La Liga 2019/20: Valencia vs Athletic Bilbao – tactical analysis
Valencia let go of manager, Albert Celades, after the defeat to Villarreal last weekend. It led to a state of chaos with the sporting director, César Sánchez, resigning soon after. Athletic Bilbao had not won in Mestalla in last four years and it was the perfect opportunity for the Los Leones to take a step forward to qualify for the Europa League through La Liga ranking.
Athletic Bilbao had a sound restart with Los Leones accumulating eight points from five games even after playing the likes of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. It looks like Gaizka Garitano has had a lot to think during the premature break due to Covid-19 and has come up with a different approach after the restart.
The Valencia interim coach Voro Gonzalez stuck with 4-4-2, the formation Valencia played in throughout the year. However, he made few changes to the lineup. Gonçalo Guedes came in for Carlos Soler in the left-wing. Geoffrey Kondogbia slotted in the midfield. Jaume Costa occupied the left-back position and Mouctar Diakhaby positioned himself in the heart of the defence.
Athletic Bilbao started the game with 4-2-3-1. However, the in-game structure resembled 4-4-2 in possession and 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 out of possession. The only change to the lineup was that Iñigo Córdoba was back in foray in place of Oihan Sancet and slotted in the left-wing.
Before diving into the analysis, let’s have a look at the xG chart and ponder a bit if Athletic Bilbao were lucky to score two goals past Valencia since the xG registered by Los Leones was mere 0.77 or if Athletic Bilbao were lucky to beat Valencia with 0.22 less xG.
Without further ado, let’s dive deep into the analysis and find out the answer to the above thought.
Valencia’s efficient man-marking
Valencia started the game really well. In fact, could have scored within five minutes of the game with their high intensity pressing.
Los Leones in the starting minutes looked to build-up from the back and Valencia followed the man-marking high up in Athletic’s defensive third.
In this scenario, the two strikers marked the two centre-backs. The Los murcelagos right-winger (RW), Ferran Torres, marked the left-back (LB) of the opposition. Dani Parejo, RCM, latched onto Dani Garcia. To give another passing option, Cordoba dropped deep in his own half but he was closely followed by the Valencia right-back, Alessandro Florenzi. With intense man-marking, Parejo was able to win the ball from Garcia in a very dangerous situation. Unfortunately for Valencia, they could not slot it past Unai Simón.
Athletic chose safety first and started playing long balls from the goalkeeper just after five minutes of the game. Out of Simón’s 21 passes, 13 were long balls in this game. However, Valencia did not continue with the intense man-marking throughout the game even when Athletic started to play out from the goalkeeper in a few occasions. Los murcelagos mixed their high intensity pressing with a pragmatic 4-4-2 throughout the game.
When Athletic entered the middle-third, Valencia looked to remain compact and protect the central channel and the half spaces with 4-4-2 and tried to force the away team to play through the flanks.
Athletic’s venture through the flanks
As mentioned in the previous section, Athletic hardly looked to play out from the goalkeeper, so I will directly move to Los Leones in the opposition half.
Los Leones were forced to play through the flanks by Valencia and the away team tried to take advantage of this situation with Raúl García in the box.
To create space for the crosser to put in a perfect cross into the box, Athletic occasionally relied on overloading the flanks through rotation.
Here, you can see Unai López, RCM, and Ikain Munian, RW, rotating their position and trying to create a 3 vs 2 overlaod on the right flank for Capa to have an extra fraction of section and space to provide a better cross into the box by distracting the opposition players.
However, most of the times Valencia would put numbers into the flanks and try to contain Bilbao’s attack.
Here, you see, Kondogbia pushing right to create an overload for themselves to contain the Athletic attack. However, in this case, Yuri’s intelligent run led him to push further and deliver the cross into the box. However, it was not always the case. This is the reason Athletic often tried to play crosses from deep, not able to penetrate further into the final third.
Even Athletic tried to push another striker towards the flanks to overload. But, it was to no avail.
Here, Iñaki Williams moved towards the left flank to create an overload. But when he made the movement, Gabriel Paulista (RCB), moved along with him, negating the overload. Athletic formed a diamond in this case, and we know a diamond can benefit a lot in the build-up. However, if the diamond shape doesn’t have any supporting runner or a 5th man, it’s of no use, and you end up losing the ball. The distance between the diamond and the immediate support was in the form of Unai López who was approximately 35 metres away. Los Leones ended up losing the ball.
In this scenario, Williams dragged away Valencia’s RCB. It created a bit of gap between the two centre-backs. If a 5th man could have moved into the gap, it would have been beneficial for Los Leones.
If Bilbao could not trouble Valencia through build-up, how were the Los Leones able to score two goals? The answer lies in the next section.
In the introduction, I had mentioned Garitano has come up with a different approach after the restart. It’s mainly in the pressing department. When the opposition plays out from the goalkeeper, Athletic look to form a high block with 4-3-3 formation and cage the Valencia midfielders within the first line of defence and the second line of defence exactly like Liverpool.
Consider that the goalkeeper passes the ball to RCB, then the structure is exactly similar to the picture above. The Athletic striker shadow covers a CM. LW presses the RCB covering the opposition RB. RW positions himself close to opposition LCB. One Athletic midfielder closely monitors opposition’s another midfielder. In this 4-3-3 structure, Raúl García becomes the striker, Williams becomes the RW and Córdoba as LW, his on paper position.
This is done to lure the opposition to play through the central channel where the first and second line of Bilbao defence would cage the opposition, basically a trap.
