Birmingham were outside title favourites with bet365 at the start of the season, and their promotional hopes hang on buying talented players and keeping them injury free. Enter Fran.
Fran Villalba is a 21 year old attacking midfielder. Blues acquired Villalba from Valencia and handed the youngster a 3-year contract. The diminutive midfielder made his debut in Blues home opener against Bristol City and impressed fans with some fancy flicks and neat passing.
Villalba was born in Valencia and is a product of their academy. He spent 3 seasons playing for Valencia’s B team in the Spanish third tier. With each season spent with Valencia B, Villalba’s game time and performance levels increased, so much so that he was loaned to Numancia in the Spanish second tier last season.
Villalba’s main strength is his delivery from wide areas, whether it be from set pieces or open play; of his 4 assists last season, 2 of them came from free kicks he whipped into the box. Blues fans got a glimpse of Villalba’s set piece capabilities in his first game against Bristol City, with his deliveries assisting 3 shots.
Villalba has a habit of finding space on the corner of the penalty area and curling crosses into the far post. It was this movement that nearly worked to full effect against Bristol City as Villalba picked out Lukas Jutkiewicz, but the big striker was unable to connect properly with his header. This passage of play could be the beginning of a fruitful relationship between Villalba and Juke, whose technique of looping headers back across goal seems perfectly suited to Villalba’s far post crosses.
Villalba is a high-volume, accurate passer; he averages 35 to 40 passes per game and completes more than 80% of them. He is also proficient at progressing the ball to the final third: while there were 84 players in the league who matched his 6.5 passes to the final third last season, only 14 players were as accurate as Villalba, who completed 77% of these passes. Although Villalba’s progressive passing does not particularly stand out in isolation, his combination of ball progression and chance creation is a rare skillset.
Villalba has also shown the ability to find space in midfield and hit passes in behind the defence for attackers to run onto. However Blues are lacking a forward who will make these runs; if Blues can find a more dynamic striker, they may be able to unlock another weapon of this Spanish acquisition.
Villalba is an accomplished dribbler, attempting approximately 4 take-ons per game and completing more than half of them. However, he does not use his pace to knock the ball past defenders and run onto it, it is Villalba’s quick feet and low centre of gravity that allow him to manoeuvre out of tight spaces with regularity. This is an invaluable skill and Blues fans have seen this part of Villalba’s game in his appearances to date, but there are also regular incidences of Villalba being knocked off the ball with ease, and this is a concern. Villalba will have to adapt to the more physical nature of the Championship and become more selective about when to take a player on rather than laying off to a team mate.
Villalba is not a prolific goalscorer, nor is he someone who takes a high volume of shots, he averaged 1.1 shots per 90 minutes last season. He has a tendency to take speculative shots from distance when cutting in from the left flank, but he is yet to score from any of these shots, rarely even hitting the target. However he has shown a desirable ability to make late runs into the box and finish off cutbacks and loose balls from the edge of the penalty area.
Overall, the purchase of Villalba seems to be a smart one from Blues. At 21 years of age, he still has time to develop and has shown progression in each season of his young career so far. He has plenty of experience considering his tender age, having played nearly 7000 minutes in the Spanish second and third tiers, and has shown clear signs of promise in that game time.
Villalba has a very similar skillset to that of Dan Crowley, in that they both offer a blend of ball progression and chance creation with their passing, while also being confident dribblers. They are both competent set piece takers, and have predominantly been used as the left sided attacking midfielder in their careers to date. It will be interesting to see whether Clotet finds a way to accommodate both of these players into his starting 11.
Along with Crowley and Ivan Šunji?, Blues now have three accurate passers in midfield who are confident receiving the ball under pressure. This will allow Blues to sustain possession as Clotet desires, and build attacks by passing the ball through midfield. This is something that Blues have been unable to do in previous seasons, leading to managers opting for a more direct style of play.
The addition of Villalba is another instance of Blues recruitment strategy of adding young players who have proved themselves in lesser known European leagues. While Villalba may not be an automatic starter straight away, he will at the very least be a useful squad player and an adequate fill-in for Dan Crowley.