Football Features

How Villarreal could have lined up if they kept their best players

By Nick Thompson

Published: 12:45, 16 April 2019 | Updated: 18:04, 24 November 2022

Villarreal are everyone’s second favourite team, aren’t they? Who could hate the Yellow Submarine?

First of all, they’re called the Yellow Submarine, which is just adorable. Secondly, they are a true underdog. The kind of story that Sylvester Stallone would make into a film if he could. The city of Villarreal is tiny, with a population of 51,367.

Consider Leicester City, the darling underdogs of English football (well, a few seasons ago anyway). The city of Leicester has a population of 342,000. That may seem like a small number compared to, say, London. But it dwarfs Villarreal’s home town. Hell, Villarreal is 14% the size of Leicester.

Apart from 2012, where the club was relegated from the top tier, this tiny side from this tiny town have generally been a regular fixture at the top of La Liga for the better part of a decade.

They’ve made the Champions League quarter-finals twice, even once making the semi-finals. Something cash-rich PSG have yet to do and super-wealthy Manchester City only managed for the first time a few years ago. Villarreal even finished above Barcelona in La Liga once, coming second in 2007/08 just before Pep Guardiola turned the footballing world on its head.

So how have they done this? Excellent scouting and player recruitment, that’s how. The quality of players that have worn the yellow shirt in the last decade and a bit is quite incredible. Diego Forlan and Juan Roman Riquelme are two examples of world-class talents who played for many years at El Madrigal.

Mostly players went to Villarreal to rehabilitate or develop themselves. Most players leave, moving on to greater things. Villarreal cannot afford to keep world-class talent, but they can develop it. Over the years they’ve sold some incredible players.

But what would their team look like if they hadn’t sold these players? If they were able to keep hold of their best?

Goalkeeper: Sergio Asenjo

Current club: Villarreal

League games for Villarreal: 146

Once the heir to Iker Casillas’ Spain throne, a series of serious injuries seemed to have destroyed the young goalkeeper. But Villarreal took a chance on him, first on loan and then permanently from Atletico Madrid, and they have rehabilitated him.

He even got another cruciate injury at the end of 2014/15, but once again rebounded and has remained at the club since.

Right-back: Mario Gaspar

Current club: Villarreal

League games for Villarreal: 266

The veteran full-back has been at the Yellow Submarine his whole career, beginning with the B side in 2007. Now 28, the thrice-capped Spain international is deserving of his place ahead of Antonio Valencia, whose career has dipped while Gaspar remains Mr. Dependable.

Centre-back: Eric Bailly

Current club: Manchester United

League games for Villarreal: 35

Left club: 2016 for £30m

Joined Villarreal half-way through 2014/15 and was such a brilliantly rugged defender that Manchester United signed him a season and a half later. Now looking to dominate attackers in the Premier League having made Villarreal a huge profit, but they’d love to have him back.

Centre-back: Diego Godín

Current club: Atlético Madrid

League games for Villarreal: 91

Left club: 2010 for £7m

When he was at Villarreal, Godín was a talented but frustratingly error-prone centre-back. When they sold him in 2010, it looked like good business. But once Diego Simeone joined Atlético Madrid, the Uruguayan defender turned into an absolute colossus and has been, at his peak, one of the two or three best centre-backs in the world ever since.

How dearly they would love to have him back.

Left-back: Jaume Costa

Current club: Villarreal

League games for Villarreal: 162

If Villarreal have one weakness, it’s left-backs. They signed Joan Capdevila (and he was a world champion while playing for them) but since he left they’ve had a mish-mash of different players there. The most consistent has been Jaume Costa, who inherited the starting role by simply out-lasting everyone.

Defensive midfield: Rodri

Current club: Atletico Madrid

League games for Villarreal: 63

Left club: 2018 for £20m

The 22-year-old is now plying his trade in Madrid for Simeone, but he was a class act while he was with Villarreal, making 63 league appearances. Atleti snapped up the centre-midfielder for £22m, while he’s featured in Spain’s new-look team five times.

Defensive midfield: Santi Cazorla

Current club: Villarreal

League games for Villarreal: 208

Left club: 2006 for £500k + 2011 for £18m

One of football’s nicest men who seems to only play for football’s nicest clubs. Cazorla was initially an attacking midfielder or winger. First left the club at 22, but an impressive spell at Recreativo saw Villarreal execute their buyback. Back at El Madrigal he took his game to another level, rejecting advances from Real Madrid along the way.

Cazorla joined Malaga for a colossal fee but spent just one season there, signing for Arsenal in a cut-price deal and the rest is history. Now a masterful orchestrating midfielder, even with his injury woes he was welcomed back with open arms in the summer of 2018.

Attacking midfield: Denis Suárez

Current club: Arsenal (on loan from Barcelona)

League games for Villarreal: 33

Left club: 2016 for £3m

Played for Villarreal during the 2015/16 season, helping them make the Europa League semi-final. A sublime combination of possession and penetration, his form caused Barcelona to execute their buyback clause and take him to the Camp Nou for a minuscule fee. However, despite wearing Xavi’s shirt number, his long-term future doesn’t seem to be in Spain’s second-largest city as he recently completed a loan move to Arsenal where he reunited with former Sevilla boss Unai Emery.

Attacking midfield: Samu Castillejo

Current club: AC Milan

League games for Villarreal: 91

Left club: in 2018 for £15m

The 24-year-old is one of the more exciting attackers to pass through the club in recent years. The adaptable midfielder can play across the midfield and in a false 9 role, and hit nine goals in his 91 games. He and Denis Suarez would have dovetailed oh so nicely had they played together longer than a season.

Striker: Roberto Soldado 

Current club: Fenerbahce

League games for Villarreal: 38

Left club: in 2017 for £4.5m

Soldado arrived at Villarreal off the back of his fairly disastrous spell in England with Spurs. He was better at the Yellow Submarine than he was in London, scoring nine in 38 league games, before securing a move to Turkey after a season. Definitely a player of quality, he managed 12 appearances (and seven goals) during the peak Spain years of 2009-13.

Striker: Cedric Bakambu

Current club: Beijing Guoan

League games for Villarreal: 75

Left club: in 2018 for £35.4m

French-born Congolese footballer Cedric Bakambu was at Villarreal for three seasons, scoring 32 in 75 La Liga games. That’s a decent return. The Congolese international was a smart buy from Bursaspor, and he fired in the majority of the goals that kept the club within European contention for a number of seasons.

A reported £65million move from Villarreal to Beijing Guoan means he’s the most expensive African footballer in history.

Subs: Diego Lopez (Espanyol), Giovani Dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Alexandre Pato (Tianjin Quanjian), Antonio Valencia (Man United), Mateo Musacchio (AC Milan), Denys Cheryshev (Valencia), Luciano Vietto (Fulham)