How Spain’s most unique club will be revitalised under their new manager
Athletic Bilbao are without doubt one of the most distinctive clubs in world football. Their Unique Selling Point is their rule to only buy players from the Basque region of Spain or players who played youth football in the region.
They have managed to produce some top talent throughout the years, including players such as Ander Herrera and Aymeric Laporte in recent memory, who developed at the Basque club. Even now, the club’s starting eleven has some terrific players, such as Inaki Williams and Iker Muniain, who have been touted with moves to some of Europe’s best clubs, like Manchester United and Liverpool.
However, apart from their excellent 2011/12 season under Marcelo Bielsa reaching the Europa League and Copa del Rey final – losing both – Bilbao have largely been a mid-table club and nothing more, only winning one trophy since 1984.
Now, they have some hope since appointing their new manager Marcelino Toral – previously of Valencia where he won the Copa Del Rey and managed two successive UEFA Champions League qualifications with them – to replace Gaizka Garitano due to recurring lacklustre performances.
This article will be a tactical analysis in the form of a scout report of how Bilbao will look under their new manager. We will be performing an analysis of the tactics from Marcelino’s debut match – a 3-2 loss to Barcelona on Saturday – as a reference guide to understand how they will play.
Starting Lineup and Formation
The first noticeable tactical change from Marcelino was the shift to a 4-4-2. The 4-4-2 was his preferred formation at Valencia during his time in charge and he instantly deployed it against Barcelona at the weekend instead of the 4-2-3-1 preferred by his predecessor, Garitano.
Typically, under the last manager, Raul Garcia would be utilised as a lone centre-forward with Muniain behind him as the number 10. Williams would also be deployed as a wide-player off the right or left quite a lot too instead of solely leading the line.
Against La Blaugrana, the versatile Oscar De Marcos played as a right-winger with Ander Capa playing as the right-back. The rest of the side were basically the same to the one Garitano would use. Muniain pushed back out to the left-wing of the 4-4-2, whilst the double-pivot was Unai Vencedor and Mikel Vesga.
Unai Lopez and Inigo Martinez partnered together once more with Yuri Berichiche flanking them on the left. Unai Simon took his typical place in goal.
Despite conceding three goals in the game, Bilbao defended substantially well in large parts and – as this starting lineup is arguably their best – with some minor tweaks, this could be their first eleven going forward, depending on their result against Real Madrid this coming week.
Build-up play and positional attacks
One of the reasons for Bilbao’s uninspiring form is that this season they have only scored 21 goals in 18 games, an average of 1.09 per 90. Of course, this means that they only roughly average 1 goal per game and if Marcelino wants to drag his side further up the league table then this will need to be improved.
In terms of expected goals, they are the ninth-worst ranking side in the league with an expected goals (xG) ratio of 20.48. At this current rate, Bilbao are on course to score just 41 goals, rounded up from 41.42. They have played at least a game extra to five teams below them.
Against Barcelona, Marcelino deployed a 4-4-2 in possession and out of possession, but the shape tended to be more of a fluid 4-2-2-2 with the front two and wingers given license to roam and rotate positions.
From their build-up play to their positional attacks, their offensive structure remained the same. Bilbao made the pitch very wide against Barcelona in order to stretch their opposition’s high press, creating gaps that could be easily played through.
As we can see from this image, the two centre-backs split wide, in the build-up phase, to the edge of the box and allow the goalkeeper to be involved in the play. The fullbacks would push slightly higher also and keep the width.
The main emphasis was to build up through the double-pivot in the centre of the park. If Barcelona’s high press was stretched through the positioning of Bilbao’s players in the build-up play, there would be huge gaps to play through, and as can be seen in the previous image, since Barcelona tend to use a more man-oriented pressing system, Bilbao could gain access to their double-pivot in the central areas with good movement.
As stated previously, their structure would generally remain the same as they progressed higher up the field out of the build-up phase into a positional attack.
Marcelino did not want one of his central midfielders to drop into the defence to create a three-man backline when the fullbacks push up as Bilbao progress higher up the pitch. This was because he did not want his side to be outrun in the midfield area and wanted to outnumber Barcelona’s midfield three centrally.
Instead, the ball-near fullback would drop short and create a back three, helping the two centre-backs circulate the ball in an attempt to find gaps in the opposition’s first line of press, whilst the ball-far fullback would push higher. The ball-near central midfielder also dropped to receive and created a triangle.
In the case shown above, Capa has dropped to receive, whilst Berichiche has moved up, keeping the width on the far left.
Also, as they began their positional attack, the two wide players moved inside into the halfspaces to congest the central areas, which also gave way for the fullbacks to move up the flanks. This way, Bilbao have 9 players – including the goalkeeper – positioned in the centre of the pitch, with two out wide.
Again, we can see this build-up structure on the opposite side of the pitch. Essentially, their formation was a 1-9-1 going across the pitch, with only the fullbacks out wide.
Garcia’s role and breaking the defensive line
Raul Garcia played a vital role in allowing Bilbao to play through the lines, as well as progress higher up the pitch in general. He was playing in a front two with Williams, but instead, occupied a false nine role throughout the match.
He would play between the lines all game under the new boss and would shift from left to right in this key area of the pitch, dropping into little pockets of space to receive the ball in the centre. He was not the only player to play between the lines, but Muniain and De Marcos would tend to stay in the halfspaces rather than play more centrally.
