Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona: Tactical Analysis

And so, in his 247th game in charge, Guardiola secured his 179th win as manager of Barcelona. In doing so, Barcelona won the 110th final of the Copa del Rey and collected their 14th trophy in four remarkable seasons under the stewardship of Guardiola.

The Copa del Rey final between Atheltic Bilbao and Barcelona lived up to the hype surrounding the game with a thrilling, if somewhat one sided at times, game which was ultimately over after an explosive first 30 minutes.

Barcelona claimed their 26th win in the competition whilst Athletic remain stuck on 23 wins. For Athletic, the wait for a trophy continues and it will shortly be 29 years since their last trophy. Opportunities have been missed in this game and the recent Europa League final against Atletico. But in truth, Athletic nerve had a chance against a reinvigorated Barcelona which played the sort of intensive, attacking football which was their hallmark throughout the Guardiola era.

As Sid Lowe stated prior to the game, the Copa final was the culmination of a journey for Guardiola. From his meeting with Bielsa which inspired him to become a manager, to beating Athletic in the Copa del Rey final in 2009 to win his first trophy as Barcelona manager to the present day. Facing Athletic, again, in the Copa del Rey final in his last game in charge. An Athletic side guided by Bielsa. The journey ended with Guardiola winning. Again.

Despite all the trophies, Pep still enjoys being thrown around

Starting Line Ups

In Guardiola’s last game in charge, the starting eleven had to contend with a couple of injuries.

Barcelona Starting Line Up – Copa del Rey Final 2012

The most notable omission from the Barcelona team line was of course, that of Puyol, sidelined following an operation on his knee. Pique was the replacement here. Alves failed to recover from injury and so Martin Montoya started at right back.

Pinto was in goal as is normal in Copa del Rey games. Up front, Pedro and Sanchez supported Messi from the flanks.

Fabregas was only on the bench which surprised some however he inevitably drifts into a central position on the pitch. Barcelona needed two wide players who were fast, direct and would stretch the game whilst also offering workrate to compete on both attacking and defensive fronts against Athletic’s full backs. Sanchez and Pedro were easy choices in that respect.

The Athletic line up contained two notable omissions. Iturraspe and Ander Herrara both overlooked due to illness although Herrara made the bench.

The neccessitated a minor reshuffle of personnel with Ekiza and Amorebieta forming the central defence allowing Martinez to push into midfield.

Further forward, Ibai Gomez took the left wing berth with Muniain adopting a more central position from the outset. Ibai offers a more vertical approach on the left than Muniain who tends to drift laterally.

Athletic Starting Line Up – Copa del Rey Final 2012

Despite the changes in personnel, it initially appeared that Athletic would utilise the same 4-3-3 system which has been their mainstay since early October as outlined here. However, they altered this to form more of a 4-2-3-1 with Muniain in a much more advanced position and the wingers slightly more reserved than normal.

As the game unfolded, it seemed that Bielsa was preoccupied with denying Messi space to the extent that the remainder of the team’s structure suffered. This will be examined in the themes below.


The game started at a frantic pace with both sides pressing aggressively.

Twice in the opening five minutes, Athletic pressed Pinto and twice this resulted in them securing possession higher up the pitch as Pinto failed to find team mates with his clearances.

It is well known that Pinto is not as accompolished as Valdes with his distribution yet Athletic did not grasp this opportunity as the match progressed.

Pinto – Almost as mad as Bielsa. But not quite.

Their pressing was muted. Llorente would attempt to split the centre backs as normal but De Marcos was deeper in midfield alongside Martinez and they offered no support to Llorente. Ibai and Susaeta were isolated on the flanks.

Pressing in such a half hearted fashion allowed Barcelona to pass their way around Athletic. Was this a deliberate tactic by Bielsa? This was the 63rd game of the season for Athletic and their first choice players have all played more than 50 times. Markel Susaeta has played in every game. Was this a case of one step too far for them?

Barcelona, by way of contrast, pressed in a coordinated fashion early on and the mood was set for the remainder of the game as a consequence. When Barcelona’s pressing dropped off, the Athletic players continued to react in the same fashion as if they were being pressed. Used to being pressed quickly and simply clearing the ball, despite now having slightly more time in possession, the same reaction occurs. Amorebieta’s poor clearance prior to the second goal being the perfect illustration of this.

The pressing of Barcelona was reminiscent of their early success under Guardiola. Intensive pressing around the pitch with the front players working hard to close down opposition defenders quickly.

