Athletic Bilbao vs Malaga

A fairly tight game ended in a 0-0 draw at the San Mames. Neither side offered much in an attacking sense.Coming off the back of a superb home victory in the Champions League, Pellegrini is likely to be the happier manager with a point which maintains their unbeaten start to the season. Malaga set out with a fairly conservative approach with Toulalan and Camacho deep in midfield shielding the defence.

Malaga Defence

For the sixth time in eight games this season, Malaga have prevented their opponents from scoring. Their defensive solidity requires considerable work on the training ground and it’s an asset of a Pellegrini team that is often overlooked. Teams under the leadership of Manuel Pellegrini are often noted for their short, sharp passing as they control the centre of the pitch.A frugal defence is not high on many people’s perceptions.

In the defensive phase of the game, the team is extremely well organised and hold a line along the edge of the penalty box as can be seen below.

Malaga Defensive Line – De Marcos breaks through

This is the exact same defensive set up that Pellegrini perfected at Villarreal with the likes of Javi Venta, Capdevila, Godin and Gonzalo all holding the offside line at the edge of the penalty area.

Athletic were caught offside on seven occasions during the game.

On the few occasions when Athletic managed to break through the offside line, opportunities arose such as the one pictured above for Oscar De Marcos.

These scenarios arose infrequently however as Athletic failed to offer the same level of dynamism and mobility that they did last season in attack. Too often the players were disconnected and isolated with combination plays few and far between.

The loss through injury of Aurtenexte has severely impacted upon the attacking threat from the left side of the Athletic team particularly as Muniain moves to a central position. On the right side, the marauding Iraola appears to be slightly deeper. As the gaps between the players becomes longer, passing becomes more difficult and the opposition are able to intercept the ball more easily as the graphic below illustrates:-

Malaga Interceptions vs Athletic                                              http://www.squawka.com

Again, this reinforces the strong defensive set up that Malaga have. They avoided diving into tackles around their own penalty area with Monreal particularly impressive, making six interceptions and two tackles during the game all of which occurred in the left back area.

Athletic Set Up

There appears to be some slight changes in the Athletic set up from last season as alluded to above. The biggest issue though is undoubtedly the lower intensity of the team. The success of Athletic last season was the sheer relentless nature of their high pressing and the quick tempo of their short passing game as they swarmed over their opponents. That seems to be lacking now. They still chase and press their opponents but it’s easier for opponents to break through the man marking system which Athletic employ. Opponents get slightly longer in possession before they are closed down allowing them to turn, to pick out a pass. For the system to remain effective,pressing high up the pitch must be quick. As soon as an opponent has time to evade that initial press, Athletic are vulnerable in defence.

Despite dominating possession, Athletic were unable to create many clear cut chances. One problem which they encountered was building the play from the back as they prefer to do. The veteran midfielder Gurpegi is used in the centre of defence, a replacement for Javi Martinez but he lacks the passing range of his predecessor. Similarly, despite his limited mobility, Amorebieta also offers a wide range of passing which neither San Jose or Ekiza can provide.

The midfield trio of Iturrapse, De Marcos and Muniain did not offer the right blend in this game. Muniain was positioned to far forward in the first half and De Marcos is a midfield runner. There was nobody in the centre of the pitch to build and cajole the play. The creativity of Herrara was sorely missed. As a consequence, Athletic began going longer and became more direct.

This led to Aduriz contributing virtually nothing in the game:-

Aduriz passes vs Malaga                                                           http://www.squawka.com

Aduriz moved deeper to become involved in the game but with limited service and players too far away, there was little chance of linking and developing play.

Aduriz was withdrawn at half time and replaced by Llorente.

Llorente -To play or not to play?

For the second game in a row, Llorente joined the action from the substitutes bench. Last week against Espanyol, his impact was immediate as he scored with his first touch. Here, he offered little as Athletic struggled to gain any fluency to their play and offered him little service.

