Week 23 Observations

Some thoughts on three key games played this weekend in La Liga:-

Levante 1 Malaga 2

Despite both being considered as prime candidates to secure European berths, Europa League and Champions League respectively, both sides recent form was more akin to that of relegation candidates.

Levante began this weekend in ninth place with Malaga in fourth but both sides have lost momentum recently. Levante have lost five of their last seven games whilst Malaga have just one league win in 2013. Indeed, Malaga’s form becomes even more sketchy when you consider they have collected just six wins in their last 21 leagues games. Their Champions League form vastly overshadowing performances on the domestic front.

Yet, as with recent seasons, the fight for European spots is increasingly turbulent with positions changing frequently.

With the financial problems at Malaga and the loss of another key performer in Monreal, the sight of Baptista making his first start in 16 months offered encouragement. In attack, Malaga have no concerns over options. It’s defensively where there are frailties. Sergio Sanchez was forced to start in central defence with Lugano not fit and Weligton not in the squad. Antunes was used at left back. Yet this makeshift defence coped and helped Malaga to a valuable win.

The standout performer was, yet again, Francisco Alcoron a.k.a Isco with his two goals being enough for the visitors to take the three points home.

Isco Shots vs Levante

Isco Shots vs Levante                                        http://www.squawka.com

The graphic above shows Isco’s shots at goal. All are taken centrally and all are around the edge of the penalty area. Despite making passes across the entire width of the pitch, Isco’s awareness to pick out a team mate in better positions prevents him taking speculative shots from around the box.

Athletic 0 Espanyol 4

A recent improvement in performances coupled with two positive results led some to believe that reports of Athletics decline under Bielsa had been greatly exaggerated.

The 3-0 home win over Atletico were the Basques produced their best display of the season was followed by a strong comeback away to Valladolid to recover from two goals down and claim a draw. Unfortunately, the Basques resorted to type this season with a capitulation at home to los pericos.

Athletic dominated possession as per usual with a staggering 70% but were repeatedly cut open by Espanyol on the break during a dreadful second half performance. A failure by Athletic to create clear openings and poor finishing left them goalless.

The visitors recorded just five shots on target but scored with four of them. Verdu’s penalty save by Iraizoz being the one shot on target which they did not score with although the midfielder slotted home the rebound.

Espanyol Shots vs Athletic

Espanyol Shots vs Athletic                             http://www.squawka.com

The graphic above shows the shots on target. All were central and extremely close to the goal. When Espanyol counter attacked, it was too easy for them to create an opening against a stretched Athletic defence.

Javier Aguirre’s record at Espanyol since taking over from Pochettino is  very impressive five wins, four draws and one defeat from his ten games in charge, lifting Espanyol from bottom position and leapfrogging their hosts into 13th place.

Rayo Vallecano 2 Atletico 1

There is something wonderfully refreshing about Rayo Vallecano. Their small, ramshackle ground with three stands and neighbouring tower blocks overlooking the pitch. The fact their fans are some of the most fervent in the division but probably because they deliver a brand of high energy football with a mixture of journeyman players and youngsters full of potential on the smallest budget in the league.

Rayo now have six wins in their last eight games and only a 94th minute strike from Falcao stopped them from securing their sixth clean sheet of the league season. It’s a fantastic achievement and one which has taken them to the brink of a European place but fans will recall last season when a dreadful run of form saw them far too close to relegation on the final day. That should not be replicated.

The graphic below shows Baptistao’s passes against Atleti. With repeated rumours that he will join Atleti in the summer, what better way to showcase his talents? His movement around the pitch created problems for Atleti and enable Rayo to overload Atleti in midfield.

Baptistao Passes vs Atleti

Baptistao Passes vs Atleti                          http://www.squawka.com

Despite trailing 2-0  following goals from Lass and Baptistao, Atleti did not change their outlook during the first half. Their conservative position remained the same and only began to alter after half time. Is Simeone adopting too conservative an approach in away games? Does el Cholo fail to react to falling behind?

Atleti’s fifth away defeat of the campaign and their lead over neighbours Madrid has been cut to just four points. What must be concerning Simeone is that Atleti have not won on the road since an away win over Granada on the 18th November 2012. Since that win they have played five away games and only collected a solitary point away at Mallorca. Their second place in the table has been built upon their tremendous home form at the Calderon.

Athletic Bilbao vs Atletico Madrid – Tactical Analysis

After suffering heavy defeats at the hands of los Rojiblancos over the last year, most notably the 3-0 loss in the Europa League final, Athletic finally got the better of Atleti last night in a comprehensive 3-0 win. This will be scant consolation for the loss in the final but coming amidst a run of poor form for los leones , it’s a very welcome victory and lifts the Basques up the relative security of 12th place in the league.

The game is also notable for the clash of styles it brings. The pro-active football of Bielsa against the reactive football of Simeone.

Line Ups

With Llorente signing for Juventus on a pre-contract, he was omitted from the squad along with Amorebieta who is also involved in a contract dispute with the club.

Athletic Starting Line Up

Athletic Starting Line Up

Simeone had to contend without Falcao following his injury during the home win over Levante last week. Simeone highlighted the fact that this Atleti team could cope without their top scorer. In the eleven games they have played without him, Atleti have scored 16 goals and lost just twice.

Atletico Starting Line Up

Atletico Starting Line Up

The loss of Falcao was not the problem for Atleti. The real issue was further back. With club captain Gabi suspended and Mario on the bench, the double pivot that has proven so successful to date was broken up to be replaced by Tiago and Emre.

Recent Form

With 25 points separating the teams, both sides entered the game with contrasting recent form. Athletic had drawn once and lost three times in their last four games whilst Atletico have the reverse record; three wins and one draw.

Still in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey, it’s now becoming a balancing act for Simeone. Carefully rotate his squad to ensure all members get game time and rest when required.

For Athletic, there are no such concerns. Their run to last season’s Europa League final is now a distant memory with elimination at the group phase. The Copa del Rey likewise, lower league Eibar removing any hopes they had there.