Barcelona had rediscovered their intensity which was missing for large parts of the season. Allied to their intensity was a ruthlessness not seen often enough either.

Athletic Loose vs Barcelona Compact

Athletic were extremely stretched in the first half with large spaces between the lines which Barcelona continually exploited especially through the movement and probing passing of Xavi and Iniesta.

Yet it was not just the Barcelona midfield duo who were at their imperious best. Montoya started high and regularly forced Ibai Gomez, a very direct player, onto the back foot.

A central tenant of Athletic’s play this season as been the quick combinations between two or three players near the opponents penalty area with the full backs, particularly Iraola, pushing on. Yet here, neither Iraola or Aurtenxte were seen in the Barcelona half of the pitch during the opening 30 minutes. There were no combinations due to Barcelona pressing high.

Athletic were open with too much space between players, an immediate impact of their desire to be direct with the resulting loss of possession. There were few combinations and each pass became difficult to achieve given the distance between the players.

This was rectified somewhat after the half time break as Athletic switched to a more structured 4-5-1 with coherent pressing. They quickly regained they shape too when required. The damge however, had already been done. Barcelona, although under slightly more pressure on occasion, still possessed an attacking threat but the damage had been inflicted.


The Venezuelan International, who endured a torrid evening against Falcao in the Europa League Final, had a similar experience against Barcelona.

From the outset, Amoebieta appeared to be man marking Messi, often following him around the pitch but on some occasions letting him go free. Amorebieta followed Messi to the halfay line in the 1st minute with Barcelona exploiting the resulting space to create an opportunity.

The decision to employ a tall, physical centre half in a man marking role on Messi was wrong. A more nimble, mobile player should have been utilised.

Amorebieta’s misplaced clearance in the 19th minute, despite being under no immediate pressure, led to Barcelona’s second goal.

Amorebieta was dragged down the pitch by Messi vacating space which Xavi looked to move into during the first half. This aggressive, forwarding running by Xavi provided the assist for the 3rd Barcelona goal, laying the ball off to Pedro on the edge of the Athletic penalty area.

When Amorebieta followed Messi, Athletic required to reshuffle to compensate. They achieved this by tucking their full backs in to provide a narrow three. This in turn meant the full backs were deep and unable to support the wingers. The end result of this was that Athletic struggled to get higher up the pitch.

The player who should have been used to man mark Messi was Iturraspe.

The Midfield Battle

With Martinez and De Marcos in midfield facing up against Iniesta and Xavi, the midfield battle seemed perfectly poised. Barcelona, however, consistently had better options in this area due to their intelligent movement against a somewhat static Athletic.

With Athletic not pressing coherently as outlined above, Pique and Mascherano were faced only by Llorente. Both are comfortable in possession and were happy to take on Llorente and step into midfield. As soon as Llorente was passed, either Martinez or De Marcos had a decision to make. Challenge the man in possession or stay with their direct opponent. There was no consistent strategy here. When Athletic closed down the man in possession, Xavi or Iniesta would make forward runs or drift into space.

Athletic were very linear with clear space between the defensive and midfield lines. Exactly the area which Iturraspe would have occupied had he been fit. However, with Muniain playing higher up, Martinez was forced to stay alongside De Marcos to provide support.

The introduction of Herrara at half time provided more composure to the Athletic midfield and assisted their ball retention. The direct nature of their play in the first half was tempered with a little more guile.


A tremendous performance from Barcelona provided Guardiola with the ideal send off – his 14th trophy as manager in just 4 seasons. A sensational achievement and one which is unlikely to replicated for some considerable time, if at all.

Xavi Hernandez. Small man, big trophy

A performance of quality in possesion matched by hunger without possession was simply too much for Athletic.

For Athletic, a crucial period is almost upon them. With an average age of just 24 years old, the potential within the squad to build and develop is consdierable. Whether the squad remains intact is the first issue. Intertwined with this is whether Bielsa continues with the project at Athletic remains to be seen.

Perhaps Bielsa, encapsulated the level of perforamnce from Barcelona perfectly: – “comparing players rarely serves to eulogise the chosen one, rather to belittle the other one”.

We seek faults within the Athletic performance instead of marveling at the display from Barcelona perhaps because we expect it from them. Last night, in Guardiola’s final game, they produced a truly great performance.

Atletico Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao – Tactical Analysis

Atletico vs Athletic: Tactical Analysis

Atletico Madrid reclaimed the Europa League trophy they last won in 2010 when they defeated Athletic Bilbao 3-0 last night.