In the image below, a similar structure can be noticed. Raúl Garcia shadow covers Kondogbia. Córdoba presses Paulista (ball-carrier) keeping Florenzi in his cover shadow and Williams sits close to Diakhaby.
However, Florenzi moves out of Córdoba’s cover shadow and receives a pass from Paulista. The Italian fell into the Lions’ trap. He passed the ball to the centre using Parejo and Kondogbia. Kondogbia had two options to play to Guedes (LW) who had inverted or Costa (LB) who maintains the width. However, Unai López and Muniain, both could have intercepted the ball. So, Kondogbia makes a choice to pass it to the left-back. A grave error, considering Munian who has already cut the passing lane to Costa with his run.
Muniain intercepts the ball. With full-backs higher, it’s almost similar to 3 on 3 with the interception. Munian combines with Williams to feed Garcia, who slots it home.
Valencia found it really difficult to bypass Athletic’s high block using short build-up, so instead, Los murcelagos too started to play long balls.
Even Athletic’s counter-pressing was on point in this game. Los Leones were aggressive when they lost the ball, especially in the first half. It led to 43 recoveries in the final third and the middle third. The below image shows where the Lions recovered the ball in the first half.
As you can see most of the balls were recovered around the Valencia box. The second goal of Athletic came from aggressive counter-pressing.
Here, Athletic lost the ball. The first phase of counter-attacking was negated by Valencia by passing the ball back to Jaume Costa. Once the ball was passed to Costa, the second phase of counter-attack was on cards. Muniain and Williams pressed from the front and the back respectively. Córdoba too tried to get in front of Rodrigo to cut the passing lane to the striker. Eventually, the left-back lost the ball to Córdoba and García scored a screamer from his pass.
When Valencia bypassed Athletic’s first and second line of defence through long balls or Athletic’s error in pressing, the away team would sit in a more pragmatic 4-4-2, and the entire block shifts relative to the position of the ball.
Here, Valencia shifted to the left flank in possession. The whole Bilbao unit moved towards their right to contain Valencia
Valencia’s attempt to bypass Athletic’s cage and the game of flanks
Valencia struggled to bypass Athletic’s high block, especially in the first half. The home team could progress the ball only when Athletic players failed to shadow cover or through long balls. However, in the second half, Los murcelagos again tried to build-up from the back and most of the times were successful, which led Valencia to keep possession, 57% in the second half compared to 49% in the first half.
The common way Valencia tried to dismantle Athletic’s high block was pushing both the midfielders to one side which led Los Leones’ first line of defence to become too narrow and Los murcelagos progressed the ball by switching it to the opposite flank.
Here, Parejo and Kondogbia both positioned them in the right half (with respect to Valencia). Parejo and Paulista interchanged a few passes and passed the ball to Diakhaby when the first line of defence became narrow. You can also see, Parejo instructing the centre-back to carry the ball forward.
Valencia tried to progress the ball through various ways but this was the most common method and Athletic’s narrow first line made it easy for the Los murcelagos.
In the final third, Valencia heavily exploited Athletic through the flanks. The home team would often overload the flanks and put in crosses with minimum pressure and also most of the times there would be three players in the box or an equal number of Valencia players in the box as Bilbao.
In this scenario, Valencia overloaded the right flank through Florenzi (RB), Torres (RW), and Parejo (RCM) creating a 3 v 2 situation. Florenzi passed the ball to Torres for him to have a lot of space and time to try to deliver a perfect ball to the box. The two strikers are already positioned in the box and Guedes makes a move to the box with no one marking him. However, a poor cross from Torres doesn’t affect the scoreline.
The Bilbao unit moved with relative to the ball. Once the ball was circulated to the right flank, whole Bilbao unit would move towards the right vertical half of Valencia and the home team would also look to overload the half through positioning the opposite half winger to that side, thus isolating the full-back on the opposite vertical half.
Here, Parejo has the ball and he has four short forward passing options in Florenzi, Torres, Rodrigo and Guedes who has moved to the right half from the left, thus completely freeing up Costa (LB) to exploit the space on the left if the ball is switched. Also, notice the position of Muniain who is situated almost centrally, so he would take a lot of time to recover if the ball is switched at a pace. In that case, Costa would have enough time to cross the ball to the box.
Here, Parejo switched the ball to Costa who was isolated instead of looking for any short forward options and three other Valencia players are ready to make a move inside the box. Although, in this instance, Ander Capa made a quick recovery, which was not always the case.
Owing to the strategy of switching the flanks and crossing the ball to the box Valencia played a whopping 25 crosses into the box with their average being 14.92. The onus of switching the flanks fell to Parejo, who played 14 long balls in this match and majority of them was long diagonal or lateral balls to switch the channels, which can be validated by the image below.
However, poor crossing and finishing led to Valencia’s struggle.
Garitano’s men were indeed lucky to come back home with all the three points. The xG chart reflects the actual story. Athletic started on a strong note, however, Valencia clearly dominated the second half with easily bypassing Los Leones’ high block.
Athletic won the game with their high block and the counter-pressing in the first 47 minutes. It’s not always necessary to score through positional attacks or counter-attacks. A proper gameplan can give all three points. Valencia decoded the way to bypass Athletic’s high block in the second half but the second goal early in the second half killed the game.
With all things said, Athletic Bilbao still need to sharpen their pressing structure. Los Leones may be improving with every passing game with the new structure but the flaws are still visible.
Valencia should have come out with at least one point if not for their poor finishing and lacklustre crossing.