With a side low on confidence such as Athletic, the question will be raised why Simeone adopted such a conservative game plan from the outset, only really altering it from midway in the second half.

Athletic made 428 successful passes from 512 attempted (accuracy of 84%) giving them 60% possession. It’s not the least bit unsurprising for Atleti to have less possession than their opponent and having just 40% possession would not have been an immediate concern for Simeone. Atleti made just 249 successful passes from 329 attempted passes (76%accuracy). The Argentinean coach prefers to have possession to achieve an objective rather than passive possession. The low accuracy may be a different matter. With less possession, when you have the ball you cannot afford to be wasteful

Athletic – Pressing and Passing

With Athletic under Bielsa, you know exactly what sort of team you will face. One that seeks to press you aggressively high up the pitch, short passing and a team that will seek to overload you on the flanks.

Too often this season Athletic have been a pale imitation of the side that performed so admirably last season. The league table does not lie and Athletic find themselves perilously close to the relegation zone. The loss of Llorente is seen as a central tenet of their decline this season yet Aduriz has a better scoring record than his predecessor. The issues which Athletic must confront are in a defence which has conceded an average of 2 goals per game.

Last night, Laporte again demonstrated why he is so highly rated at centre back but it was the work of Herrara in midfield, linking play and providing the main creative outlet that was also impressive. With an assist for Susaeta, Herrara produced a good display in a season marked by injury and suspension.

Ander Herrara Passes

Ander Herrara Passes

The graphic above shows the range of passes made by Herrara across the pitch mainly seeking out the flanks to help Athletic build attacks. Herrara made no failed passes in his own half of the pitch. A testament to his quality but also Atleti’s meek approach.

Atletico – Too Deep and Passive

Atleti were positioned too deep for much of this game. Whilst the away game is not as solid as their fantastic record at the Vicente Calderon, Atleti were still too cautious in their approach and allowed Athletic to dictate.

The absence of Gabi and Mario was particularly key for Atleti. They reverted to a 4-1-4-1 formation with Tiago being the deepest midfielder with Raul Garcia and Emre ahead of him. Garcia is better in a more advanced position whilst Emre is still adapting to life in the Spanish top flight.

In addition to their deep positioning, Atleti were too slow to engage their opponents. Atleti made just 12 successful tackles from 17 attempted as the graphic below outlines. This contrasts with the hosts making 20 tackles from their 24 attempted.

Atleti Tackles vs Athletic

Atleti Tackles vs Athletic                    http://www.squawka.com

Atleti were allowing their opponents to move too high up the pitch and not controlling space effectively. The high number of tackles on the Atleti left shows just how effective Athletic were at linking play between Iraola, Susaeta and De Marcos on the right.

Athletic were able to move into the Atleti half before coming under any pressure. With sharp passing, they were able to evade opponents and hit a number of balls into the Atleti penalty area although these led to few opportunities.

Atleti Attack

THe deep positioning of Atleti also had repercussions when they moved into an attacking phase. Diego Costa was left alone and unsupported too often.

The graphic below shows the Atleti shots at goal during the game. Despite having 17 attempts, too often these were long range efforts or were blocked. Just six attempts were from within the Athletic penalty area.

Atleti Shots vs Athletic

Atleti Shots vs Athletic                                         http://www.squawka.com

Diego Costa had no attempts at goal in the game and whilst some may comment on this as proof of his unsuitability to deputise for Falcao,the fact that he was so isolated for much of the game did not help the Brazilian.

Both Arda and Rodriguez struggled to have any bearing on the game and were too deep to assist their frontman. When Atleti did push forward, Juanfran and Filipe seldom joined in the attack leaving the men from Madrid very narrow.

Emre should have scored just before half time but Iraizoz saved from close range. This was Atleti’s best chance in the game.

The Goals

The opening goal was very soft from the perspective of los rojiblancos. A corner into the box and San Jose ran off Godin for a free header.

In recent meetings, Atleti has picked off Athletic on the counter attack yet last night saw a reverse. Athletic were still the dominant team but twice they picked off Atleti with swift counter attacking moves.

As the game entered the final 20 minutes it became stretched and open, not a situation which Atleti are comfortable with or enjoy. The element of control is removed from their game. Unable to regroup quickly, they conceded two lovely goals during quick transitions to Susaeta and De Marcos.

Conclusions

A huge win for Athletic and one which supporters will hope can push the team on, first towards safety and then, with a little luck, perhaps towards the fringes of a Europa League place. As ridiculous as it sounds, it is possible with the side just nine points adrift of Rayo in 6thplace.

A substantial loss for Atleti and just Simeone’s 11th defeat in 65 games in charge. There will be plenty of discussion around how this is a one man team etc and the loss of Falcao is too great to overcome. Such comments are wrong and fail to see the bigger picture. Even with Falcao, Atleti would still have left the San Mames pointless last night.

Real Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao

Ahead of their Champions League match against Man City , Real Madrid produced a performance which was enough to comfortably see off Athletic Bilbao with a convincing 5-1 victory.

Mourinho made a couple of changes to his starting eleven with Modric and Benzema recalled, most probably to allow him to rotate slightly providing some players with a short degree of rest. For Athletic, Bielsa had no such luxury and was forced into a number of changes. Amorebieta returned from international duty injured whilst Herrara sat out due to suspension after being sent off for the second time this season. De Marcos also missed out.

Athletic have lost their last seven games against Los Blancos conceding 25 goals in the process. There were no initial inferiority signs as the Basques began brightly, passing the ball with pace. However, that illusion was short lived.

Athletic Bilbao

Athletic came into this game on the back of two consecutive league wins but even allowing for that, expectations were low. How things change from a season ago when Athletic arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu and took an early lead when playing some stylish, attacking football before they eventually succumbed to a heavy 4-1 defeat. On Saturday evening, there was no belief that this current Athletic side could produce anything close to that level.

A couple of elements of the Athletic game are worth closer scrutiny.

