San Mames is a notoriously hard stadium to play in, as visiting teams often find themselves wavering in front of the intense Bilbo crowd and team during the 90 minutes of the game. Since the first sound of the whistle, Bilbao approached the game with a robust and intense style. Playing hard, aggressive and direct, the first 10-20 minutes of the game did not see Bilbao risk anything in the build up, but instead preferred to play longer towards the opposing half, in order to force the high-lines of Barcelona to drop deeper. This long balls approach worked as it forced Ter-Stegen out of the goal to head it away, leaving his goal completely exposed which was duly punished by what may turn out to be a contender for goal of the season. San Jose got to the 2nd ball and shot directly into the open goal from 40 yards out, resulting in a 1-0 lead for Bilbao after 15 minutes of the Super Copa Espana.
This is though not what won Bilbao the game, the difference instead was how they approached the game in the defensive tactical aspects. I have many times asked myself, what could be the best possible way to counter this amazing style of teams such as Barcelona or Bayern. This has led me to study teams that have beaten the duo in recent times and the approaches are very similar. The first system that comes to mind is the 4-4-2 with zonal-defending, including the 2 strikers working hard in defense.
The Sweden U-21 side, for example, went on to win the Euro U-21 tournament with this kind of approach and also in Premier League, West Ham recently beat Arsenal away. It may not be the most attractive style, but it seems to be pretty efficient.
* Take notice, that I do not say this is the right or wrong way, as I do not believe there are right or wrong ways, only that this seems to me be a very efficient approach vs possession oriented teams.
ATHLETIC BILBAO 4-0 BARCELONA
Athletic Bilbao (from left to right – 4-4-2): 1. Iraizoz // 10. Marcos 16. Etxeita 4.Laporte 24. Balenziaga // 14. Susaeta 7. Benat 6. Jose 25. Sabin // 5. Eraso 20. Aduriz
Barcelona line up (from right to left – 4-3-3): 1. Ter Stegen // 6. Alves 15. Bartra 23. Vermaelen 21. Adriano // 14. Mascherano 12. Rafinha 20. Roberto // 10. Messi 9. Suarez 7. Pedro
The 4-4-2 is exactly how the Bilbao lined-up off the ball. Why 4-4-2 you may ask? Because first of all the 4-4-2 covers most percentage of the pitch, this more than any other formation. This means that if implemented well, it basically blocks the majority of the pitch. Like Lucien Favre’s Mönchengladbach, Bilbao played with two very tight vertical lines of 4 men in line, to not give Barcelona any space to play in-between, thus meaning that a lot of the focus was to occupy or block the central area of the pitch, and force the opponents to the flank.
Now when the ball is centrally positioned, the 4-4-2 is good for the cover of the pitch both central and vertical, last mentioned depends though to how the coaches want to use the formation for-ex: how high do you want your last defending line to be positioned and so on.
Now many might think that switching play with diagonal balls is the way to counter this defense, which of course is at times efficient because it may leave the winger on a 1v1 with the fullback (as Tom Payne’s amazing article on spielverlagerung.com focused on), but if the defending side is aware in such switch-of play situations, then this can easily be countered.
Athletic Club showed different ways to defend against these kind of situations vs FC Barcelona in the 1st leg of Super Copa Espana. When these diagonal-balls/switches of play situations occur, it is vital that the central-midfielder and right midfielder help the full-back on the 1v1, to create an overload.
Three lines in total seen here, with two lines of 4-men and the two strikers upfront. Notice how compact Bilbao are horizontally and vertically with a major focus on staying compact and blocking the central area. The help of the strikers is important here as it leaves only the flanks for Barcelona to play. Here we see how Mascherano is positioned to switch play/play the diagonal.
A diagonal pass played by Mascherano to the isolated Alves on the flank. While the ball was in the air Bilbao switched over to the right flank, with 2 players pressing intensively creating a 2v1 against Alves, who lost the ball out for a Bilbao throw in. Notice how the central defenders of Bilbao have switched over and also how the central midfielders are covering spaces behind.
In the above image we see Roberto being pressed on the ball with the other striker focused on the pivot of Barcelona (Mascherano) which I will talk more about further on. Here is a situation where Barca has tried to play their switch of positional-play, with Roberto in the flank, Alves as the CM and Messi centrally, cutting inside as he wishes too. This has led to Eraso following Messi.
Here we can see the vertically compact lines of Bilbao. Aduriz failed the attempt to stop the passing to Mascherano, who then was able to find Messi now in the half-space (Aduriz now marking Mascherano). Here many Messi has attracted players centrally which then leaves as I said, flanks open for the diagonal-ball.
Now in these ’’danger-zones’’ at times you have to implement a man-to-man, which makes the CM very important (this is often seen when Atletico Madrid are defending). Rafinha starts to penetrate the half-space, when instead of leaving Rafinha to Laporte playing zonally, Benat continues his marking on Rafinha which opens up a space in between the lines. Here the man-marking is vital as Laporte continues his marking on Suarez, who is the one penetrating the ‘’free space’’. Suarez receives a pass with the back against the goal and plays a bad one-touch pass to Rafinha due to the pressing/marking from behind of Laporte. This shows another way of how to counter and defend against the switch of play/diagonal ball. (Similarities in the defending style of Manchester United v Barcelona in pre-season, where the CB followed Suarez, meaning that leaving he left his position/zone of CB to follow Suarez, as the zone left open, will be covered by another teammate)
Pressing vs Barcelona
Bilbao did though as I mentioned earlier, play with an intense and aggressive approach throughout the 90 minutes of the game. I asked myself (so did the pundit) will the Bilbao players keep up with this pace, and they did.