It’s often a cliché in football that any key game, such as a final, requires an early goal. The belief being that it provides the platform for an open and attacking game to develop with both teams freed from their nervous, shackled approach. The fear of conceding an early goal and falling behind is instantly removed.

Yet the reverse can equally be true.

An early goal can close the game down. One team is content to sit deep and counter attack. An opponent forced to answer the question of whether they can unlock the defence.

Atletico demonstrated such an approach last night.

Yet this was a highly entertaining game which witnessed a superb display of attacking prowess from Falcao combined with an excellent defensive performance from Atletico to stifle Athletic.

Atleti Fans Orgullosos – “Proud”

Line Ups

With only Tiago suspended, Simeone went with his expected line up in the usual 4-2-3-1 shape.

Meanwhile for Athletic, Amorebieta passed a late fitness test allowing Bielsa to select his strongest line up also. Athletic adopted a 4-3-3 shape.

Atletico vs Athletic – Starting Line Ups

The Opening Exchanges

For such an important game, the first few minutes were surprisingly open, both teams attempting to establish themselves although Atletico were clearly quicker to settle. Athletic were misplacing passes, a sign of what lay ahead for them.

Athletic had an early warning with Adrian’s header going wide. Arda crossed from the left, the Turkish international getting in behind Iraola.

Athletic have adopted a different style this season under Bielsa as outlined here with a key feature being the presence of Javi Martinez bringing the ball out from defence. Atletico recognised this and attempted to close him down and force Athletic to go long from the back.

Yet this initial approach was largely abandoned by Atletico and the structure of the game changed in the 9th minute when they took the lead.

Defensive Weakness Part 1: Falcao vs Martinez and Amorebieta

After scoring the winner in last year’s final, Falcao again delivered this year with two goals to finish the competition’s top goalscorer.

His excellent movement and workrate throughout the night continually caused the Athletic centre back pairing of Martinez and Amorebieta problems.

Falcao looked to pull the defensive pairing around the pitch, prepared to drop deep and hold the ball up before laying it off to a team mate or he would run onto forward passes always seeking to exploit the space between the Athletic centre back and his respective full back.

The opening goal was a clear example of this.

A loose ball was collected in midfield by Diego who released Falcao, who had pulled wide of Amorebieta. Aurtenexte was stranded in an advanced position and unable to provide any cover.

Once inside the penalty area, the Venezuelan International failed to close Falcao down sufficiently and allowed him to get his shot away which curled into the top corner.

In the 44th minute and 79th minute there were similar opportunities for Falcao, on both instances dragging Martinez wide before beating his opponent and creating chances for himself.

Falcao – Super Fun Slide Time

Changing Structure

The opening goal allowed Atletico to sit deeper and counter attack. Gabi and Suarez, in particular who had a very good game, operated just in front of the back four. Adrian and Arda offered support to their full backs yet always looked to move forward in support of Falcao. Diego remained central behind Falcao.

Atletico dropped off into their own half, only pressing Athletic when they crossed the halfway line. In the 24th minute during an Athletic attack, only Iraizoz was within the Athletic half. The closest Athletic player being Martinez on the halfway line.

Athletic Response

The response from Athletic failed to materialise in the first half. There was energy and workrate but it lacked focus and direction. The shape and balance of the team was wrong.

Muniain performed his normal role, initially starting on the left and drifting laterally but he increasingly took up a central position. When he did this, on occasion De Marcos or Herrara broke left but not consistently. As a result, the centre became clogged. There were too many players from both sides. As Atletico sat deep, there was no space behind the defence either.

De Marcos and Herrara were far too direct, immediately moving forward at pace and offering nothing between the lines, admittedly there was little space to enter given how compact Atletico were.

Susaeta strangely moved inside to a central position also. One of the successes of Athletic this season has been the strength of the right flank with Susaeta moving outside, pulling the full back across and Iraola or De Marcos bursting into the space created between the full back and centre back. Yet this rarely happened. Neither Aurtenexte or Iraola moved forward and linked with their respective wingers to any notable effect.

Llorente offered little movement but given the congested nature of the area in which he operated, the only space was to move deep and seek possession. A tactic which Muniain adopted as the half wore on.

Athletic lacked poise as everything became frantic, which was only heightened after the second goal was conceeded.

Defensive Weakness Part 2: Caught in Possession

On certain occasions when Atletico broke forward in the first half, they did press Athletic if there was sufficient presence in that area of the pitch and if the opportunity arose to press without compromising themselves to a counter attack.

One such occasion was in the 29th minute.