Under Bielsa, Athletic are known to play a highly aggressive pressing game allied to a direct short passing game. This season Athletic have failed to match the level of intensity that is required to implement Bielsa’s plan sufficiently but recently there have been signs that they are delivering a higher level of performance. This began with an improvement away to Valencia when the side lost following the concession of two late goals.

Against Madrid the passing was again better with 420 passes completed from an attempted 526. Athletic enjoyed more possession than their hosts too. Yet despite these positive aspects, many of the “normal” problems were evident again.

A key component of Athletic’s game is to press the opponent high up the park and win possession back quickly. When successful with this approach, it can be very effective with Athletic regaining possession close to the opponents’ goal. When it fails, it can leave the team exposed as it often did on Saturday. If an opponent can avoid the first line of pressing from Athletic, there is ample space to exploit. The full backs are caught high and there is a gap in the centre of the pitch.

The graphics below show interceptions and tackles made by Athletic. Too often these occurred in the Athletic half of the pitch:-

Athletic Interceptions vs Real Madrid                   http://www.squawka.com

Only five interceptions were made in the Madrid half of the pitch. Worse than that, only one tackle was made in the Madrid half.

Athletic Tackles vs Real Madrid                                  http://www.squawka.com

Athletic were successful with tackles and interceptions but they occurred far too deep and prevented Athletic from halting their opponent from playing and building up momentum of their own in the attacking third of the pitch. Time and time again, Athletic were forced to begin constructing attacking moves from their own half.

When they did move forward, Athletic were not afraid to commit men to attack but there was a lack of quality in the final third evidenced by having just one shot in target in the whole game which resulted in a goal for Ibai Gomez. Compare this to Madrid who had 17 attempts on target from an attempted 30. There was no midfield creator with Muniain failing to step into the void left by the absent Herrara.

With Athletic not stopping Madrid high, Los Blancos evaded the first line of pressing from Athletic and enabled them to attack with fast transitions where Athletic are extremely vulnerable. Two of Madrid ’s goals came from such an approach with one scored by Karim Benzema and the French international providing an assist.

Karim Benzema

Whilst his team mates may not have been operating at full throttle, Benzema did and in doing so delivered a highly polished performance combining technique, finishing and workrate. An all round excellent performance and the key stand out player from a Madrid perspective. Benzema moved across the front line offering mobility whilst also linking the play when required s can be seen in the graphics below:-

Benzema Passes vs Athletic 171112                                 http://www.squawka.com

Benzema made five key passes but linked well in various parts of the pitch. As the central striker, he offered much more to his game than purely finishing within the penalty area.

Beyond his contribution outside of the penalty area, inside of it Benzema was equally good with two of his four attempts at goal on target. Three of his attempts came from the right hand corner of the box including his goal. A possible reason for this is explored below.

Benzema Shots vs Athletic 171112                               http://www.squawka.com

The first goal in the 11th minute was simple in its construction and perfectly executed by Benzema even if Aurtenexte had the final touch. A long ball from Modric exposed the high line from Athletic and Benzema pulled to the left of San Jose , finding space in the channel between the centre back and Aurtenexte at left back. He deftly lobbed the ball over Iraizoz for the opener. His second goal was a superb piece of skill. Receiving the ball with his back to goal in the channel between San Jose and Aurtenexte just inside the penalty area, Benzema shifted the ball with his right foot before swiveling and curling a shot beyond Iraizoz with his left.

The Frenchman turned creator in the 55th minute to provide for Ozil following a brief period of Athletic pressure. Again, space was found to the left of San Jose and the ball was squared just inside the penalty area for the oncoming Ozil to finish. The goal was the ideal demonstration of Athletic being caught high upfield. Gurpegi should have been occupying the space that Ozil broke into but the veteran midfielder lacks the mobility and pace to perform the role fully and lagged behind Ozil as the transition took place.

Arguably the perfect build up for Mourinho and his players. A comfortable win, no injuries reported, game time for all the key players and five goals shared amongst four players.

For Athletic and Bielsa, it’s about taking the positives and addressing the negatives. Slowly, the team appears to be getting better but team selection is still blighted by injuries and suspensions. Add to that, Bielsa’s bizarre second half line up when he switched to a 4-1-4-1 with Aduriz appearing to be an attacking midfielder and the element of confusion persists. With no European football to distract them this season, Athletic must now begin the process of improving their league form and climbing the table.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com

Valencia vs Athletic Bilbao – Three Short Observations

Valencia emerged victorious from an open and enjoyable game at the Mestalla on Saturday evening.

Athletic started brightly, playing at a high tempo and at a level much closer to the side which performed well during last season. Key players such as Muniain and Herrara are back in the side, close to full fitness after injury. There was a greater sense of urgency to their play and with Herrara providing the link in midfield, reducing the temptation to always go long, there was a better balance, structure and variety to their attacks.

Valencia gradually settled and would eventually go on to dominate possession with 55% compared to Athletic’s 45%. The key moment in the game was the sending off of Ander Herrara after 66 minutes which enable Pellegrino to make more adventurous substitutions and forced Athletic onto the back foot.

The concession of two late goals would normally raise a degree of consternation yet Bielsa declared himself happy despite the defeat, in doing so acknowledging that this was possibly the best that Athletic had performed all season.

Aritz Aduriz

“He played very well. His performance was extremely valuable to us”

Marcelo Bielsa

There seems to be a constant discussion on Bielsa’s decision to select Aduriz ahead of Llorente to the extent whereby Bielsa commented on the performance of Aduriz on Saturday evening. Lost within this discussion is the fact that Aduriz has already scored eight goals with season, two of whcih arrived at the Mestalla.

Aritz Aduriz Heat Map                                                     http://www.squawka.com

The heat map above shows Aduriz’s movement around the pitch. He is much more mobile than Llorente and able to close opposing defenders down quickly which was one of the reasons for the livelier start from Athletic on Saturday. They pressed and closed down Valencia who were unable to develop any pattern of play particularly due to both Gago and Costa sitting deep and Jonas not really being involved.