Important for this system to work against Barcelona is the pressing in different situations.
Whenever Barcelona tried to build play from a dead-ball , Bilbao formed the 4-4-2 shape to a 4-4-1-1 formation, by dropping one of the two strikers deeper to mark the pivot, while the other striker invited Barca to an area to then start the pressing and block the passing lanes.
The ball is centrally positioned here meaning that the vertical lines are compacted as I mentioned before, leaving Barcelona to play the ball out to the flank. Pressing traps have become fashionable which is nothing but a term to describe an intense pressing approach to win the ball back towards the throw-in line. Notice the 2 strikers basically blocking and marking the opportunities to find a pass to the pivot, which is an important aspect in the defense.
Vermaelen now on the ball and as soon as he played the pass to Adriano, the intense pressing started against Barcelona, who now were playing down the touch-line. Notice how the strikers have changed their roles in defense the furthest away from the ball or nearest Mascherano marks Mascherano while the other presses and vacates the space (the way many teams use their strikers in futsal, one strikers blocks the passing lane between diagonally while the other presses the opponent).
Situation leads to a numbers game to try and stop the build-up from Barcelona as you can see: every Bilbao player in this area is marking a player to force Barca to an error. Aduriz tries to cover shadow the passing lane to the goal keeper while holding his run for an eventual pass to Vermaelen. Adriano bypasses the pressing by playing a diagonal towards Bartra. Now while the ball is in the air, again the switch-of play in defense is very important for Bilbao and for the 4-4-1-1 pressing to work.
Again now Aduriz has switched to mark Mascherano while the other striker focuses on pressing Bartra on the ball again notice the diagonal positioning between the two strikers in defending. We can see how high the midfield line is now playing with all 4-men in a line to stop Barcelona from building the play in possession as they so desire. Take notice also how well and rapidly Bilbao has switched over from one flank to the other. Now Messi is really smart and starts to position himself between the lines near Benat to create an overload, Benat who has Roberto in front has a decision to make, should he focus on Messi or Roberto.
I have told you about the different approach in intensity/pressing in relation to the position of the ball, and the exceptional defense in switch-of play of Bilbao in this situation. Now as I have shown you before with Suarez and how Laporte followed his movement towards a free-space, Bilbao implemented a man-to-man-ish approach to solve these situations.
Because a long diagonal ball from Bartra is way too long for him to be play, the right-back of Bilbao has positioned himself nearer the central-defenders to create a 3-man defending line, thus focusing on the real threat which is on the right side of Barcelona/left side of Bilbao (not seen in the picture). This gives Balanzegia (the left-fullback of Bilbao) the opportunity to follow Messi’s movement and mark him which leaves Bartra to force it long towards the ‘’free-space’’ of which Messi has left (Balenziaga was often the one to play 1v1 against Messi, or mark him).
Long ball played to Suarez who has started to penetrate the free-space which Messi has left, this to stretch out the 3-man defending line of Bilbao, which forces Laporte to follow his movement towards the flank.
Barcelona tries to transition directly to threaten the open defense of Bilbao with 3v2 in their own half-pitch, but Balenziaga covers nicely for Laporte as the Central-Defender to create a compacted 4-man defending line.
Situation leads to a switch of play, to the other flank where Bilbao once again press intensely with many men behind the ball now again shaped as the 4-4-2.
A very tired and slow Barcelona with Lucho trying out many new faces showed defensive vulnerabilities and likewise problems in the attacking play. There were situations when Rafinha and Roberto dropped deeper to receive the ball in more open-spaces away from their marking Centre-midfielders to try and help with the build-up, this gave Adriano more chance to penetrate higher up the pitch with Pedro cutting-inside horizontally between the defending lines. This was not only to overload the wide areas but also to manipulate the man marking system: for example Benatia following Rafinha in a deeper position/area to leave a gap open to exploit.
This gave Pedro time to advance with the ball as Suarez drag opponents away from the half-space with his diagonal-dummy runs, thus causing disturbance in the defence for Bilbao. Otherwise a very predictable and slow Barcelona, who just couldn’t be seen to compete with the intensity level of Bilbao throughout the entire game. This shows how vital Rakitic, Iniesta and Busquets’ positional play are especially important in the build up play into more advanced areas of the pitch as Mascherano often found himself in a position to receive the ball too close to the central-defenders and ending up doing the same job. Mascherano was needed to connect the play more which is why Busquets has such an importance for this Lucho style of play to work.
Barcelona are also showing overall major defensive problems, not only in this game but throughout the entire pre-season and especially now in the two competitive matches where they have conceded 8 goals in 2 games, meaning that Lucho has a lot of focus on the defensive organization this upcoming season!
Written by Albin Sheqiri
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