Blueprint propelling 'Yellow Submarine'

Villarreal have been forced to sell their star players and utilise their academy – and it's working a treat. Ian Herbert pays a visit

There's nothing to suggest that the bumpy drive towards the former olive grove in eastern Spain now known as La Ciudad Deportiva is leading to one of European football's most remarkable establishments.

There are no players' Ferraris in the car park and no security staff patrolling the gates; only a few teenagers ambling in under the morning sun, boots strung back over their shoulders.

It's the map of the European continent above the central staircase in reception which reveals that the custodians of this place – Villarreal – have travelled far in a short time. Manchester United, Everton, Arsenal, Middlesbrough and Celtic are among the equipos rivales plotted on the map, each being among the opposition during the club's nine consecutive years of European competition. Tottenham know a bit about the club too, having come calling to this place during the summer in pursuit of the 25-year-old winger Santi Cazorla, though chairman Daniel Levy's informal inquiry never hardened into a firm bid. United have Villarreal to thank for one winger who did travel north: Antonio Valencia.

Tonight pitches the club against Barcelona at the Nou Camp. It ought to be as big a mismatch as they come: the representatives of an unprepossessing ceramics town one hour's drive north of Valencia up against the epitome of Spain's unique footballing aesthetic. But the "Yellow Submarine" enter the game third in La Liga, only two points behind Pep Guardiola's side. Win at the Nou Camp and they will surface above them, level at the top with Real Madrid who play tomorrow – a fitting accomplishment for a side who, by popular consensus, display a creative style which equates only with Barcelona's in the Spanish game. The sports paper AS described Villarreal's 2-0 defeat of Atletico Madrid last month an "ode to football". The epithets included "marvellous, magnificent, a footballing symphony". For El Pais, the side were "delicious," the paper concluding that "there is a team coming up behind those footballing locomotives Madrid and Barcelona: Villarreal, a delight of a team that builds passing triangles, that links up wonderfully, that moves like angels..."

None of which reveals the gamble the club took this summer. Beset by the recessionary chill which has hit their owner's ceramics business, Villarreal released or sold nine established players, including Robert Pires, to reduce the wage bill by 15 per cent, brought in only two – including Borja Valero, on loan from West Bromwich Albion – and promoted no fewer than 10 of the club's 'B' side to the first team. That the club should have started the season in this way is an affirmation of a philosophy which it has clung to since Fernando Roig, a wealthy purveyor of bathroom suites, bought it in 1997 and installed his son, Fernando Roig Alfonso, to run it.

When Roig jnr began a few afternoons' work a week at the club, then in the Spanish second division, there were three full-time employees outside of the coaching and playing staff and only one pitch at the Ciudad. He quickly hired Manuel Pellegrini as coach and established with him a certain philosophy which was to run through the club at all levels. "It has always been the same idea," Roig jnr says. "We like to keep the possession of the ball. We always had those kind of players. If you go back over the past five or six years, it's always been Barcelona and us like that. Barcelona because they have won everything and because their potential is much bigger than us happen to be the ones who are known for that style of game."

Roig jnr admits he has been unwilling to recruit those with different ideas – "we tell them: if you don't like the way we do things, don't come," he says – though when Pellegrini left for Real Madrid 18 months ago, he hired an outsider, Ernesto Valverde, who did try to change the system – and failed. Struggling with the Spaniard's higher tempo game, Villarreal fell into the relegation zone and though they eventually rallied to 10th under his management, Valverde was sacked. Roig jnr went back to the Villarreal bootroom, hiring Juan Carlos Garrido – quintessentially one of the club's own, who joined 13 years ago from small local side, Le Puig, to run the youth set-up. Garrido had also taken the youthful B team to a highest ever fourth in the Spanish second tier the season before last. Returning to Pellegrini's South American-style 4-4-2 formation, he marched them to within two points of a Europa League spot last season – and Malaga's ban saw them into that tournament.

The transfer philosophy is as clearly prescribed as the football philosophy. Buy individuals on modest salaries whom you can move on, build a production line of players by investing heavliy in a cantera (academy) and make the progression simple by maintaining the same style of football at all levels. "The other day we counted 50 players in the First and Second Division who have come from our youth system," says Roig jnr, whose investment in the Ciudad has been around £35m to date. "That's five players per year over the past 10 years." Few of those are household names – Javi Calleja, now at Osasuna, and Javi Venta, sold to Levante, were two of the first to come through – but they have served their purpose and never demanded a fortune in pay. Equally typical was Cesar Arzo, now at Valladolid, whose 40 games included a place in the 2006 Champions League semi- final team that faced Arsenal.

The 25-year-old Cazorla - signed at 16 and who only missed Spain's World Cup campaign through injury – is one of relatively few who have commanded big bids. "We had a £16m offer from Real Madrid, who tried to sign him twice. Spurs' interest didn't materialise into an official offer."

Antonio Valencia was bought as a teenager, though it was his performance at the 2006 World Cup, rather than any major achievements at Villarreal which saw him on his way to Wigan Athletic, then Old Trafford. "We were lucky that he had a good World Cup," Roig jnr says. "When he left, he was not playing in the first team. We liked him – but maybe we didn't think he would make it to United."

The Ecuadorean's struggles to make it in Spain were compounded by the fact that Villarreal's B team then played in the third tier, where foreign players are not permitted. In the second tier, where Barcelona have joined Villarreal's second-string side this season, two imports per club are permitted - including Villarreal's 21-year-old Jefferson Montero, another Ecuadorean winger whom Roig considers one of his most exciting prospects.

"You don't want to have a 19-year-old who doesn't know anything about this country, loaned to an old-fashioned coach who doesn't appreciate him," says Roig jnr.

The homespun philosophy is one which Garrido and his owners take to the Nou Camp with confidence this evening. Their side have had two wins and one draw from their last three visits there and their 23 points from 10 games reflects only one defeat all season. Roig snr was asked this week if he would take the current third place at the end of the season. "No," he said. "I want first."

Latest stars to be produced by the Villarreal Academy

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

Santi Cazorla

Probably the most successful player to come through at Villarreal, Cazorla joined at 17 and is now the heartbeat of the side. A stocky, swaggering midfielder with two excellent feet, he was part of Spain's European Championship winning squad in 2008 but missed this year's World Cup through injury.

Jefferson Montero

The young Ecuadorean winger naturally invites comparison with Luis Antonio Valencia, who played for Villarreal before joining Wigan Athletic.

Mateo Musacchio

The 20-year-old Argentine centre-back has made the step up into the first team this year, after a few months with Villarreal B. Lanky and wirey, possibly has some filling out to do.

Bruno Soriano

The hard-working central midfielder has been a fixture in the side at El Madrigal for the last four seasons after coming through the youth teams. He was rewarded with his first Spain cap in August, as a substitute in the 1-1 draw with Mexico.

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