The flip side of this argument is that Llorente is technically superior and with a greater physical presence, ideal for using as a target man. Athletic still persist with going direct to Aduriz at times. Despite being involved in 9 aerial duels on Saturday, Aduriz only won 2 of these. Athletic need to play more short passes to him as he is unable to hold the ball up as well as Llorente.

Ander Herrara

The return of Ander Herrara to the Athletic team has provided a much needed boost of creativity and composure to the side. Without Herrara proving a calming influence in the midfield alongside the energy and industry of De Marcos and Iturraspe, Athletic are too direct and one dimensional.

Herrara Passes vs Valencia                                        http://www.squawka.com

Herrara moved laterally across the midfield area, providing an outlet for team mates under pressure and generally recycling possession. His short and long range passing enables the team retain possession although Athletic are still toiling in this regard this season. Their pass completion rate on Saturday evening was just 67% as they conceded possession too easily and much too often.

Yet all his good work was undone when he was red carded following a moment of stupidity, kicking out at Tino Costa. From that moment, the initiative, although already moving in Valencia’s favour, went completely towards Los Che.

Athletic moved towards a 4-1-4-0. Aduriz was withdrawn and Aurtenexte came on. This resulted in the young Basque moving to his favoured left back position and Inigo Perez moving into midfield. De Marcos became the default attacker, looking to break forward from midfield when Athletic had possession.

The formation led to Athletic falling deeper as the second half wore on with Valencia enjoying a significant territorial advantage whilst seldom appearing to cause great concern to Iraizoz in the Athletic goal.

Valencia – A Work in Progress?

With ex-player Mauricio Pellegrino now in charge at the Mestalla, the side remain a work in progress as he attempts to install his philosophy on the team.

Retaining the same shape as his predecessor Emery, Pellegrino has set this team out in a 4-2-3-1 formation. There are of course, a couple of differences.

The loss of Jordi Alba to Barcelona has been a huge blow. Individually, a superb player but collectively his loss is acutely felt on the left side where he had developed an excellent relationship with Mathieu.

Athletic attacked the Valencia left early on and managed to carve out some half chances before the opening goal was scored when Muniain delivered a pass on the inside of Mathieu. The Frenchman managed to get a foot to the ball but could only divert the ball into the path of Aduriz who calmed scored with a lovely curling shot.

The problem against Athletic is that ahead of Mathieu was the attack minded winger, Juan Bernat. His natural inclination is to move forward leaving Mathieu exposed which is exacerbated by Athletics’ tendency to overload their right flank. Guardado would provide more support but was benched after international duty with Mexico.

The second Athletic goal should be a concern for Pellegrino as the defence of a corner was extremely poor. The ball dropping onto Aduriz who knocked the ball in with Guaita stranded.

Whilst the acquisition of Gago has the potential to be an upgrade on the departed Mehmet Topal, much of his work is done defensively and performing a similar role to Tino Costa. Without Ever Banega in the team, the balance is not quite right. Returning from a long, and self inflicted, injury, the brief appearance by Banega demonstrated why he is so important for the side. Completing 11 from his 12 attempted passes, the Argentinean has the ability to unlock defences with his accurate passing.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com

Atletico Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao – Tactical Analysis

Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao met at the Vicente Calderon for the first time last night since that evening in May when Atleti won the Europa League crushing Athletic Bilbao in the process.

There were a number of key tactical issues during that game which can be reviewed here.

And, as inconceivable as it may seem, judging by last night’s performance, Bielsa and Athletic failed to learn anything from that defeat. The same mistakes were evident again as Atleti delivered a performance of incisive play and quality surpassing their display  in Bucharest and epitomised throughout by the superb Falcao.

Line Ups

Atletico made four changes from the side which drew 1-1 away to Levante on the opening day. Silvio, Cata Diaz, Adrian and Tiago all dropped to the bench to be replaced by Koke, Suarez, Luis Filipe and Juanfran.

Atleti Starting Line Up

Atleti change their system also, moving away from their opening day 5-4-1 to their usual 4-2-3-1. It appears likely that Simone will adopt a more cautious approach for away games this season whilst being more attack minded at home.

Bielsa made just one change to Athletic with Aduriz replacing Toquero as the striker but there were a number of positional changes within the system. Inigo Perez switched places with De Marcos moving from midfield back to left back.

Athletic Starting Line Up

In central defence, San Jose and Gurpegi also switched positions in central defence with San Jose moving back to the left side.

Despite the various alterations to the line up and within the line up, Athletic utilised their normal 4-3-3 variation at the Vicente Calderon.

The Stats

Athletic dominated possession yet failed to muster a single shot on target. The failings of last season returned with a vengeance for Athletic. More possession, more passes but ultimately less penetration as the opponent has more shots and wins the game.

First Half

Atleti began the first half pressing their opponents quickly with both Filipe and Juanfran pushing forward from their full back positions when the opportunity arose. This is important to note. Atleti are content to defend but will commit men forward when the opportunity presents itself.

In the defensive phase, Atleti would fall back to a fairly deep 4-1-4-1 with Falcao being their only  player remaining in the opponents half. With Falcao on such devastating form, it is easy for Atleti to retreat and Falcao to remain the reference point in attack.

The first warning for Athletic arrived in the 14th minute when Falcao collected a long pass and spun past two opponents before Gurpegi cynically blocked him. The resulting yellow card prevented Gurpegi from competing effectively for the remainder of the game, fearful of a second caution and the resulting red card.

The opening goal arrived via some woeful defending by Athletic combined with some lovely play by Falcao. A long throw in found Falcao. MIkel San Jose, who was now man marking Falcao, was turned far too easily before Falcao scooped the ball over Iraizoz.

Athletic gradually settled after this but offered little of an attacking threat. Despite the importance of Iraola and Susaeta last season, neither offered much in an attacking sense. It was on the left with Inigo Perez supporting Isma Lopez where Athletic offered patches of decent play. It was also the Athletic left which Atleti deliberately chose to attack down with Arda presenting numerous problems to Inigo Perez. In the absence of Aurtenexte, Simeone may have pinpointed Inigo Perez as a weak point. Despite the number of attacks in this area, Perez successfully won a number of tackles in the left back area as key battle developed between him and Arda:-

Atleti Dribbles vs Athletic

However, Inigo Perez was cautioned in the 35th minute for tripping Arda.