With a more direct approach, Athletic should have been able to knock balls towards Llorente which he holds up and brings others into play but he suffered the same problem as Aduriz:-

Llorente vs Malaga                                                                        http://www.squawka.com

Malaga refused to let Athletic push them deeper, maintaining the high line. This should have meant it was easier for Athletic to pass but their lack of a creative outlet centrally stymied them.

Athletic are now stuck with a problem. If Llorente retains his wish to leave, Athletic will need to offload in January to try and recoup some sort of fee for him. In the interim, what does Bielsa do? Does he try and get the last couple of months from Llorente or does Aduriz, his successor, stay in the team as first choice striker?

Llorente is clearly the better player but will he behave in a professional fashion or will his mind wander to pastures new whilst he sees out his time in Bilbao?

Bielsa has decisions to make ahead of the Basque derby next weekend.

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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.

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.

Overall

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.

Marcelo Bielsa – Method in the Madness

Athletic Bilbao face Atletico Madrid in the final of this season’s Europa League final following their pulsating 4-3 aggregate success over Sporting Lisbon last night. The game will mark their first appearance in the final of a European Competition since 1976/77 when they finished runners-up in the Uefa Cup, losing out on away goals to the all Italian Juventus side of Bettega, Tardelli et al.

On their path to the final, Athletic had dispatched such luminaries as AC Milan, Barcelona and enjoyed a semi final triumph on away goals over RWD Molenbeek (from Belgium in case you are wondering).

The route to this final has seen them eliminate Lokomotiv Moscow, Man Utd, Schalke and Sporting Lisbon from the knock out phase. Initially viewed as outsiders, Athletic are now the favourites for the competition.

Yet the man who delivered European football to Athletic, Joaquin Caparros, has not been around to enjoy it. A victim of the club’s presidential elections in the summer, despite steering Athletic to 6th place in La Liga and reaching the final of the Copa del Rey last season, Caparros’ contract was not renewed. Doubts over Caparros ability were surfacing, his image tarnished as being nothing more than a long ball merchant. Despite the traditional of direct football at Athletic, support for him was declining. In opportunistic fashion, the incoming President, Josu Urrutia, aware of the shifting mood, promised to deliver Marcelo Bielsa as manager if he won the election.

He did and he duly delivered Bielsa

His arrival at Athletic has generated considerable media interest which has only heightened and continually increased since their extremely impressive performances when defeating Man Utd home and away.

It had been 13 years since Bielsa last managed a club side, an ill-fated 6 game spell in charge of Espanyol which ended with his departure for the Argentine national side and Espanyol sitting in 18th position in La Liga.

How would his strict ideals for fast attacking football fit in with the physical robust football of Athletic?

Marcelo Bielsa

Marcelo “el loco” Bielsa is an idiosyncratic, obsessive character. With a thorough tactical mind and a desire for attacking football, he perfectly straddles the traditional Menotti – Bilardo dichotomy in Argentinean football.

Countless stories exist about Bielsa and his eccentricity / genius. 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.

With his now famous squatting position in the technical area, a keen journalist observed how Bielsa, during a game against Villarreal, took exactly 13 paces across the technical area before squatting down again each time Villarreal attacked. This could not be a coincidence. Was this another example of his attention to detail? The same number of paces marking a ritual?

“What is coincidence, is that when there’s such a nice game going on, someone spends time counting my paces.” was Bielsa’s deeply unimpressed response.

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 cites Bielsa as the “best coach in the world”.

Marcelo Bielsa - A Madman

The Set Up

“Our simple ethos is this: we try and win the ball back as quickly as possible from our opponents as far up the field as we can. And by that I mean everyone is involved in regaining the ball, from the forwards through to anyone else”

“Then once we have the ball, we try and find a way of getting forward as quickly as possible, in a vertical direction if you like. But we don’t get frustrated if we can’t get it forward immediately, we aim to be comfortable on the ball, and if it’s not a case of going forward straight away, we keep it.”

Bielsa adopted a 3-3-1-3 formation with both Argentina and Chile (detailed below).

