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Matt Gunn writes a comprehensive tactical analysis about the Europa League match that ended Athletic Bilbao 3-2 Sassuolo.
Matchday five of the Europa League settled a tense Group F which, before Thursday’s game, saw just one point between 1st placed Genk and 4th placed Rapid Wien. The focus of today’s analysis, however, is on the matchup between 2nd placed Athletic Bilbao and 3rd placed Sassuolo.
Led by the Europa League’s top scorer, Aduriz, Bilbao headed into the tie in good form, having secured a valuable three points at home to Villareal over the weekend prior. Sassuolo, however went into the matchup in dreadful form, having gained just three points in their last seven games. Despite Los Leones’ home advantage, the away supporters remained hopeful that they could repeat the result of the two sides’ previous meeting at the Mapei Stadium; which ended 3-0 to I Neroverdi.
In attack, Bilbao shaped up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Aduriz leading the line. Iñaki Williams and Iker Muniain lined up on the wing, offering width in which to stretch Sassuolo’s defensive line and create space for Aduriz to attack in between the lines. Raúl Garcia sat in behind Aduriz as the link between defence and attack. His position on the pitch allowed him to work as a pivot, with his teammates moving around him. Due to Sassuolo’s narrow setup, Garcia saw much less of the ball than Bilbao might have hoped, though with the movement of Muniain and Williams he caused Sassuolo problems throughout the game with sharp, clever passing. Beñat and San José completed the narrow midfield trio, controlling the game from deep and recycling possession well. Balenziaga and the impressive Lekue offered yet more width from wingback-like positions, whilst Laporte and Yeray sat deep in the centre of the pitch, in order to compensate for their fullbacks’ attacking tendencies.
Sassuolo lined up in a more traditional 4-1-4-1 with high wingers. Defrel lead the line in an unfamiliar target man role forced upon him by Bilbao’s deep defensive line. He took to the new role with relative ease, however, linking up with his teammates and doing well to choose the right pass under pressure. Regusa and Ricci occupied the wide areas with some success, causing problems when they eventually managed to get forward, as opposed to tracking Lekue and Balenziaga toward their own goal. Pellegrini and Biondini were quiet in the centre of the park while Magnanelli sat in front of the back line as a kind of security blanket. Acerbi and Cannavaro held the line at the back with the help of Lirola and Gazzola, who struggled to get forward to support their team because of Bilbao’s width in attack.
The importance of the fixture ran through both teams’ heads as they started the game slowly, with neither team willing to get the ball on the ground and create an opening. Sassuolo kept men in the middle of the field and remained vertically narrow, cutting the passing lanes and forcing Bilbao to attack down the wings with long balls, thus, keeping playmaker Raúl Garcia off the ball. This approach worked to their advantage almost immediately, after a horrendous defensive error from Yeray gifted Defrel the ball inside Bilbao’s defensive third. A clever run from Regusa opened up the angle for Defrel to pass the ball towards the byline inside Bilbao’s area. Though a good delivery into the area, Regusa’s cross was uncontested by Ricci who was at the far post, instead, Balenziaga panicked and swung his foot wildly towards the ball. Sassuolo were suddenly 1-0 up away from home within two minutes.
Given their advantage, Sassuolo happily invited Bilbao’s pressure and looked to hit them on the break. I Neroverdi sat behind the ball in a zonal marking scheme, rarely pressing Bilbao in their own third of the pitch. This scheme paired with their vertically narrow set up allowed them to carry on cutting off Bilbao’s passing lanes, forcing them wide, and thus making it easier to regain their defensive shape should they find themselves out of position. Sassuolo were also quick to hit Bilbao on the counter where possible; if Ricci or Regusa were unable to find space on the wing, the ball was played to Defrel in the centre, as he received the ball, one winger cut inside to receive the lay-off while either Pellegrini or Biondini ran beyond Defrel, opening up the space for the third pass. This passing move was used time and time again by Sassuolo and proved successful in breaking down Bilbao’s defensive midfield line.
After their early deficit, Bilbao pressured Sassuolo relentlessly. Valverde recognised Sassuolo’s overload and dropped his defensive line deeper along with his two central midfielders in order to vacate the centre of the field. In addition, he pushed Lekue and Balenziaga further up the pitch to overload the wide areas creating more of a 2-4-2-1 shape. Both Beñat and San José took it in turns to drop deep to receive the ball from the defence and the goalkeeper, with the other positioning himself between Sassuolo’s midfielders in the hope of drawing them out of position – primarily trying to take their focus off the wings. This allowed the respective full back to push forward, creating a favourable matchup against Sassuolo’s lone full back. As Lekue and Balenziaga pushed forward, San José or Beñat drifted wide with the ball. Meanwhile, the winger would move inside to offer an option should Regusa/Ricci cover the full back’s forward run. This in turn pulled Sassuolo’s full back towards the centre of the field, again opening up space behind for Lekue or Balenziaga to attack. If the full back receives the ball, the respective winger would run down the line, and vice versa if the winger received the ball inside. If neither option was available, the ball was simply recycled with short passes across the pitch to the opposite wing, where the same process would happen. If again neither option was available, Bilbao were happy to switch the ball with a long diagonal pass to the opposite wing, in the hope it would reach an open man, or they would benefit from the pressure by winning the second ball.