Throughout the first half, Los Colchoneros pressed their opponent in a highly structured and coordinated fashion. There was seldom any aimless pressing by just one player and when required, everyone dropped deep. With less possession, Atleti were much more vertical with an emphasis upon moving forward quickly but by interplay and surging runs rather than long passes.

Athletic by contrast to their hosts, played numerous passes but failed to turn their possession into territorial dominance or chance creation. Their first meaningful attack materialised in the 14th minute.

Defensively, following Gurpegi’s caution, San Jose man marked Falcao whilst Inigo Perez man marked Arda. This led to the bizarre scenario of Inigo Perez trailing Arda over to the opposite flank on one occasion in the first half, leaving the left flank completely exposed.

Atleti scored their second goal shortly before half time. Although well finished by Falcao, Godin was offside in the build up. A corner was cleared and when the ball was returned, Godin opportunistically hooked the ball across the face of goal and Falcao scored from an acute angle.

 

Second Half

Athletic made two changes at half time with Susaeta and San Jose being replaced by Ibai and Muniain. This resulted in yet more shuffles of the team with De Marcos moving to left back, Inigo Perez going to midfield, Iturraspe moving to central defence (where he partnered Gurpegi, another central midfielder), Ibai on the right wing and Muniain supporting the anonymous Aduriz.

The changes had no effect upon the game failing to stem the tide which flowed towards Iraizoz. Ibai, as ever, looked lively when he arrived but with little meaningful possession his impact was limited.

In the 57th minute Gurpegi was penalised for handball, and judging by some earlier decisions, he was lucky to avoid a second yellow and remain on the pitch. Falcao scored the resulting penalty. Yet the penalty all stemmed from Atheltic’s inability to clear their lines following a throw in. Athletic had three separate opportunities to clear the ball and failed on each occasion.

There then followed a succession of chances for Atletico with a number originating down the Athletic right with Iraola caught extremely high on each occasion. Chances arrived in the 61st, 65th and 68th minutes all from the right.

The fourth goal was another example of poor defensive play from Athletic. The Atleti substitute Diego Costa ran across the edge of the penalty area evading pitiful attempted tackles by Gurpegi and Inigo Perez. Costa’s shot was eventually blocked with the resulting loose ball slammed into the net from twenty five yards by Tiago.

Falcao

Its difficult analysis this game without some reference to the Europa League final given the striking similarities between both games. There were many differences that night but the performance of Falcao. Again, Falcao had a massive impact upon this game.

His ability to collect the ball and move into the channels whilst support arrives is invaluable to a team that wants to defend deep and with numbers.

Prior to the season commencing, Falcao was asked whether he could compete for the “Pichichi” this season:-

“Pichichi’? Why not?”

The heat map bellows shows where Falcao operates. He receives the ball just wide of either central defender outside of the penalty are. Then, when inside the penalty area, he is positioned centrally.

Falcao Heat Map vs Athletic Bilbao

Falcao collects the ball just inside the opponents half of the pitch and distributes to team mates running off him, quite often on the flanks before making a run towards the penalty area. From his 23 passes, only 4 passes were either into or inside the penalty area:-

Falcao Passes vs Athletic Bilbao

Almost all of Falcao’s passes are outside of the box yet all of his shots, with the exception of two, are from inside the box.

Falcao Shots vs Athletic Bilbao

There were suggestions when he arrived that Falcao would not contribute outside of the penalty area and the key issue for Atleti was developing a system which maximises his strengths and links the team to him. Simeon appears to have struck this balance perfectly.

With the likes of Arda, Adrian, Rodrigues and Koke running off him, Falcao has plenty of options and an excellent supply line.

Athletic Structure

Athletic were missing five key players against Athletic but the manner of their performance suggested something much worse than just missing players, however important those players may be.

The changes made in the second half were strange, bordering on the bizarre at times. Constant reshuffles must have a detrimental effect upon players at some point, when instructions stop making any sense through a confused haze.

The withdrawal of San Jose , who was not enjoying a good game, can be debated but why replace him with Iturraspe in defence? You then have two central midfielders operating in defence whilst Ekiza remains on the bench. What made this worse was positioning Inigo Perez at the base of midfield when he had already been cautioned. In a role which requires tackling, Inigo Perez was not going to be able to cope fully.

As the second half progressed, Athletic lost all sense of structure and became a collection of individuals on the pitch. Iraola was posted missing on a number of occasions, allowing Rodriguez to break into acres of space. Aduriz appeared totally isolated throughout with barely any combination play involving him and any other Athletic player. On the one occasion when he linked up, Muniain threaded a pass through and Aduriz moved behind the Atleti defence but his shot was blocked.

Athletic spent the entire game playing in front of Atleti but lacked the creativity and guile to unlock a defence. This was not the only quality which was absent from their game.

Muniain can be a spiky character when things are not going well for him on the pitch but there was little aggression from him. There was a general sense of inevitability about Athletic from the moment the opening goal went in. The team lacked any sort of desire or mental strength.

Conclusion

Atleti can look forward to the European Super Cup game against Chelsea with confidence. The team is playing well and there are ample solutions on the bench which now contains real quality. The final scoreline probably flattered Athletic Bilbao a little and there will be real optimism within Atleti that under Simeone, this can be the season when they secure Champions League football once more.

The optimism and jot which engulfed Athletic last season is now all but gone. The performance was insipid and represents the low point of Bielsa’s reign in Bilbao. Bielsa recognises this:-

“At no time were we in this match. They were more powerful than us in most aspects of the game… we were impotent in the face of the dimension of our opponent”

And yet with the loss of Llorente and Martinez all but guaranteed, the solution for Athletic would be to sign quality replacements such as Benat but Bielsa, as ever, defies conventional wisdom:-

“For a team that is in the cycle we are, it is impossible not to be generate concerned. I have no expectations to resolve this through the arrival of signings.”