Chile Starting Team vs Brazil - 2010 World Cup

As can be seen above, the team was more or less split into two units. The 4 defensive players comprising the three defenders and the defensive midfielder and the 6 attacking players comprising the two wing backs and un enganche y tres punta (a playmaker and three forwards). As Bielsa himself outlines, the idea was to play the game in your opponents half of the pitch, hold a high defensive line and press your opponent very aggressively. An attacking but physically demanding system to employ.

Arrigo Saachi spoke of there being an ideal 25 metres between centre-forward and centre-back and Bielsa shares this sentiment even allowing for the liberalisation of the offside law, something which Saachi’s great Milan never had to contend with. The high line must always be accompanied by an intense press.

He recognises the importance of the rapid movement of the ball from front to back to catch opponents off balance, but he also sees the value in retaining possession, which is what differentiates him from the likes of Egil Olsen, a coach who always prioritises position on the field over possession and favours a percentage based approach to football in the Reepian tradition.

The wing backs push forward to support the wingers, creating 2 on 1’s against opposing full backs. Interestingly, the full back normally goes on the inside of the winger. The wingers stay high and wide to stretch the opponents defence creating the gaps which the full backs, when attacking, and the midfield runners from the second line can exploit.

There was no specific No10 with Chile. Playmaking duties can be attributed to a few differing players, and in that respect, Bielsa again aligns himself with the Saachian notion of whoever had the ball was the regista. Similarly, Bielsa talks about the value in squeezing the game into a 25-metre area, another Saachian trait.

Always the innovator, Bielsa pioneered the use of defensive midfielders in the defensive line to aid distribution. With superior passing ability, a defensive midfielder can circulate the ball quickly and their increased mobility compared against traditional central defenders allows the higher line to function better.

Using midfielders in the defensive line also increases the flexibility of the team to adapt to differing circumstances. If the opponent had two strikers, Chile would adopt a back three. If the opponent switched to 1 or 3 strikers, Chile would respond accordingly, always keeping one defender extra at the back.

Bielsa enjoyed contrasting fortunes with his native Argentina and Chile. Despite arriving as favourites for the 2002 World Cup, Argentina failed to qualify from the group stage. One of the reasons cited for the poor showing of Argentina was severe fatigue from arduous domestic campaigns preventing the players from fulfilling the extreme physical demands demanded by the Bielsa model.

Yet this contrasts sharply with Chile, although expectations were lower, his success here was still considerable. His achievements here partially stem from inheriting a group of young players from the Chile U20 team which finished in 3rd place at the 2007 U20 World Cup. Players such as Sanchez, Medel, Carmona and Vidal emerged from that team and form the backbone of the current international set up.

Chile has no particular footballing identity or traditions unlike some of its South American neighbours such as Argentina and Brazil . The Chileans bought into Bielsa’s methods and a team that finished bottom of South American World Cup qualifying group in 2002, qualified easily in 2010, finishing second. The willingness of Bielsa to play the young players promoted from the U20 team, fast tracking them to the first team was central. Young impressionable minds who were physically fit and accepting of the exacting Bielsa philosophy.

Despite a second round defeat to Brazil in 2010, Bielsa and his players gained considerable recognition and appreciation not least because of their extreme attacking mentality at a time of increased conservatism in the game and the proliferation of a defensive minded 4-2-3-1 approach.

Given all of the above, how would he fare with Athletic?

Athletic Bilbao

Athletic are widely considered the most “English” of Spanish sides with a reputation for a direct style of play which dates back to the management of the influential Fred Pentland in the late 1920’s and 1930’s.

Pentland was regarded as a radical coach who favoured a short-passing game (still comparably long by modern standards. His was definitely not a tiki-taka approach) but he liked his central defenders and centre-forwards big and robust. The likes of Fernando Llorente and Fernando Amorebieta are the modern incarnations of that tradition.

Athletic retain a direct, but not long ball, style.

The signing policy of Athletic is well documented. 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.

Upon joining Athletic, Bielsa did not ask for any new signings, working with the existing squad. Interestingly, at the start of the season, Bielsa jettisoned a number of senior players at Athletic. Whether they were considered unable to adapt to the Bielsa methods physically or would challenge his methods intellectually is open for debate.

