On a beautiful Friday night in Villarreal, at Estadio El Madrigal, the Yellow Submarines produced a stirring second half comeback to sink a desperately unlucky Espanyol outfit 3-1.
Fittingly, the key instigator in their unlikely triumph was undoubtedly the much derided, highly criticised Roberto Soldado. It had to be him.
After a horror spell at Tottenham, where he only scored seven goals during his two years at White Hart Lane, he followed on spectacularly from his goalscoring debut vs Real Betis last week, with another goal and two assists against Espanyol.
What a difference a change of scenery makes. Getting out of what had become a toxic situation for him at Spurs has done him wonders. More than that, returning to a league he knows and one in which he’s had huge success has also been key in him looking a revitalised figure.
“This is a very important step in my career. I’ve been away for two years in which I haven’t been able to give my best, but I’m convinced that I can score lots of goals for Villarreal,” he explained upon his arrival.
“I’ve spent two very difficult years in England where I lost my confidence. Villarreal’s interest has given me the enthusiasm and will to do great things.
“When their offer arrived I didn’t hesitate as it is a great opportunity to return to Spain and join a big club. I want to return to play at a good level and score lots of goals. I want to go back to being the player I used to be.”
Judging from his superb early season form, if there was ever a case study in a player’s happiness being paramount, Soldado’s an ideal example.
While he never truly got going in England, it’s important to note his work rate never came under question at Spurs, which is why, unlike many of his old teammates who also departed Tottenham, Soldado still represented a viable option for many top clubs.
Alex Hess of the Guardian aptly noted: “Roberto Soldado left after an underwhelming spell but unlike the others marked his time at the club with diligence and purpose.”
Marcelino, Villarreal’s outstanding manager, crucially believed the former Spanish international wasn’t finished yet. After all, when you combine the fact that he’s only 30 with his exemplary attitude, it’s easy to see why he was a gamble worth taking. And so far, that gamble is paying off handsomely.
In front of the 17,650 fans that witnessed Villarreal’s home opener, Soldado’s cerebral work off the ball inspired so much for his side. Playing up front alongside another divisive figure in Leo Baptistao, the pair mixed things up nicely by performing subtle switches, but Soldado’s positioning set him apart, providing his side with the spark they needed to get back into the game.
Throughout the first half there were definite signs that Soldado’s ability to situate himself in dangerous areas could make things happen. With Nahuel and Samu Castillejo providing excellent width, this meant the Espanyol fullbacks, Ruben Duarte and Anaitz Arbilla, were often forced to move out to the touchline to mark them. Soldado, realising vast spaces were now being created by the fullbacks having to vacate central locations, would, in turn, slip into positions in between either fullback and their nearest centre back.
By making use of these gaps, Soldado afforded himself the opportunity to receive the ball at his feet or make unimpeded runs in behind, as his marker would not be close enough to hamper his runs by way of applying physical pressure. It must be said the tactic worked swimmingly, and Villarreal’s second goal served as a fine testament to Soldado’s clever movement.
Here, Soldado’s ability to find unoccupied space proved vital. Upon observing Victor Ruiz in possession around the halfway line, Soldado took a couple of steps to his right to get bang in between Espanyol’s two central defenders (Alvaro Gonzalez and Raillo). Ruiz duly obliged Soldado’s clever movement, passing tidily into his feet. Once Soldado gathered Ruiz’s pass, he then swivelled sharply and, out of the corner of his eye, noticed substitute Cedric Bakambu screaming forward to his right. Soldado proceeded to play a delightful, defence-splitting through ball right into the former Bursapor hitman’s path. Bakambu calmly rounded Pau to score and give Villarreal a crucial 2-1 ascendency, but Soldado’s deftness to find space, and slide in a sumptuous ball to Bakambu, was undoubtedly what made the goal.