Unlike last season when Bielsa arrived and the team struggled at the start of the season, there was always hope that the season would improve. It looks like hope has all but drained from Athletic now.

Athletic Club – Bilbao was not built in a day

The condition of Lezama is an insult to the players and I am responsible for them … You can’t have a squad worth €300 million and not proper playing fields … To start the season in conditions such as these makes a mockery of me as a coach because I am the one responsible for the working conditions being this way.”

Marcelo Bielsa’s words during an extraordinary press conference in which he attacked the quality of workmanship during the ongoing refurbishment works at Athletic Bilbao’s Lezama training ground. That a manager would become embroiled publicly in such an issue encapsulates Bielsa perfectly, succinctly addressing why he is known as “el loco” (the madman).

And yet, even allowing for the tense days which passed following the outburst, just a few weeks earlier it would have been difficult to envisage such a scenario developing. The end of the 2011/12 season had witnessed Athletic Bilbao produce a brand of scintillating football on their way to the final of both the Europa League and the Copa del Rey final. Progress which overlooked the other periods of the season when the team had toiled. The poor performances were consigned to the past now as Athletic projected an optimistic exterior as they entered a new chapter. At least, that was the perceived wisdom until Athletic suffered demoralising 3-0 defeats in both games.

“I accept that the approach we presented was not successful. I realise that. I’m the decision-maker. I represent and am responsible for a team that today did not carry through the plan I had established. Now we will evaluate the continuity of the coaching staff with a meeting between all parties concerned. I suppose in the course of next week the subject of my continuity must be decided in one way or another.

We have a very young team. But we can now go one of two ways: we can use the experience because there is room for growth; or admit that there was an inability to cope with the high demands placed upon us this year.”

Marcelo Bielsa cut a forlorn, brutally honest figure in the aftermath of Athletic Bilbao’s defeat to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final which brought the curtain down on a season which promised so much and yet, in terms of trophies, delivered nothing. Bielsa spoke of the inability to “meet our objectives” which prevented it being a “good season”. A revealing conclusion from Bielsa given the public perception of Athletic enjoying a “successful” season and one which demonstrated his continued demand for perfection. Reaching two finals was not considered sufficient reward for their endeavours.

In the days following the Copa del Rey defeat, it appeared as if the Bielsa project at Athletic would be curtailed in it’s infancy, halted after just one season. Would Bielsa really commit for another term at San Mames after such a crushing end to the season?

The confirmation that el loco would extend his stay with the renewal of his contract in June 2012 ensures that the project would continue, the architect in charge of the project continues.

For Athletic Club, this season represents a major challenge. Can the foundations which Bielsa helped construct last season be built upon? Or will keys sections of the project be demolished only for rebuilding work to commence again?

If the project is to continue, there are several key building blocks which must be fixed firmly in position.

Relationships

“I can accept their [the board's] removal of my authority, but… they indicated that my statements lacked truth. What has happened has modified our relationship.”

The idiosyncrasies of Marcelo Bielsa are well known; his attention to the small details both on and off the pitch in order to prepare his team for the challenges ahead. From pacing out the length and width of opponents pitches in advance of delivering his final tactical  instructions to his team, to soaking training pitches heavily prior to a session commencing due to weather forecasts suggesting heavy rain on the day of a game.

And yet this quality which Bielsa exhibits can also be problematic. The recent dispute at the training ground threatens to undermine the work thus far. Bielsa signed a new contract with enhanced improvements to the club’s training facilities believed to be one of his demands prior to putting pen to paper on the extension. Refurbishment work was already proposed. Bielsa demanded more.

Lezama – 2011                                                                Picture courtesy of http://estadiosdeespana.blogspot.co.uk/

Lezama was opened in 1971, allowing the players of Athletic to train in a more serene environment than the industrial Bilbao, as it was then. The present refurbishment work was authorised following a period of consideration, focussed upon the current and future needs of Athletic.

Unhappy at the perceived slow progress and poor quality workmanship of the contractor undertaking the refurbishment works at Lezama, Bielsa personally intervened and a physical confrontation ensued with the site foreman. The physical side of the dispute was easily resolved however the matter continues to fester within the club, eroding the trust that has been built. Athletic publicly rebuffed Bielsa’s claims the following day and, amid the confusion and speculation that followed, a working truce amounting to two weeks has been called.

“It is not my subjective opinion with respect to the quality of work, the stage of its development, the control and fulfilment of the works at Lezama … I can show that every one of the things I said corresponds to concrete and verifiable facts … If no one has been at fault, then why were the facilities not available for the first team for the start of pre-season?”

Bilbao – Ciuded Deportiva de Lezama                          Picture courtesy of http://estadiosdeespana.blogspot.co.uk/

Yet Bielsa maintains his position in this argument, unwilling to back down, to compromise. An important glimpse into the desire which propels him forward but which somewhat inevitably reveals a stubborn streak which is most apparent in his tactical philosophy.

And if tensions are fraught at boardroom level, what of the situation with the players? The Athletic dressing room is widely considered one of the most harmonious and easily controlled dressing rooms in the Spanish game. But how much of the high intensity training regimes (which the methods of Bielsa dictate) can the players tolerate? Will the players continue to willingly accept his methods if league form begins to stutter once more or will questions start arising?

Are we witnessing the first hairline cracks developing within the Athletic foundations this season?

Consistency

Consistency. So easy to say yet so difficult to achieve.

Bielsa arrived at Athletic after the contract of previous incumbent, Joaquin Caparros, was not renewed. The methods and style of play of Caparros were openly criticised, his image tarnished as being nothing more than a long ball merchant. The Athletic under Caparros was torn down. Last season Athletic finished 10th in La Liga, six points adrift of a top six finish. This was four places lower and nine points less than under Joaquin Caparros in his final season in charge.

It was never meant to be this way.

With the perceived belief that Caparros was not obtaining the maximum from the talented squad at his disposal, Bielsa was appointed to extract that extra value which would push Athletic onto a legitimate challenge for a Champions League place. Athletic only flirted ever so briefly with this objective.