The key ingredients existed from the outset for Bielsa to succeed.

The tradition for a direct style of football played at a high tempo was central to both Athletic and Bielsa. The reliance upon young players from la cantera gave Bielsa the opportunity to again mould young players to his footballing philosophy just as he did with Chile.

Like la cantera, Bielsa has found fertile ground at Athletic.

The Start

In pre-season Bielsa used varying formations with players operating in a number of different positions. The pre-season game against Spurs demonstrated his willingness to consider a range of possibilities and ideas in search of answers.

Athletic vs Spurs - Second Half Line Up

The use of a back three was in response to Spurs playing two strikers whilst Gabilondo and Torquero were positioned on the wings as Bielsa sought the correct solution.

This experimentation continued into the early league games. A lack of structure and cohesion leading to decidedly poor performances with the team lacking clarity as they toiled with the implementation of Bielsa’s ideas. The odd line ups continued too, only serving to add confusion to the team as players found themselves fulfilling new roles and adapting to a completely new method of playing.

The case of Oscar De Marcos is a perfect example. Notionally a striker or winger, he started the season playing at left back against Rayo Vallecano. The following week he was in midfield against Espanyol before moving back to left back and then left wing back.

With no wins in their opening 5 games, this was Athletic’s worst start to a league in 32 years accumulating just 2 points. Athletic travelled to Sociedad for the Basque derby in September and the formation changed again, back to a 4-2-3-1, a recognised formation and one they players were assured with, but more importantly than that, players were now adjusting to the Bielsa style and being played in appropriate positions.

De Marcos was now firmly in midfield, deployed as a shuttler moving back and forth, linking with the attack. Autenexte had been brought back into the fold at left back. A proper left back and a good one. Llorente had adjusted to actually moving across the front line as opposed to being stationary waiting for the ball to land on his head. His new role required much greater movement than he had been used to.

A double from Llorente sealed the points and Athletic began moving forward with some purpose. The win brought belief as well as a healthy dose of relief, easing the pressure on Bielsa.

It has taken time for Bielsa time to settle in Bilbao. Upon arrival he began instigating radical changes, offloading nine players and training became far more theoretical with key moves repeatedly practised on the training ground. This represented a clear departure from Caparros and Bielsa himself acknowledged the early errors which he made.

But as with Chile, the players accepted his ideas and began implementing them. And the results arrived.

The Current Position

The team currently play in a fluid 4-3-3 system.

Athletic First Choice Starting Line Up

Both full backs push high up the pitch supporting the wingers although Iraola is noticeably more attacking than Autenexte. It is also worth commenting that Susaeta is happy to hug the right touchline whereas Muniain starts further infield and has increased lateral movement, drifting across the pitch. This sometimes leaves Autenexte with no support in front of him at transitions. Consequently, he is slightly more cautious in his attacking play.

The central defensive pairing is Martinez and Amorebieta. Typically, Amorebieta will mark and Martinez will drop deeper to cover although this switches during games.

Unlike South America where 2 striker systems are still common, La Liga witnesses the domination of the 4-2-3-1 formation. With a single striker, the Bielsa system needs two central defenders therefore the back four is utilised. This can, and does, change during games but the back four is the default position.

Iturraspe sits deepest in midfield and is pivotal to Athletic, moving vertically between defence and midfield to destroy and create as the situation requires. The defence becomes a three when he drops deep and the midfield becomes a trio when he pushes forward. Against Man Utd, he was always close to Rooney, neutralising his overall impact on the game yet Man Utd and Rooney failed to close Iturraspe down and permitted him time and space to construct attacks.

Bielsa favours a midfield with a sitter (Iturraspe), playmaker (Herrara) and runner (De Marcos). Nominally the playmaker in midfield, Herrara shares these duties with Muniain. Similar to Chile, there is no single No10. De Marcos is the runner, breaking forward at pace to support the strikers and linking well with Susaeta and Iraola on the right.