Amorebieta failed to clear the ball when he had the opportunity at the edge of the penalty area, preferring to look for a pass. Previously, under Caparros, at this juncture the ball would have been launched forward but with the new style of play under Bielsa, a pass is sought. Suarez closed him down, won the ball and released Arda who cut the ball back from the goal line and Falcao scored after executing a lovely drag back to wrong foot Aurtenexte.

Athletic Changes

Trailing 2-0 at half time, Bielsa responded with two substitutions. Inigo Perez replaced Aurtenexte and Ibai replaced Iturraspe.

Athletic retained their 4-3-3 shape with De Marcos moving to left back. Inigo Perez became the midfield sitter replacing the disappointing Iturraspe. Finally, Ibai took up the left wing berth which allowed Muniain to be stationed in a central attacking midfield position.

The start of the second half was disrupted by a number of fouls. Given their tendency to push players forward, Athletic are prone to being caught out by the counter attack. However the majority of the fouls were conceded by Atletico. No Athletic player conceded more than two fouls in the entire game but they still accumulated four cautions with three of these resulting from late tackles in dangerous areas as Atletico attacked.

Atletico conceded twenty five fouls during the game with Falcao responsible for seven. If the final was a showcase of his attacking abilities, it also provided ample evidence of his workrate for the team, something which had been questioned in some quarters previously.

The substitute, Ibai, offered more width on the left and a willingness to run at opponents but the overall passing of Athletic remained too slow.

Torqero was brought on in the 62nd minute as Herrera, already cautioned, and becoming increasingly frustrated, was removed.

This necessitated another alteration to the system. Muniain dropped deeper again which offered him the opportunity to run with the ball towards the Atletico defence.

There were now two strikers ahead of him but Atletico countered this with Suarez dropping between the centre backs when required to do so, providing three centre backs against the two strikers, always keeping a spare man at the back.

There were fleeting glimpses of Athletic’s ability now as the tempo increased and there were a number of scoring opportunities yet the threat of the counter attack was never sufficiently dealt with.

Adrian tripped by the backtracking Inigo Perez.

The Final Goal

The third goal for Atletico started as a counter attack initiated by Diego in his own half. Yet Diego collected the ball just inside the Athletic half and moved unchallenged towards the box where he moved past a cumbersome Amorebieta and scored the final goal.

The only challenge Diego had to evade en route was from the rapidly backtracking Torqero. The space in front of the centre backs, normally patrolled by Iturraspe had been vacated by Inigo Perez.


For Athletic, the same failings that have existed all season remain in position.

The space behind the full backs, who push so high, was exploited by Atletico throughout with diagonal balls being played to the flanks where Arda and, Adrian especially, offered an attacking threat. The centre backs when pulled wide to cover for the full backs, struggle one on one.

The vertical movement of Iturraspe between defence and midfield did not produce any positive outcomes with his passing weak throughout. Yet when replaced with Inigo Perez, who did provide more vertical movement, the gap in front of the centre backs became apparent. Perez received a caution for his late challenge as Atletico broke through the centre in the 75th minute. The warning was not heeded and 9 minutes later, Diego scored.

And finally, the real issue facing Athletic. How do they convert their possession into chance creation and ultimately, goals. Yet again, Athletic dominate an opponent in terms of possession, enjoying 69%, and have a territorial advantage and yet again, the opponent has more attempts at goal and walks away with victory.

Athletic and Bielsa must rectify this issue.

On a wider level, it raises the same issues which adversely affect all of Belsa’s teams to a certain degree. The lack of defensive stability and the issue of fatigue at key points in the season. A number of Athletic players appeared to be carrying niggling injuries or simlpy cannot raise the level of their performance to that which is required.

Athletic now have two weeks to recover before the Copa del Rey final. Assured of Europea League football next season, the opportunity to rest key players for their final league fixture this season is a welcome respite.

Bielsa & Simeone – Bielsa gave Simeone 30 Argentina caps.

For Atletico and Simeone, the season is already a huge success folliowing the brief, failed tenure of Manzano. There is one more game to navigate with the prize of champions League qualification at stake before the real work begins ahead of next season. When Simeone attempts to install some consistency into this talented side.

Barcelona vs Espanyol – Tactical Analysis

Pep Guardiola’s final home game in charge of Barcelona welcomed the visit of Pochettino’s Espanyol side to Camp Nou. What turned out to be a very comfortable win for Barcelona was played, with a few exceptions, at a generally low tempo throughout especially the first half. The game had the feel of an end of season encounter with nothing at stake. The highlights, as ever, arrived via Messi.