The season began with a poor run of form immediately casting a shadow over the project. With just two points from their opening five league games, this was Athletic’s worst start in over three decades. The change in the system under Bielsa required time to settle down. A criticism which could be levelled legitimately at Bielsa was his deployment of players in unfamiliar positions as he sought the ideal line up. For such a considered, studied individual, this constant reshuffling highlighted a degree of uncertainty. Several older players were entirely removed from the squad in the process.

Athletic’s style of play has been revolutionised under Bielsa. Although never the long ball merchants that some would claim, they have always favoured the direct approach with reliance upon physicality seldom seen elsewhere within the Spanish Game. This element of their approach dates back to Fred Pentland and the 1920’s. That the club continues to unearth robust, and highly skilful, figures like Amorebieta and Llorente ensures that the tradition remains.

The statistics from last season in La Liga bear testament to the changing face of Athletic.

With an average of 57% possession and 79% pass completion rate per game, Athletic shifted to a short passing style of play, making an average of 434 short passes per game, and only trailing behind the big two of Real Madrid (474) and Barcelona  (655) in this regard.

Yet, despite this progression, Athletic appear to exhibit what has been coined as “sterile domination” in some games. The possession must be a means to an end. It has to assist delivery of the objective yet too frequently, Athletic fail to make their possession matter.

Athletic has an average of just 12 shots per game. The possession is not hurting teams as much as it should be. When you consider shots at goal, Athletic are languishing at thirteenth in that respective table. Whilst not all shots on goal are of equal value and some teams may have a high number of opportunistic strikes at goal, the numbers for Athletic are worryingly low. This is exacerbated when Athletic’s goalscorers are examined. Llorente was successful on seventeen occasions in La Liga last season but there is a substantial drop to second place where Susaeta sits with just six goals. There is an over reliance upon Llorente for goals.

A cursory glance through the defensive aspects reveal further concerns. Athletic concede an average of 15 shots per game. This is the third highest average shots per game conceded last season. Only Granada and Racing Santander conceded more.

The league form was erratic throughout, as Los Leones were seldom able to sustain a run of victories, and littered with draws and defeats. And as the league season had started, so it would finish with a sustained run of poor form. From their closing five games, Athletic mustered a solitary win alongside four defeats. The book ends of the season had witnessed Athletic collect a measly five points from a possibly thirty.

This is what Athletic must address in the forthcoming season. The key issue for the team this season is to retain the same level of control in games but convert the chances they are creating.

Perhaps unfairly, although to a degree understandable given the above, Athletic were therefore considered solely as a cup team last season. Whilst it was in cup competitions that Athletic displayed their real quality, the term is often applied in a derogatory fashion for plucky underdogs.

At what point do you stop being labelled a cup team? Is it after qualification for a national cup final or qualification to a European final? Or is it both? Surely Athletic must now be recognised for what they are? A very good team, but very good teams must deliver consistently and in this regard, the jury remains out on Athletic. The deliberations continue.

The movement away from this tag of a cup team is the next step for Athletic. The ability to deliver the high level of performance which they have produced sporadically, on a regular basis in the league.

To do so, Athletic must address key tactical and personnel considerations.

Pragmatism vs Idealism: The Tactical Debate

Should Bielsa alter his beliefs slightly and accommodate a more pragmatic streak within his football?

Bielsa – Faith in his Ability or Resistant to Change?

For so long an advocate of pro-active attacking football with a strong emphasis on the vertical approach, does Bielsa need to alter his thinking and shift his tactical plan to allow for a more defensive perspective when required?

Or is Bielsa a fundamentalist. A man who recognises the inherent problems with his preferred system but remains unwilling to compromise. Determined to maintain his views to the bitter end even if the eventually cause his downfall?

From the outside, Bielsa appears so fundamentally attached to his views, that he will take them to their logical conclusion, defending them and his team irrespective of the havoc it could create. It is the re-emergence of the stubborn streak. It is Bielsa’s genius and his burden.

Always an innovator, the tactical developments he has made have heavily influenced a number of key themes in the modern game especially at Barcelona were Guardiola cited Bielsa as the “best coach in the world”. And the same dogmatic approach that is apparent in Bielsa was obvious too in Guardiola as his Barcelona tenure drew to a conclusion. The faith in the system which meant playing with fewer defenders and adopting high defensive lines against deep lying counter attacking teams. The beauty of the game cherished although it was always viewed through a pragmatic prism to a certain extent. The beautiful football delivered therefore to continue success, keep playing more beautiful football. Athletic need to exhibit this trait.

The reactive football of Atletico Madrid in the European League Final highlighted the conundrum perfectly. Atletico were content to let Athletic dominate possession in deep areas before springing counter attacks when Athletic overcommitted. Athletic weaved pretty patterns across the pitch but lacked sufficient nous to break down the mass ranks of Atletico.

Was this a tactical problem or were Athletic showing signs of fatigue?

Iker Muniain – Europa League Final defeat

Athletic are vulnerable to the counter attack and specifically in two areas. There is space behind both full backs, especially Iraola who attacks much more than Autenexte. This can be exploited by long diagonals in behind the full backs which pulls the centre backs wide. Javi Martinez does not enjoy moving wide at all and is weak when forced to turn quickly.

Secondly, when Athletic press, both Herrera and De Marcos push very high supporting the attack to provide opportunities for combination play and provide options from the second line. This leaves Iturraspe with two choices. He can stay close to the centre backs and leave space in front of himself or he can push further forward and leave space behind him. Either way, the central area can also be exposed in a quick counter attack by a clever opponent.

To prevent being exploited by counter attacks when forward moves break down, Athletic must press opponents quickly. It’s an extremely demanding strategy.

A greater degree of control in the central area is required, both when in possession and when out of possession. Retaining shape quickly is the legal method of maintaining control. The illegal method would be conceding calculated fouls high up the pitch. Athletic are an average side in terms of fouls committed and disciplinary sanctions. This contrasted sharply with Chile under Bielsa who adopted a broadly similar system but who committed numerous fouls high up the pitch to allow the team to regain shape. It was a strategy adopted by Barcelona in the early days under Guardiola. Eto’o, Messi and Henry each committing more fouls than anyone else in the Barcelona team during one season.