Llorente is the central striker flanked by Muniain and Susaeta and supported by the runners from the second line.

Athletic have adopted a patient build up, happy to play laterally initially as they seek solutions to their opponents game plan. Amorebieta and Martinez are comfortable bringing the ball forward but equally, will look for Llorente or the wingers with long diagonals. This variety in developing play aids Athletic considerably. As they approach their opponents third, the pace visibly increases as they play 1-2’s and look for runners from the second line.

The role of Llorente here is key as a target man shielding the ball and providing knock downs and lay offs to the runners. A developing role and appreciation of the system allows Llorente to differentiate between holding possession when required and dispatching quickly as the circumstances dictate. The long ball and immediate knock down / pass, although still occurring in the right circumstances, has declined starkly.

Athletic often seek to overload an opponent predominantly on their right flank. Susaeta is supported by Iraola and De Marcos. With Susaeta wide, both Iraola and De Marcos have the option of moving diagonally infield. This season, 41% of Athletic’s attacks have originated on the right flank.

Athletic Attacking Down The Right

Llorente moves towards the edge of the box, acting as a focal point for passes. Assuming he receives the ball then Susaeta moves down the touchline, drawing the full back out. As Susaeta does this, it creates the space for Iraola to drive in diagonally and either he or De Marcos can receive the ball from Llorente. Muniain, meanwhile, is drifting across, adopting a more central position and ready to receive a pass.

Athletic still retain a direct element to their play, crossing the ball and hitting long passes with an average of 23 crosses and 62 long passes per game (almost identical to last season’s statistics). One of the most noticeable characteristics about the changing direction under Bielsa is the number of short passes they play, increasing by 25% from last season. Under Caparros, Athletic were one dimensional, hitting long balls towards Llorente or Torquero favouring a 1-2-3 approach from Iraizoz to Llorente. Now, they play on average 420 short passes per game. This has aided them enormously in terms of retaining possession.

They now enjoy much more possession in each game, averaging 58% per game in La Liga compared to just 47% last season. Possession does not automatically equate to control of a game however. It is possible to control a game without possession of the ball. A fine example in a UK context was the recent performance of Newcastle away to Swansea. Swansea average 58% possession per game, making around 590 passes in the process. Newcastle were never going to compete for an equal share of possession, focussing instead on retaining shape and defending deep. Despite not having much possession, Newcastle controlled the game by controlling the space, scoring from two counter attacks and winning comfortably. There is a lesson for Athletic here.

Athletic average 58% possession per game (the third highest in La Liga behind the big two) and their pass completion rate is 79%. They retain their shape when pressing far better than Chile and avoid hunting in packs high up the pitch.

Their discipline when pressing has prevented them falling into the same trap as Chile – conceeding cheap fouls and picking up needless yellow cards. Athletic concede far fewer fouls compared to Chile who were prone to being caught too high and committed a number of cynical fouls to allow the team to regroup. Athletic have avoided this. They have a relatively low figure of just 15 fouls conceded per game.

In the defensive phase of the game Llorente splits the centre backs and closes them down whilst the wingers Susaeta and Muniain close down the full backs, supported by either De Marcos or Herrara respectively.  When the opponent switches play, say from their left flank to their right flank, this is the moment when Susaeta drops back into position and Muniain advances to close down his opponent.

Both Susaeta and Muniain track back consistently to win the ball. Indeed, one of the defining moments for Athletic this season has been witnessing Muniain in a sort of perpetual motion shuttling back and forth on the left wing with short, sharp sprints as he presses opponents. For a precocious attacking talent, his workrate is phenomenal.

One of the central defenders marks the opposition striker whilst the spare defender sweeps. Iturraspe will stay in midfield or drop into defence, again in response to the opposition’s attacking set up.

Bielsa has married the best of the Athletic ways with his own philosophy. The direct, vertical nature at an increased tempo with constant movement and sharp exchanges of passes.

“We always go out to attack our opponents and go for victory,” Bielsa said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but we won’t alter the style of play we have.”