Bilbao were not only successful in getting the ball into wide areas, their final ball was key. Los Leones made a grand total of thirty-three crosses over the course of the game, as opposed to Sassuolo’s 12. That’s almost one cross every three minutes. Though no goal came from these crosses, Bilbao were able to maintain pressure by winning the second ball off the back of a clearance. Once the ball was won, it went backwards or back out wide, it was never wasted.
Despite the long ball nature of the game and the sheer amount of dangerous balls into each team’s area, both struggled to effectively defend against crosses. In particular, Sassuolo looked shaky when the ball arrived in their box from height. For instance, Bilbao’s first two goals came from corners, of which they had a whopping sixteen; six of which came in the first nine minutes.
Sassuolo strangely opted time and time again for a zonal marking scheme when defending corners, looking to overload the area which Bilbao were attacking by simply having more men around the ball. Their decision to have no one on the front or back post meant that they had seven players in and around the penalty spot, two towards the front post and one on the edge of the area.
Bilbao, on the other hand, had clearly done their homework. Though, given the number of corners they had, they could well have figured it out mid-game. Their first goal came from a corner aimed just behind the front post; where they were no longer outnumbered, it was simply a case of who can jump higher. It could be argued that the Sassuolo player in line with the front post could make it two against three, but let’s be honest, he’s pretty useless stood where he is. Regardless, Sassuolo had the number advantage, yet their marking scheme let them down.
If you look at the starting positions of Bilbao from the corner then at Sassuolo, it’s five against eight. One clever run from Yeray towards the front post drags one Sassuolo defender with him, and leaves the defender in line with the front post (the player previously mentioned) in two minds whether to follow the run or not. As the run hits the edge of the six-yard box, the ball is played in. It’s now one-on-one in the front post area, which Beñat is aiming for. Sassuolo’s numerical advantage is nullified by Yeray’s front post run and Beñat’s delivery – the only advantage Sassuolo now have is at the back post, which is irrelevant. Because Raúl Garcia has run from deep, he automatically has an advantage over any challenging defender because he has a run up to the ball, allowing him to use his momentum to get higher in the air and attack the ball with ease. The defender on the other hand, is caught flat-footed and ball watching. Granted, there’s not a lot he can do to defend Raúl Garcia’s run, he doesn’t actually jump until after the ball has beaten the aforementioned “useless” man; by which time Raúl Garcia is almost a metre above him, moving towards the ball. To add insult to injury, the ball drops down into the bottom corner of the front post – an area covered by a defender sat on the line.
Bilbao’s second goal came from a similar situation, instead the ball was flicked on towards the back post. Sassuolo had shifted their numbers to the front post, leaving Aduriz with a free header to make it 2-1.
Bilbao were not without their own faults when defending balls from wide areas, however. After Balenziaga’s howler in the first few minutes of the game, Bilbao gifted Regusa with an uncontested (albeit difficult, but that’s more down to his positioning and reaction) rebound in their eighteen-yard box. First of all, Missiroli (who the first chance fell to) is completely unmarked in the area. Aymeric Laporte is in an awful position and is essentially useless to Bilbao except to block a potential shot from Politano. Because of Laporte’s poor positioning, Yeray has drifted across to cover the attacker behind his teammate, in turn freeing up Missiroli in the centre. The right back, who at this point is Bóveda, is clueless to Regusa behind him and unable to get into the correct position to mark Missiroli and stop the ball from reaching him. A stunning ball from Politano is clawed away by Herrerín into the path of Regusa, who smashes the ball into the roof of the net to make it 3-2.
Thursday’s key matchup was void of any real technical brilliance and ended in a result predicted by many. Bilbao were on the front foot for the majority of the game, yet failed to punish Sassuolo and kill the game when they had the chance. Sassuolo on the other had will regret their missed opportunities which were few and far between.
Beñat stood out for me as the game’s top performer, despite not getting the man of the match award. His movement across midfield and decision making on the ball allowed Bilbao to attack Sassuolo in waves until they finally broke down. He remained under the radar, yet pulled the strings in what was at times a convincing win.
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