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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Atletico Madrid | Clash of two organised sides


Ryan Tank analyses the mid-week La Liga clash that ended Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Atletico Madrid


The clash of two organized sides with Atletico Madrid coming out as the winner as they capitalized from their attacking principle. Both sides displayed a compact defense which made it quite difficult for both clubs in creating chances.

Athletic Bilbao: Kepa, Lekue, Nunez, Laporte, Balenziaga, Iturraspe, Jose, Susaeta, Garcia, Muniain, Adruiz

Atletico Madrid: Oblak, Gimenez, Savic, Godin, Luis, Koke, Partey, Niguez, Gaitan, Correa, Griezmann

Compact defense as a result of the coordinated press

In Atletico’s first line of their early third build up, there were two center halves as the first agent of ball distribution. When both full backs stayed close to the center half duo, the 6 duo would go narrow but slighly higher than the full backs’ line. But, when the full backs went higher up the pitch, which occurred in most of Atletico’s build up, the 6-duo dropped deeper with one of them staying as the central six and the other occupied the ball side half space or, at times, stayed in the same line with Savic and Diego Godin, Atletico’s center halves.

Against this, Bilbao came up with a 4-4-2 basic shape. The first line of their press occupied Atletico’s central 6 but slightly deeper as they looked to contain Atletico progression through the central 6. If the 9 duo stepped forward toward the opponent’s center halves, then the task to contain Atletico’s 6 would be taken by the nearest central midfieder.

When Atletico played the ball to the wing or to the one in the half space, Bilbao’s near wide man would step up toward the receiver. Sometimes, the said wide man failed to press the receiver and it allowed Atletico to gain the space to play a diagonal pass to the deeper striker who dropped to the space between Bilbao’s central midfielder. Here the individual defensive awareness and the compact shape, in general, often managed to close the space and prevented Atletico from generating more valuable attacking actions.

When they lost the shape for a while, Bilbao’s pressing block was also still able to recover quickly. For example, when the 9 duo parted too far away horizontally and Atletico’s back line managed to access Thomas Partey at the 6, Bilbao’s 9 was still able to react quickly by moving toward Partey. This was also supported by the middle-line as they narrowed the shape and shortened the horizontal gap within the line. As expected, Atletico lost the progression chance and were forced to play it back.

A quick formation recovery by Bilbao’s middle line and forward line. Such a quick reaction enabled Bilbao players to isolate Partey (the one with ball) and forced him to play it back to the back line.

In the beginning of the 1st half, when Bilbao’s high block press allowed no clean access to Atletico’s deep build up, Diego Godin and co played a lot of floated long balls right from the first line into either the space behind Bilbao’s press or right to the strikers in the last line.

In a settled possession phase, it hardly effected Atletico’s ability to by pass the hosts’ press. Only from some  transitional situations the away side could find the way to breakthrough Bilbao’s pressing block. Atletico’s collective pressure-resistance had to also be taken into account as it enabled them to bypass the gegenpress and helped in making progression in attack by playing the ball into the space behind Bilbao’s middle-line.

Bilbao first line of build up itself was established by the two center halves which was supported by the 6 duo. Situationally, one of the 6, mainly Iturraspe would drop to the back line and transition into a three-chain with one of the 6 staying in the second line. The fact that Atletico pressed with two forwards in their first line made it highly possible for Bilbao to bypass it easily. They just had to play it to one side then switched to the far half back to generate big space for the progression into Atletico’s half. In such a situation, the one to progress the ball to the second line was the half back or the 6 in the second line.

Sometimes, it occurred that Bilbao overloaded the second line with 5 players, which consisted of the 8 duo, two-full backs, and an inverted winger. But when the circulation came into the wide area, Bilbao would leave two players to stay on the far side with two or three players staying on the strong side. In this situation, Atletico started to establish a stronger overload than the hosts. Why? Because they only needed to deal with three players of Bilbao. If then Bilbao developed the wide dynamic by using two of nearest players (as one player stayed in the center), Atletico would make it even more simple for them to gain the numerical superiority.

Touchline overload. Atletico establshed a 3 vs 2 in the half space and flank. Griezmann drooped very deep to put Bilbao’s 6 behind his cover shadow. The three players in red circles are: two players who stayed on the weak side and one player who stayed in the center.

This situation occurred over and over and made it hard for Bilbao to progress deep into Atletico’s defense. The hosts were able to bypass the first wave of Atletico’s press but found it highly difficult when they approached into Atletico’s early third.

1st Half: Bilbao slightly better than Atletico in terms of progression

One of the most striking aspect in the first half was how bad Atletico were when it came for them to play floated long balls right from the first line to the last line. Such weak display had been constantly occurring until around 20 minutes into the first half.

Against Bilbao’s first wave of press, Atletico made a lot of deep passes to the last line. The problem was this was easily dealt with by Bilbao’s deep players because they could intercept such passess and claimed a lot of the second balls.

On another occasion, Atletico generated the chance to play shorter passes. For instance, they created a short combination in the center or half space before switching it to the full back who occupied the far half space or far flank. But, again, the horizontal shift of Bilbao’s block was quick enough to handle such a wide attack. After 20 minutes or so Diego Simeone’s boys were actually able to show some improvement eventhough, in general, there was no significant change.