Furthermore, and although the former Real Madrid man didn’t score from any of his own runs in behind the opposing backline, he still inflicted plenty of headaches on Espanyol with his aptitude in this regard. He constantly made perfect runs into box, but his teammates just couldn’t supply him with adequate service. Nonetheless, the way he’d use his strength to get the better of his opponents, in order to get himself into impeccable scoring positions, continued to make him a real danger.
Although his goal on 67 minutes owed much to his obvious nous and striking instincts, it too gave a distinct lesson in how to outmuscle a marker. In this instance, the 30-year-old, after reading Samu’s aerial flick the quickest, gave his marker, Raillo, a forceful shove, in order to garner just enough separation from his man. Then, as the ball dropped, Soldado athletically volleyed the ball home, from waist height, getting just enough power on it to beat Pau. The goal indicated just how dangerous a proposition he can be, as the opportunity that presented itself to Soldado could barely have been considered a half-chance. Raillo thought he had his adversary covered, but Soldado still found a way.
Throughout the match the former Valencia marksman showed why he’s far more than your typical Miroslav Klose style fox in the box forward. Although he remained an effective target man and reference point for his side, he also dropped deep to link play and further showed his footballing acumen by demonstrating a great understanding with both his strike partners on the night, Baptistao and Cedric Bakambu. Whenever one dropped deep, one would stay high, meaning they never crossed paths or got in each other’s way. This ensured an option was always present upfield and that the midfielders weren’t left without a forward option.
Marcelino must be given due credit for how well synchronised his forwards’ movements was though. He’s well known for his masterful work on the training ground, but to have his frontmen working so magnificently in tandem at this early stage of the season is a huge testament to his tremendous managerial ability.
If there’s one thing Soldado can be grateful for developing during his underwhelming time at Spurs, it’s the defensive side of his game. Learning from Mauricio Pochettino especially helped in this regard, and as a consequence, he pressed and defended with a high level of energy against the Parakeets.
To cap off his night, Soldado bagged a second assist, once again teeing up Bakambu. But the way this goal arose was actually rather fortuitous, as the ball fell right into his path, after it’d landed perfectly for him following a deflection off Raillo. He only had to square the ball for his strike partner to score, and he did just that. Bakambu immediately turned and gratefully pointed to Soldado, as he knew he couldn’t have gotten his double without the Spaniard.
While the performance wasn’t vintage Soldado, his influence on the contest was unmistakable.
“I’ve been needing a game like that,” he noted after the match.
“My level in England wasn’t good. Let’s see if I can continue like this and hopefully in the future I can return to the Spain squad, which is what every player wants.
“I still have to work hard to get back to my best. A striker wants to score important goals that help the team. We reacted well to going down and Cedric Bakambu gave us a lot.”
In truth, Soldado really couldn’t have made a better start to life at his new club. He’s been involved in all four of his side’s goals so far this campaign (2 goals and 2 assists), but more than that, he appears well on his way to regaining his confidence again that was so badly shattered in England.
Costing a sizeable £10 million, he’s still got some way to go towards repaying the faith the club have placed in him, but if Soldado can keep up his terrific form, there’s no reason why he can’t do so, and, in the process, become one of the signings of the season.
He couldn’t be at a better place to get the best out of himself either, for under Marcelino’s expert tutelage, he’ll be given every chance to shine. After losing a plethora of their best attackers from last season, including Luciano Vietto, Ikechukwu Uche, Giovani dos Santos and Gerard Moreno, Soldado’s form will be essential if Villarreal are to enjoy a successful campaign.
We probably won’t see him get back to the same level as he reached in his days at Valencia, but in Soldado’s case, it’s just simply great to see him playing, scoring and, most importantly, enjoying his football again.
About the author – Edward Stratmann
Edward Stratmann writes regularly about the on-field aspects of the game, with a particular focus on tactics and analysis. In addition to featuring on These Football Times, Inside Spanish Football, Anfield Index, Just Football, The Eagles Beak, Think Football Ideas and JuveFC, you can also find Edward’s work at Licence to Roam, a football blog he started with his brother in 2013.
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