Javi Calleja has hit the ground running since stepping up from the B team to take over Villarreal back in September.
There were plenty of fears surrounding Estadio de la Ceramica when Villarreal turned to B team boss Javi Calleja following the sacking of Fran Escriba almost two months ago.
However, few could have foreseen the impact the former midfielder could have in his first spell as a senior manager, following five years with younger players at the club.
Calleja walked into the job well respected after represented the Yellows for seven years between 1999 and 2006 – he’s thought of as a Groguet through and through, despite being from the capital.
That reputation may have given him a slight head start, it may have given him some leniency among supporters, but he hasn’t needed it.
The 39-year-old has hit the ground running and he remains unbeaten in the league and Europa League, with his only defeat arriving against Ponferradina in the Copa Del Rey after making wholesale changes.
And they haven’t all been straightforward results either; Villarreal ended Astana’s 17-match unbeaten home run in Europe on Thursday to secure top spot in their Europa League group with a game to spare, and last month defeated Slavia Praha away in famously difficult circumstances.
In the league, El Submarino have have taken a point from Wanda Metropolitano, drawing with Atletico Madrid, they did the same at San Mames against Athletic Club, and they have won all three home league games since Calleja’s appointment.
It’s been a fantastic start for the young boss and to his credit, he has gone about things in his own way to ensure that.
He immediately switched the formation to a diamond-styled 4-1-2-1-2 to accommodate both strikers and more importantly, to place the creative Pablo Fornals in his rightful attacking midfield position, allowing him to create for the excellent Carlos Bacca and Cedric Bakambu.
Bacca is one of many players who has rediscovered his form under Calleja after struggling to get going on his return to La Liga this season, and Bakambu has enjoyed similar form, securing La Liga’s Player of the Month award.
And on top of all that, Calleja has also brought through a number of youngsters from the B team, where he previously managed, to feature with the first-team.
Rodrigo, who was previously involved, has become a key figure following Bruno Soriano’s injury and Daniel Raba, someone Calleja has brought with him to the first-team squad netted his first goal in the 3-2 win over Astana on Thursday.
So, it’s so far so good for Calleja. He’s getting the results, he’s getting the best out of players and he’s even bringing through talented youngsters, something every football fan likes to see.
However, his biggest tests as manager will arrive in the next few weeks when Villarreal go up against the cream of the crop in La Liga.
The Yellows are currently sitting in sixth place, three points ahead of Real Sociedad in seventh, one point behind the team above, Sevilla, and just three points behind Real Madrid in third.
It’s a position that Villarreal supporters will be more than happy with at this stage of the season, especially after the near disastrous start they suffered to the season under Fran Escriba.
However, whether they can remain there for the next month or so will, perhaps, define their season.
Villarreal’s next seven league fixtures
Sevilla – 5th (home)
Leganes – 8th (away)
Barcelona – 1st (home)
Celta Vigo – 13th (away)
Valencia – 2nd (away)
Deportivo La Coruna – 16th (home)
Real Madrid – 3rd (away)
Javi Calleja certainly has his work cut out as he looks to test his abilities against some of the best in La Liga and Villarreal’s intentions to reach the top five, or perhaps even the top four, will be seriously scrutinised.
They’ve given themselves a great boost by securing top spot in their Europa League group with a game to spare, allowing themselves the opportunity to rest key players, especially given the final European matchday arrives just three days before Barcelona arrive in the province of Castellon.
And the Yellows’ home form, and indeed the ability they have shown to get big points away from home in the last few weeks, could give them a huge confidence boost.
They may also be boosted by the return of key players such as long-serving midfielder Bruno Soriano and talented winger Samu Castillejo, coming in to add strength to the already in-form squad of players that Calleja has at his disposal.
Calleja is firmly in the good books of the Villarreal supporters following this excellent start to his La Liga managerial career, and he has restored the hope that seemed to be quickly fading under Fran Escriba.
However, it will be the between now and the final whistle against Real Madrid on the weekend of January 14th that we find out just what Villarreal and indeed Javi Calleja, are made of this season.