Now two of the most exciting managers in England, Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola have admired and influenced each other for a long time. When the Argentinian arrived in England, Guardiola said Leeds United had the best coach in the world. Bielsa has often spoken very highly of the Catalan too, for example, when he said you can’t copy the beauty of Guardiola’s teams.
But even if they have been in close contact through the years, they have only faced each other three times in their careers. All of them were in the 2011/12 season when Guardiola managed FC Barcelona and Bielsa, Athletic Club. Apart from the two La Liga matches, they were also face-to-face in the Copa del Rey final.
Guardiola won that final and the second leg of La Liga at the Camp Nou. But it was in their much anticipated first encounter when they showed the best of their tactics. Played under heavy rain at the old San Mamés, both teams produced a thrilling match that ended in a 2-2 draw. In this tactical analysis, we will see how both managers tried to counteract each other’s tactics without giving up their attacking styles.
Bielsa lined up a 4-1-4-1 formation. In the midfield, Ander Iturraspe acted as the pivot, with Óscar De Marcos as a box-to-box midfielder covering a lot of ground on the right side, and Ander Herrera with more freedom acting as a number ten at some points. Fernando Llorente was the target-man striker, with Iker Muniain, Markel Susaeta and the mentioned De Marcos and Herrera around him to take advantage of his aerial power. Athletic committed all their midfielders forwards every time they had the chance.
On the other side, Guardiola used his preferred 4-3-3 formation. Javier Mascherano was preferred over Carles Puyol to partner with Gerard Piqué. Dani Alves covered all the right flank form his wing-back position and Eric Abidal was used as a more defensive full-back. The midfield trio was formed by the usual set of Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández. While Xavi and Busquets acted more centrally, Iniesta often drifted left as Abidal stayed back. In attack, Lionel Messi and Cesc Fábregas played in more central roles, interchanging the false nine and right inside forward positions, and Adriano Correia was the left winger.
Bielsa’s attacking approach: directness and aggressiveness
Before the match, some were doubting if Bielsa would maintain his style against Barcelona or change to a more defensive approach. As we will see in this analysis, Bielsa decided to adhere to his principles and instructed his men to commit numbers forwards, pressing high up the pitch and getting a lot of players into shooting positions.
Athletic pressed very aggressively to recover the ball as near the goal as they could. First, they forced Barcelona to progress to the middle of the pitch through central areas. Then, as soon as Barcelona tried to play forward, the Basque defenders rushed to anticipate, intercept the pass and attack quickly catching Barcelona’s defence off guard. They frequently targeted specific players in their pressing to take advantage of their weaknesses. Mascherano (the least creative of Barcelona’s centre-backs) and Busquets (the slowest when turning with the ball of Barcelona’s midfield trio) were usually targeted.
In the next picture, we see how Athletic’s striker presses Mascherano. The pressure, combined with the man-marking from his teammates, aims to close down Mascherano’s wide passing options, forcing a pass to the centre. As soon as the pass is played, Athletic’s defenders run and anticipate. The interception leads to a dangerous attack as Barcelona only has three players behind the ball. For these actions to be successful, defenders need to keep the appropriate distance to their mark. If they are too close they don’t have space to anticipate, and if they’re too far they aren’t fast enough to reach the pass before the opposition.
When building from the back, Athletic used short passes to their centre-backs to attract pressure and then play direct balls to Llorente. The big striker was dominant in the air and established his team in the opposition half several times during the match by holding the ball and playing with the midfielders.
Once they had the ball in the opposition half, Athletic showed a very direct attacking style. They looked to attack using quick passes to the flanks and committing a lot of players forward into shooting positions instead of keeping possession and progress through central areas.
Athletic players worked very hard off the ball, being constantly active to provide the possessor of the ball with passing or crossing options. When any player had the ball, he always had up to seven teammates attacking spaces and moving higher up the pitch. These off the ball movements often came in waves, so the first wave of players to arrive at the box created spaces at the edge of the box for the second wave to attack.
This direct mentality can be clearly seen in the following plays. In the first one, the midfielder with the ball has seven teammates moving in more advanced positions and offering different options, with only the centre-backs staying back. In the second one, the left-back has five teammates he can cross to attacking different zones in the box.
Athletic’s first goal is a good summary of their tactics. When Mascherano received the ball, they pressed hard, forcing his mistake and recovering the ball in the left flank. As soon as the ball is recovered, Athletic’s most advanced player attacks the box and two Barcelona players follow him. Then, Herrera attacks the edge of the box, where he receives with enough space to curl the ball past Valdés. In the image below we see the moment of the recovery and the begging of the movements described.
Guardiola’s creation and use of spaces
On the other side, Guardiola’s approach was the usual. Barcelona tried to play from the back using their technical superiority to play in tight spaces and beat the pressure. The starting 4-3-3 was often changed depending on the phase of the game, and players interchanged positions constantly to cause chaos within Athletic’s defence and create spaces.
