 revitalization of the Yellow Submarine.
Both players are budding attackers that could and should develop into stars while at the Madrigal. More importantly, however, they symbolize the way of the world for the sub-elite clubs like Villarreal, where there’s a constant grind of education and activation that relies on ahead-of-the-curve scouting and meticulous business. There’s no time to sulk over lost assets when you could be acquiring new ones.
In many ways, it’ll feel and look like Villarreal are starting from scratch come August. But it won’t be that, not exactly. They’ll still be buoyed by steady, quality players such as Bruno, Mateo Musacchio, Gerard Moreno, Sergio Asenjo, Mario Gaspar, Manu Trigueros and plenty of others.
Even without these mainstays, one unshakable truth remains: players and personnel can and will continue to change at clubs like Villarreal for as long as they’re playing catch-up with the mountain-toppers, which, at present time, might as well be forever. The best they can do is hope for the rise but prepare for the fall. You do this by hiring Marcelino. You do this by finding the next Gabriel or Castillejo. You do this the smart way or you don’t do this at all.