Sometimes, Koke and co managed to find clean access as they made use of the space between Bilbao’s middle line and back line followed by a vertical pass to the last line. It was a better attacking situation compared to the one explained above. But, the issue was apparent, Atletico’s progression to the last line often seemed to be easily defended against as they were bad in executing passes, bad first touch, or bad timing of deep runs from the receiver.

Bilbao’s compactness level was not always top notch, yes. But, when it occurred to be beaten quickly, the hosts’ players managed to make a quick recovery and made it hard for Atletico to get an easy access.

On the other hand, Bilbao displayed many clean progressions in their build up as they played the ball gradually from the first line to the second line before approaching the final third. Ziganda’s players displayed aggressive possession play as they pushed the full back high up the pitch. Even the center half situationally acted as the semi-full back, moved higher into the middle third, and occupied the half space to cover the full back.

In their final third attack, Bilbao often made double wing occupation. But, sometimes, the high and wide full back occupied the same line horizontally to the inverted winger in the half space. This was often done as it purposely created space in the near half space or, alternatively, to create space in the center. In the first half it appeared that they had focused slightly more to the right side more than the left one.

The positional structure of the full back and winger had some different meanings. The first one, was to open the half space for the same side full back to run into after a quick pass to the near winger. For example, Inigo Lekue, the right full back, and Mikael Susaeta, the right winger occupied the right touchline in a straight line. Right after Lekue received a pass from the deeper player, he would play a wall pass with Susaeta. And along with the pass he made, Lekue made an arch run into the “empty’ half space to receive the return pass from Susaeta.

Double occupation on the wing and a quick wall pass

The second purpose was to create space in the near half space for the 10 to receive. From here, the next action could be either a wide pass to the onrushing wing player or a direct float cross into the 18-yard box by the 10 himself.

Double occupation on the wing and the opened space in the near half space for the 10 (Garcia) to receive.

The third purpose was to create space for the center forward to receive in the central area. In this situation, there was two different positional structures identified. The first one was the full back who occupied the flank and the winger moved narrower into the half space. From the deeper area, the ball carrying player made a chipped pass to Aritz Aduriz followed by a flick on to the onrushing winger near to him. This method was used to create space for the full back to make a cross into the box.

Aduriz flick on to Muniain managed to create a progression lane in the near half space and, in turn, it also opened the space for the full back (Balenziaga)

The final purpose was to open the space in the center by occupying the near half space and flank. As the central passing lane was opened up, the ball carrier could play a direct pass to the central forward. Such a pass can be done by playing a flat ground pass or either a chipped pass to the striker who ran directly toward the opponent’s goalie.

Aduriz ran toward the penalty box

Until this stage, Bilbao were better because they were able to perform their own possession and showed some of their attacking principles. Compared to the progression style of Atletico’s progression which mainly relied on the float deep passes, Bilbao managed to gain more clean accesses.

But, when it came for the hosts to get into the penalty area (the chance creation and execution phase), the issues occurred. Bilbao’s chance creation often followed by a cross into the box and against such passing plays, Atletico’s deep block was clearly more than ready to deal with it. No dangerous situation, to be fair. Bibao were better when circulating the ball but they found it hard to break Atletico’s back line in the execution phase.

Atletico capitalized their principle

In the second half, Atletico performed better – Koke’s movement to the center area of the playing block often helped them to create a strong local overload for strong ball circulation against Bilbao’s narrow block. On the other hand, this also often created space in the wide area for Atletico to create progression access.

Apart from the goal and particularly after the first one, Simeone made a basic formation change. He played a dynamic 4-5-1. Griezmann and Carrasco on the wing, Correa in the 9 space, and Koke, Saul, and Partey in the central midfield. This made it even harder for Bilbao as Atletico played with three central midfielders which meant there was stronger coverage in the central area as well as improved width. With better width and more presence in the central area, Atletico found the more comfortable condition in playing their typical highly-narrow structured possession.

One of their principles of attack was to play deep passes from the back line to the last line. This has long been a strategy in Atletico’s ball progression regime. In the first half, it hardly was a effective tactic as Bilbao’s block managed to handle it well. But, as time went by, Atletico managed to improve it. One of the key tactics was the use of Jose Gimenez as the deep passing target. There were a couple of occasions in the first half, where Atletico managed to get a valuable flick on with the long ball played to the head of Gimenez.

Atletico used Saul Niguez in such situations if Saul played as the wide man. Or when they also played Fernando Torres, these two players would have been alternately taking this specific role. Without Saul on the wing and Torres on the bench, the only logical option was Gimenez.

In German football term, this is called zugriffserzeugend, which is one of the method to trigger a gegenpressing situation. Zugriffserzeugend consciously focused on the second ball after a vertical pass. The consequence is clear, it initially is a way to play with relatively low probability of success. In the first half, after some slightly improvement in their long ball play, Atletico managed to get some clean attacking situation in Bilbao’s early third but they couldn’t get the maximum result as the first half ended up 0-0.

In the second half, Simeone’s boys improved it significantly. Two goals were triggred by such a strategy. The first goal started by a long pass from Savic to Angel Correa. Laporte managed to head it clear, but a very good turn around and vertical run by Koke which was established by his very good 2nd ball orientation movement enabled him to regain possession. A beautiful triangle offense among Griezmann, Koke, and Correa finally resulted in the first goal.

The second goal also came from a similar situation. A long throw in was flicked on forward by Griezmann. The ball fell rightly to Carrasco who directly faced the goalkeeper. His shot to the right hand post resulted in the second goal for Atletico.

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