Athletic Bilbao 2 – 2 Barcelona
This was a match dominated by rain and defensive shape which for the majority of the game was won by Biesla. Athletic Bilbao set up as a 4-5-1 with Llorente playing as the lone striker but supported quickly by the effective Susaeta and the eye catching Muniain. Barcelona lined up in their typical 4-1-2-3 shape with a front three of Messi playing as false 9, Fabregas playing in a free role and Adriano cutting in from the left.
Biesler’s Defensive Shape
Bilbao’s tactics was to play a high pressurising game with Llorente closing from the front on Pique and Mascherano. The most interesting aspect was how Bilbao dealt with Barcelona’s attacking front 3. Messi is brilliant we all know but key to his game is the ability to pick the ball from deep positions where he has space to run at defenders. Biesla countered this in two ways, firstly by man marking Messi with Martinez (normally a central midfielder) tracking him into deep positions. In addition Bilbao squeezed the space for the ball to be played into midfield from defence.
This meant that Messi wasn’t able to get on the ball as much as normal but also when he was in possession there was always at least one player in close proximity.
The second risk taken was for Iraola to man mark Adriano. This was a very brave move by Biesla who has a reputation for innovative tactics, as when tracking players in a man for man system there are opportunities to exploit large spaces that can become vacated by a play being out of position. Fortunately for Bilbao, Barcelona weren’t able to exploit this.
Bilbao Making Play Predictable
As previously mentioned Bilbao reduced the space for Barcelona to play in, which meant that for the first 25 minutes, attacks were started by Mascherano and Pique. This would normally come through Xavi and Busquets with a series of quick short passes, however due to Bilbao’s defensive shape the space normally enjoyed by Barcelona was reduced. This enabled Bilbao to make play predictable and force Barcelona to play the ball where Bilbao dictated. By making play predictable Bilbao were able to anticipate where the ball was being played allowing the likes of De Marcos and Iturraspe to intercept the ball quickly before releasing Susaeta and Muniain.
This game had a number of similarities between the recent friendly between Chile and Spain which ended in Spain winning 3-2. In this game Chile played a high defensive line closing the Spanish defence from the front. This was due to Spain having two holding centre midfielders which allowed Chile to push forward and press Spain in their own half forcing long balls to the Chilean defence.
Barcelona Start to dominate
Bilbao looked the better team for the first 25 minutes in both half’s, however no team is able to ‘out work’ Barcelona for the full 90 minutes consequently Barcelona did have large periods of possession. Interestingly Guadiola’s men looked their most dangerous when aping Bilbao with a high defensive line. Looking at the below picture you’d be forgiven for thinking Bilbao were playing from right to left with how high Barcelona’s defence is. This shows just how high they pushed up the field to wrestle control of the game back. This resulted in Martinez and Amorebieta forced to play the long passes to Llorente, who while being one of the only players in the league to be able to physically dominate Pique, meant the influential Muniain was bypassed.
With Bilbao starting to drop deeper larger gaps appeared for the first time in the game gave Messi and co the space they craved for to run at the defence. For the first time Barca looked like they might just over run Biesler’s over stretched team however due to poor decision making Guadiola’s team just couldn’t get the better.
Bilbao were brilliant let’s make that clear they’re work rate was exceptional they used the ball intelligently for most of the game and stuck to Biesler’s tactics to the very end. However for all the strengths Bilbao showed they were equally vulnerable. With the man marking system put in place with the back four this left huge holes and at times confusion with who was doing what. The two largest gaps appeared on Bilbao’s right with Iraola man marking Adriano this left space for Abidal to provide the overlap but outside of the first goal he barely broke forward seemingly being kept deep to keep Barcelona compact in defence. The second frustration was the way the midfield seemed to try and force a killer ball to catch the high Bilbao defensive line.
This game represented a more of a typical Premier League high tempo low possession, full of action game due to the high pressure both teams
put on each through the defensive lines. Biesla will have been disappointed that his team didn’t take all three points and will rue the last minute mistake which left and easy finish for Iniesta. However as Guadiola said in his post match embrace with Biesla “your team are beasts”. Yes they are and they provide hope for the future, whether they have a large enough squad to cope with the physical demands that will be placed upon them playing this game is still to be seen but Bilbao will be a match for anyone based on this performance.