One of the reasons why it sometimes does not work, is the weaknesses within the system which opponents can take advantage of.

Weaknesses

Similar to Chile, 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.

Athletic - Weak Defensively on the Flanks at Transitions


The space behind both Iraola, and to a lesser extent, Autenexte can be seen above.

Some opponents have sought to attack in this area with quick kick outs from the goalkeeper. PSG attempted it in the Europa League group phase match and on occasion last night, Patricio in the Sporting goal also looked for his wingers, usually Diego Capel. The problem for opponents is when they get pushed back too far, the team takes longer as a unit to move back upfield and Athletic can regroup.

Secondly, when Athletic press, both Herrara 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.

Athletic typically have 12 shots at goal per game yet opponents have 15 shots per game. Athletic need to adjust slightly to close off the defensive weakness within their game without negating their attacking impetus. It’s an extremely difficult balancing attack to achieve.

Due to the incessant attacking under Bielsa, games sometimes flow end to end which makes for enthralling viewing for the neutral but which demonstrates the lack of control Athletic have over proceedings. Defensively, they sometimes appear chaotic as players recover and move back into position whilst also attempting to press the opponent.

The key for Athletic is taking the next step – channel the possession into a more controlled and measured approach and then create and convert chances.

Cup Team?

Perhaps unfairly, although to a degree understandable at the time, Athletic have been written off as a cup team this season.

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.

Athletic now sit 6th in La Liga just 4 points behind Malaga who occupy the fourth and final Champions League qualification place. With 4 games remaining, they retain an outside chance of securing a Champions League position especially in a season when no side has taken a secure hold over 3rd or 4th place. Valencia appear to be imploding in the death throes of the Unai Emery era whilst neither Malaga or Levante seem to have the stamina to make it over the finishing line. Achieve league consistency for the final few games and the Champions League place could be yours.

The cup team specialist tag appeared to surface for two reasons:- the physical demands of the system and their small squad.

Athletic struggled to maintain their performance level in successive games, being unable to manage back to back victories for some time. The physical demands of the Bielsa system are too great and Athletic are susceptible to conceding late goals the critics claimed. They provided the “evidence”. Real Betis scored in the 90th minute to win 2-1, Sporting Lisbon scored twice in the last 15 minutes to win 2-1 in the Europa League first leg and Sporting Gijon equalised in the final minute to salvage a draw.

Yet this conveniently overlooks the late goals that Athletic themselves have scored this season e.g. Muniain against Man Utd, Muniain and De Marcos against Schalke, Llorente and De Marcos away to Granada and of course, the crucial goal by Llorente after 87 minutes against Sporting Lisbon which secured their place in the Europa League final.

Secondly, the poor run of form following the Man Utd victories led some to argue that the demands of the system were incompatible with a small squad. The drop in form coincided with an intensive period of games in February and March. As the pressure has eased and midweek fixtures reduced, Athletic’s form has picked up.

When operating with a pool of around 18 first team players, rotation becomes difficult and the drop in quality between a first choice 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.

Next Steps

So what now for Bielsa and Athletic?

A Copa del Rey final awaits against Barcelona and a Europa League final against Atletico. Leaving aside the potential trophies, the next step in the process is the arguably the most interesting, and from an Athletic perspective, vital, step.

How does Bielsa develop Athletic?

Bielsa’s team may not have had the same calibre of players as a side such as Man Utd, but with six players aged 22 years or under starting against United, they are a team which has the potential to develop.

If, and it’s a massive if, he can keep the likes of Llorente, Muniain, Susaeta etc together. Llorente has one season remaining on his contract. If he refuses to sign an extension, it seems inconceivable that the club would keep him and lose out on a sizeable transfer fee.

Thereafter, can la cantera continue to produce young players who can make the grade?

If Bielsa delivers silverware, it makes the job of retaining these key players easier. The Basque country enjoys more favourable taxation than elsewhere in Spain and Athletic are a wealthy club. The players would be financially secure staying at Athletic but is that the extent of their ambitions?