T’estimem Pep – “We Love You Pep”

Line Ups.

Following the clasico defeat, Barcelona have scored 11 goals and conceded just 1 in their two games against Rayo Vallecano and Malaga, each game seeing a few changes in personnel.

Pinto continued in goal ahead of Victor Valdes owing to a combination of Valdes wishing to win the Zamora Award and also due to Pinto’s appearance in the forthcoming Copa del Rey final, the game provided much needed match practice.

Montoya made his second start at right back in the last three games and there were also starting places for Thiago, Keita and Pedro.

Barcelona vs Espanyol – Starting Line Ups

Espanyol entered the game with their season more or less over. Similar to last season, they began brightly and harboured hopes of European football before declining sharply in the new year. Never in any danger of relegation this season, los periquito’s recent form of just one win in eight games effectively killed off any thoughts of entertaining European football at the Estadi Cornella-El Prat next season.

Pochettino made just one change from the side which lost away to Granada midweek, with Moreno replacing Romaric. This necessitated a reshuffle with Forlin moved out to right back and Javi Lopez starting in a defensive midfield position.

First Half

Espanyol started the game with their normal high line and aggressive, pressing style, seeking to disrupt Barcelona and prevent them from establishing any sort of rhythm. They probably started a little too aggressively, conceding four fouls in the opening five minutes with Forlin cautioned for pulling back Iniesta.

As Barcelona began to exert a little more influence over proceedings mainly via Iniesta on the left drifting inward, and Forlin at right back hindered by his early caution, Messi won and scored from a free kick after 11 minutes.

To some extent, this killed the game with the tempo remaining particularly flat for the remainder of the half only enlivened by free kicks from Iniesta and Messi which went close.

Espanyol retained a narrow 4-3-3 shape with a high defensive line and little space between the lines due to their generally compact shape. There was space wide with Espanyol holding a narrow line across the width of their penalty area but this was never really exploited by Barcelona. Iniesta preferring to move inside and Pedro still searching for form. When Espanyol attacked, all their creative play came via Verdu operating centrally and Weiss coming inside form the right.

With both sides happy to press high and push their defensive line up, there was ample space in behind the respective defences yet neither team took advantage of this in the first half.

Second Half

Espanyol continued to press high, making life awkward for Barcelona when trying to pass out from defence.

Espanyol never had the opportunity to put real pressure on Pinto when he had the ball at his feet. Barcelona will always seek to play the ball out from defence even when under pressure and the goalkeeper becomes an important link in the chain, providing angles for a backpass and switching the play across the pitch. Pinto is noticeably uncomfortable with the ball at his feet and his range of passing is substantially less than Valdes. Considering their aggressive pressing style, this should have been an area for Espanyol to attack yet it never materialised.

With five cautions, Espanyol continued their assault on the fair play league and are now second behind Valencia in terms of the number of yellow and red cards they have accumulated this season.

There is nothing unusual statistically about the number of tackles they make per game or the number of fouls they concede per game but their yellow card count is very high. Due to their high defensive line and tendency to press, perhaps they commit more cynical fouls than others to help the team recover their shape?

The second Barcelona goal arrived via a debatable penalty for handball. There was considerable protest from Espanyol players leading to three cautions being received. Aggrieved by the decision, Espanyol began to lose their shape.

Trailing 2-0, Pochettino replaced Alvaro with Coutinho leaving Espanyol with no recognised striker on the pitch for the remaining 27 minutes of the game. There were options on the bench in the shape of Uche and Pandiani but neither is going to provide the level of mobility and fluidity that Pochettino was clearly seeking from his team in an attacking sense.

Messi’s hat trick took advantage of Espanyol sending a number of players forward for a corner. With the corner successfully defended, Thiago floated a ball over the Espanyol defence for Messi to run onto to. This was the first real exploitation of the Espanyol high line. Three touches later it was 3-0.

Messi – 1 touch, 2 touch, 3 touch – goal

Barcelona and Messi’s fourth followed shortly with another penalty kick.

The Espanyol defensive line became ragged as the game drew to a conclusion with the back four now stretched across a wider area and the compactness of the team now gone. This led directly to Messi’s late chance from Thiago’s threaded pass but overall, the defensive lines of both sides were maintained well, supported by the twelve offside decisions in the game.


Espanyol have caused Barcelona some difficult moments in recent meetings but there was never any sense that a shock was likely to happen here. A very routine win for Barcelona in Guardiola’s last home match in charge.