It’s a ploy which is negative and will be publicly criticised especially when juxtaposed against the beautiful game. It’s also a ploy which would work and strengthen Athletic considerably. Sanctions will accumulate and player suspensions will occur more frequently. Last season, Iturraspe gathered more yellow cards than any other Athletic player. Why? Because he was caught out of position when he pushed too high in the central area of the pitch.

As Muniain matures, it is surely only a matter of time before he adopts a more central position from the outset of games. If he does so, Ibai Gomez is ready to slot into the left wing berth. This would force a personnel decision to be made. Iturraspe is essential in a deep lying position offering vertical movement between defence and midfield. For Muniain to be integrated centrally, Herrera or De Marcos need to be dropped.

This is where Bielsa must modify his outlook and his team selection dependent upon the opposition. When Athletic need to take the game to opponents, Muniain should start centrally with De Marcos dropping to the bench. When a more conservative approach is needed, Muniain should begin on the left and De Marcos would provide the hard running approach from midfield, able to close opponents down quickly, supporting both defence and attack.

This rotation of players forms a crucial aspect of Athletic’s development too. Markel Susaeta played in all sixty four games for Athletic last season. This may seem like a normal amount of games for a player operating at the top end of the game. Indeed over the last four seasons, Xavi Hernandez has averaged sixty six games per season.

Markel Susaeta – 64 not out.

But consider the manner in which Athletic play.

The intensity, the pressing, the incessant running. Delivering sixty four high level performances under such conditions is extremely challenging. It’s perhaps why Bielsa removed a number of older players from the squad. Could the older players manage to adapt to such a demanding philosophy? Indeed, would older players willingly accept what Bielsa was demanding from his players?

Squad rotation has to be introduced earlier in the season and with greater frequency.

Running in tandem with these tactical changes, there is also the need to acquire wisely to supplement the shallow squad.

When operating with a pool of around 18 first team players, rotation becomes difficult and the drop in quality between a first choice player like Llorente and a squad player such as Torqero is considerable. This is not to denigrate the qualities that Torqero brings to the squad but they differ considerably from Llorente and the drop in class is apparent.

Transfers

The signing policy of Athletic is well documented although often misconstrued. For some, it’s a symbol of racism and prejudice which has no place in the modern era. A further testament to the ongoing social problems which Spain still faces. For others, it’s a celebration of the belief in the ability of local population.

The unofficial club motto of Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación roughly translates as With home grown talent there is no need for foreign imports.

However loose and flexible it has become in recent times, Athletic can still only play Basques or those coming through la cantera (the literal translation is the quarry. Players, like diamonds, are found in the quarry / ground and polished, becoming the finished article). Athletic can, and have, plundered neighbouring teams for their best players such as Joseba Exteberria, Javi Martinez, David Lopez and Gaizka Torquero but there will always be a considerable reliance upon la cantera for future players too.

With a relatively small squad to chose from, Bielsa has limited options. That he did not ask for any signings during his first season in charge whilst also ostracising several senior members of the squad could legitimately be questioned when he faced rotational difficulties. Whether they were considered unable to adapt to the Bielsa methods physically, or would challenge his methods intellectually, is open for debate.

In the season ahead, there are two challenges which Athletic must confront. Retain the existing first choice players whilst simultaneously acquiring players of a suitable quality to supplement the squad, primarily in defence and attack. The ability to find and polish the diamonds from la cantera will always prove a challenge. Gems such as Iker Muniain do not arrive very often and so Athletic must enter into the transfer market during the close season and make a few key acquisitions.

The ability of Javi Martinez to switch between defence and midfield provides a degree of comfort but when he moves into midfield, the central defensive pairing becomes Amorebieta and San Jose . The pairing lack the finesse which Martinez offers. The other option of Borja Ekiza is limited also in terms of the style which Bielsa demands. None of the alternative central defenders possess the technical ability of Martinez. If no central defenders are purchased, we could see more of Jonas Ramalho in the first team squad.

In attack, there was no alternative to Llorente last season. This has been addressed with the arrival of Aritz Aduriz, who returns to Athletic from Valencia for a fee of £2.5million. The most intriguing aspect here is whether Aduriz represents a genuine alternative for Llorente or a replacement? Are the Athletic Board expecting their resolve to be tested with a substantial bid for Llorente?

Aritz Aduriz returns to the San Mames

The attacking midfielder, Ismale Lopez, is another who returns home. The 22 year old attacking midfielder spent five seasons at Lezama arrives before departing, returns from CD Lugo. Lopez, a member of the Spanish U17 side which won the World Cup in 2007, is unlikely to claim a starting berth but should provide another option from the bench.

Speculation continues around Cesar Azpilicueta, the 22 year old full back who was a product of the Osasuna cantera and presently plays for Marseille, and Raul Garcia, a central figure in the resurgence of Osasuna last season and presently under contract at Atletico where a recent reurgence perhaps hints at a longer stay at the Vicente Calderon. Both would make excellent additions to the squad but both fail to address the central defensive position.

Yet amidst all of the discussion around how Athletic can strengthen via incoming players perhaps we should pause for a moment and consider the debilitating effects of players leaving Athletic.

Should the likes of Javi Martinez or Fernando Llorente leave as has been widely rumoured, it significantly weakens the starting eleven at San Mames. You simply cannot remove two World Cup winners and European Champions from a team and expect there to be no adverse impact, both on and off the park.

Athletic will shortly begin their final season at la catedral before moving to the new San Mamés Barria stadium in time for the start of season 2013 / 14. Immediately adjacent, the new stadium is presently under construction and will have a capacity of 55,000.

With the departure of Unai Emery from Valencia , the struggles of Villarreal and the project at Malaga imploding due to financial problems, there is an opportunity for a club to claim 3rd place in La Liga.

The foundations are now in position for Athletic. Construction work continues apace on and off the field in Bilbao.

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