Off the pitch, the club will shortly move to the new San Mames and further investment is planned for the training academy at Lezama to support la cantera and the future stars of Athletic.

If the squad can be kept intact for one more season, with Athletic warding off the predators who are surely likely to tempt them in the summer with large transfer fees for key players, and if the understanding and acceptance of his system continues, could Athletic challenge for 3rd in La Liga?

Valencia are likely to be under new management and Malaga are still under development. With Sevilla and Atletico continuing to be inconsistent, the time is ripe for a team to establish themselves as the 3rd force in Spanish football.

Is it Athletic’s time?

When asked about his methods and idiosyncracies, Bielsa responded

“A man with new ideas is mad – until he succeeds”

With Athletic, el loco Bielsa can keep his name and succeed.

Press, Press and More Pressing

A great game of football with Athletic running out 3-2 winners, a scoreline that arguably flatters Man Utd given the overall balance of play. After the initial stutter under Bielsa early on in the season, Athletic have gradually adapted to his methods demonstrated by the current run of just 3 defeats in the last 21 games in all competitions.

The performance against Man Utd was arguably their best under Bielsa, drawing the various strands of his game together and executing them brilliantly.

Line Ups

Athletic lined up in their variation of the 4-1-2-3 formation against Manchester Utd. With Amorebieta suspended, there was no real decision to be made for Bielsa and he went with his strongest line up.

The Starting Line Ups

 

Ferguson had stated prior to the game how Man Utd needed to improve in the Europa League and how an experienced team would be fielded against Athletic.

Man Utd lined up in a 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2 formation.

Ferguson does not like to pair two similar players in midfield i.e. Carrick and Giggs or Anderson and Fletcher due to it making Man Utd lack mobility in the former or creativity in the latter.

The pairing of Giggs and Jones was designed to pair a passer with a runner. Man Utd had gone with a central midfield pairing of Carrick and Giggs against Newcastle and fell victim to a high press with neither Giggs or Carrick offering enough mobility in midfield.

First Half

Athletic started with their usual aggressive high pressing. Llorente aimed to press the centre backs whilst Evra and Rafael were closed down by Muniain and Susaeta when they moved forward.

Man Utd made a number of misplaced passes, some of which were due to sloppy play whilst others were forced from Athletic’s intensive pressing.

With Rooney behind Hernandez and Iturraspe the deepest of the Athletic midfielders, Rooney should have pressed him more during the game but failed to do so, in a similar fashion to how Rooney failed to press Busquets in the Champions League Final last season. This allowed Iturraspe to collect the ball and begin constructing moves, linking with Herrara in the centre of the pitch.

Athletic were content to play slow patient passing in their own half of the pitch before accelerating the speed of the play as they approached the Man Utd penalty area with Llorente used as a focal point, laying off the ball to De Marcos, Muniain and Susaeta as they moved forward at pace. They looked for quick 1-2’s and runners breaking in behind the defence which they repeatedly did on the right flank.

Jones often tried to break forward for Man Utd in the midfield but arguably the lack of discipline shown here contributed to Muniain having space to move infield from the left and attack the centre of the pitch. Giggs is no defensive midfielder and lacks mobility now. Jones should have stayed deep and offered protection to the defence.

Evra Attacked?

Athletic frequently overloaded the right wing in the first half. Was this a conscious decision to attack Evra? With Park naturally tucking in, it left Evra exposed to attacks from Iraola, Susaeta and De Marcos.

Indeed, on two occasions, Muniain also drifted to the right wing, swamping Man Utd in this area.

A number of long passed were hit between Evra and Evans in the first half with Susaeta or Iraola overlapping as the intended recipients potentially looking to expose positional flaws in Evra’s game.

Susaeta exposed the space between Evans and Evra for his lobbed chance in the latter part of the first half.

Athletic’s equalizer came from a ball to the right with Evra and Park tucking in, allowing Susaeta time to deliver the cross for Llorente to head in. Jones who was challenging Llorente on the edge of the penalty area failed to track his run.