However, Garcia would also be tasked with dropping short, sometimes even as deep as the double-pivot, to allow Bilbao to progress up the pitch if they were struggling.
Here, we see an example of Garcia dropping into space to act as a passing option, allowing the backline to have another option to play through Barcelona by playing inside their defensive block rather than around it to the fullbacks all the time.
Unfortunately, in this game, Garcia was quite ineffective for the most part when Bilbao were in positional attacks, but since Barcelona are a top side, it does not mean that the Spaniard exercising a false nine role in future matches for the Basque club won’t work.
In this match, he only managed to complete 17 out of 19 passes, with Bilbao alone completing 404 passes in total, proving the lack of time on the ball that Garcia actually had. He also only completed 1 key pass throughout the game – which happened to be an assist from a counterattack – with only two passes into the penalty area.
In the game against Barcelona, Bilbao’s most efficient way of breaking La Blaugrana’s defensive line, whilst in a positional attack, was with runs in behind the defence, particularly from Williams and De Marcos, who attacked the depth constantly.
The trigger for these runs in behind from De Marcos and Williams down the channel – between the opposition’s fullbacks and centre-backs – was when the Bilbao fullbacks received the ball and were able to open out their bodies. They would then play down the flanks, hoping that the runner would latch onto the ball.
De Marcos and Williams were the only two that really did this as Muniain and Garcia are more intricate players with the ball at their feet. Williams was the preferred choice as he is excellent when he gets in behind an opponent’s defensive line, and the majority of Bilbao’s attacks were down this left side that he made his runs into, which can be seen from the following data visual.
As can be seen from this visual representation, 14 of their 29 positional attacks were down the left flank.
Defending in a compact low block
Bilbao defended rather deep and narrow all game to limit the space Barcelona had to play in and play into. Their defensive shape was a 4-4-2 when they sat in their mid-to-low block. The Basque club’s Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) was 12.38, meaning that Barcelona were sometimes allowed to have possession for prolonged periods of time before Bilbao began to press.
Here is an example of Bilbao’s low block that Marcelino deployed at the weekend. The most noticeable aspects of this defensive structure are the lack of space between the lines as well as how narrow it is, hence, why Lionel Messi has had to drift out to the left-wing to receive the ball in this instance.
The aim of the defensive block was clearly to limit the space Barcelona had to play forward in when they had the ball in the central corridors, especially Messi. As soon as a Barcelona player would try to dribble or play through their midfield line, the Bilbao players would bunch together to minimize the space possible to do this.
It worked quite well for them throughout the game as only 7 of Barcelona’s 32 positional attacks came from the central area.
This can be seen in the image above, but unfortunately for Los Leones, in this example, Messi was still able to carve them open with a split pass, before playing a quick one-two and scoring.
When the opposing team played out to the wide areas, Bilbao would shift their entire defensive block over to the ball-side in order to prevent Barcelona from outnumbering them on the flanks with a wide overload.
This was also done rather successfully, and it prevented Barcelona from cutting through them.
As we can see in this image, Bilbao have four players to match Barcelona’s four on the right flank, preventing the overload. However, the major problem with committing so many bodies over to one side is that it leaves so much space for the opponent to switch the play into.
Essentially, the attacking team can exploit the defending team on the second-directional when this happens as gaps are likely to open. Barcelona exploited these gaps in Bilbao’s low block very efficiently by playing the ball into the gaps when Marcelino’s side could not regain their shape quickly enough, even scoring a goal from it.
Here is an instance where Barcelona cut through Bilbao by exploiting these spaces, captured merely seconds after the last image:
Barcelona quickly switched the play from one side to the other and before Bilbao could regain their compact defensive structure, Antoine Griezmann was in behind on the second directional.
This is something that Marcelino will need to work on with Bilbao in order to stop conceding as many goals as they have been. Already this season, they have conceded 22 goals in 18 games, the 9th highest in La Liga as of writing. On average, they are conceding 1.3 goals per game, meaning that by the end of the season, they are projected to concede almost 50 goals.
Most impressive about Los Leones under their new manager from his debut match were their transitions from defence to attack. We have already outlined how they would defend in their 4-4-2 mid-to-low block, but when they regained possession, their first instinct was to play forward as quickly as possible.
Against Barcelona, they had 5 counterattacks, with 2 ending in chances created, both being goals. The first in particular was of the highest quality.
Bilbao won the ball back just outside the 18-yard-box. With two line-splitting passes in mere seconds, Williams was through on goal before slotting past the goalkeeper.
At Valencia, Marcelino’s side were known for their ability on the break, and already with Bilbao this can be seen to be present within their attacking arsenal.
Williams was usually the aim of these counterattacks, typically supported by Garcia, as well as the two wingers flanking him, keeping the width in order to stretch Barcelona’s backline, leaving gaps to run into, although who partook in the attacks fluctuated depending on the situation.
It is still far too early to tell yet if Marcelino will have the same impact on this Athletic Bilbao team as he did at Valencia and Villarreal. However, from a tactical standpoint, the game model was already clear to see against Barcelona on Saturday. What he needs to do to take Los Leones to the next level is very basic and clear, but will improve the side massively, potentially allowing them to compete for a Europa League place; score more and concede less.
At Valencia, he managed to take them from recurring mid-table finishes and turned them into a top-four Spanish club, all in a matter of a few months, so it is very plausible that if things go to plan and Bilbao continue to progress, playing the rapid, transition football that Marcelino loves, they may be competing in a European competition come next season.