The first variation in Barcelona’s 4-3-3 was when they built from the back. In those situations, they formed a 3-4-3, with Abidal joining the centre-backs and Alves joining the midfielders. Xavi and Busquets always stayed central, and Adriano provided depth and width from the left wing. The remaining three players – Messi, Fábregas and Iniesta – took turns to occupy the false nine position, and the other two positioned themselves as the left midfielder and the right winger.
The main goal when playing from the back was to create spaces using the whole width of the pitch. The centre-backs looked to drive the ball forward to attract pressure and pass to the midfielders moving at the back of the Athletic pressure. Adriano usually stayed high and wide to create space in the left flank, from where Fábregas or Iniesta could dictate.
In the example below, we see this 3-4-3 formation. Piqué drives the ball forward, and as soon as any Athletic player presses him, he has many passing options. Valdés’ technique from the goal also proved to be an excellent option when Athletic pressed very high.
Barcelona’s attacking style was based on the creation and use of spaces. Applying the concepts of the positional play, Barcelona players looked to occupy positions on the pitch which enabled them to receive the ball or drag defenders out of position for a teammate to receive it. Midfielders often moved horizontally to create passing lines, while attackers tended to move vertically, either approaching the ball to take advantage of previously created passing lines or making runs in behind to receive more direct passes. These movements occurred all the time and all across the pitch, with players constantly occupying spaces left by their teammates.
Below, Piqué starts the attack as usual. Busquets realizes he’s marked and moves to the right to open a passing line. At the same time, Messi makes a support movement and Piqué uses the space just created to find the Argentinian with a short pass. This rotation also opens other options, like the one provided by Adriano attacking the space just created by Messi’s movement.
Once Barcelona beat pressure and had to attack a low compact block, they also used this kind of rotation to create spaces. As Guardiola didn’t use a proper striker, Barcelona always had numerical advantage outside the box. When Athletic defenders left their position to press, Barcelona players attacked the spaces behind them with direct off the ball movements.
In the next picture, we see how Messi leaves the striker position to support Xav, making himself available for a pass. Athletic’s centre-back follows Messi and leaves a space behind him; Iniesta and Alves quickly attack this space. After the movements, Xavi has the option to play a simple pass to Messi or assist one of the runs in behind.
Again below, the theoretical strikers (Messi and Fábregas) are both in midfield. First, Alexis Sánchez attacks the central zone with a run from the right side. This run attracts the attention of three Athletic players and creates a space for Fábregas to run in a second wave, giving Xavi two potential assist options.
Knowing the danger Messi could cause with his runs, Guardiola designed some movements to make sure he found spaces in promising positions. Once Messi started to dribble, Barcelona players rushed to make runs in behind, creating doubts in Athletic’s defence. If the defenders chose to press Messi, the Argentinian could play a deep pass and create a chance. If they chose to keep the defensive shape, Messi could run at them and get into shooting positions.
In the image below, Messi dribbles one player in the midfield circle and runs forward. Iniesta makes a run in behind and drags the defender who was going to press Messi next, freeing the run for him. It’s also noteworthy how Fábregas leaves the striker position to create space for Iniesta’s run. In the second one, we see Messi running with the ball towards the box. Iniesta and Fábregas attack the defensive line with their runs and prevent the defenders from leaving their positions, so Messi can reach the edge of the box.
All these movements meant that there were always opportunities to pass forward. Barcelona, partially forced by the score, always looked to play forward and advance towards the goal instead of defending with long possessions. They achieved 63% of the possession by recovering the ball quickly rather than by keeping the ball with riskless passing.
As it was usual, Guardiola ordered his team to press very high. As part of their positional play, Barcelona were positioned as a block high up the pitch while in possession, so it was easy for them to counter-press after losing the ball.
When Athletic tried to play from the back, Barcelona pressed very intensely all around the pitch. This pressure often forced Athletic to play direct long balls or risk losing the ball near their goal. In the example below, we see how Barcelona almost man-marks every player, closing down every easy passing option.
Barcelona’s pressure led to their first goal. After pressing a throw-in near Athletic’s box, Busquets recovered the ball. After a quick combination, Abdial found Fábregas’ run to the far post, and the former Arsenal midfielder scored with a perfect header.
The excitement before this tactical battle proved to be justified. Guardiola and Bielsa produced a fantastic match. Both teams demanded the best from each other and the four goals came after mistakes they could capitalize on. Athletic’s second goal came from a marking mistake in a corner kick, while Barcelona’s late equalizer came after a mistake by the goalkeeper.
Even if Barcelona dominated in terms of shots (16-4) and possession (63-27), they never felt comfortable on the pitch only Messi’s last-minute goal earned them a point. With a much more limited squad in terms of quality, Bielsa outlined an attacking-minded strategy based on his players’ hard work and it paid off.