Second Half

Man Utd attempted to press quicker and higher up early in the second half and Rooney appeared to be positioned further upfield but it was not a coherent press.

Giggs is too old in central midfield to press which led to an undisciplined, slightly half hearted press which Athletic were able to pass around. The general picture of the first half was replicated early in the second half.

Muniain forced a good save from De Gea in 49th minute but he was allowed far too much time to take his shot. Again, Jones was positioned in a line with the centre backs here but surely he should have been challenging Muniain and positioned in front of the centre backs?

The lack of pressure was apparent for De Marcos scoring. Herrara had time and space to lift the ball over the defence for De Marcos (in an offside position) to run onto and score.

The final Athletic goal was a compilation of defensive errors.

Firstly, Evans and Jones failed to communicate and challenged for the same ball, secondly, De Marcos managed to beat a fresh Anderson to the loose ball and get his shot at goal and finally, Rafael stood and watched as Muniain made up a gap of 15 yards to beat De Gea to the rebound.

Man Utd though had several chances in the second half mostly all on the counter attack.

For all their attacking intent, Bielsa teams are still prone to being exploited on the counter and were fortunate that the referee was quite lenient in the game with a few cynical fouls by Athletic to break up Man Utd counters.

It should come as no surprise that, although Athletic dominated possession, they also committed more fouls, 16 to Man Utd’s 11.

Substitutions

Man Utd made three second half substitutions, none of which had any impact upon the general direction of the game but each forced a reshuffle on the pitch.

Smalling was replaced by Carrick following his head knock early in the second half. Jones replaced Smalling in central defence and Carrick added a bit more composure to the Man Utd midfield. However, with two passers side by side, Carrick and Giggs, Man Utd were going to continue to struggle even against an Athletic side which was beginning to tire slightly.

In the 60th minute, Park was taken off and replaced by Anderson. Surprisingly, Rooney appeared to go wide left for a spell with Giggs behind Hernandez.

Was Rooney pushed wide left to assist Evra deal with Iraola etc attacking? Rooney was the deepest Man Utd player in the 65th minute as he cleared the ball from the corner flag.

In the 74th minute Giggs was replaced by Nani. Ashley Young moved to the left wing and Nani went onto the right wing with Rooney moved back into a central area.

Two subs for Athletic late on for straight replacements. Torquero for Llorente and Inigo Perez for Herrara. Torquero continued the aggressive pressing whilst Perez had no opportunity for any real impact.

Conclusions

A nearly flawless game from Athletic although they do still leave large gaps at the back for teams to exploit on the counter. They dominated possession and had more shots on and off target than Man Utd.

Questions remain though. Can such a small squad maintain such a high energy approach for the remainder of the season? With Osasuna at the weekend before facing Man Utd again, will their league form falter? How can they improve defensively without sacrificing any of their attacking intent?

From Man Utd’s perspective, they knew what Athletic would do and how they would approach the game yet they failed to respond.

The implementation of the 4-4-2ish system was wrong. Rooney did not press, Hernandez looked short on confidence when he had the ball and the team in general appeared laboured and slow.

The inclusion of Hernandez, who has fallen behind Wellbeck in recent times, was probably due to his pace with the aim being to exploit the high line which Athletic use. It was a tactic which failed as Hernandez was unable to exploit the space behind Athletic as Man Utd passed too slowly and were not direct enough.

The space against Athletic is behind the full backs. Iraola and Aurtenexte push high upfield and Martinez and Amorebieta or San Jose are not comfortable being pulled wide. Space can also be found in the midfield, with a noticeable gap between Iturraspe and the pairing of De Marcos and Herrera.

The constant reshuffling by Man Utd that took place between the 60th minute and 74th minute looked desperate as Man Utd searched for a solution.

Guardiola commented previously on the relentless pressing by Athletic. Perhaps Man Utd were caught out by the sheer intensity of their pressing and the high tempo which occurred for the duration of the game.

In my view, they should have known how Athletic would play in advance. The line up and tactics were in no way surprising.