Copa del Rey 2012: Bilbao vs Barcelona – tactical analysis
The 108th Spanish cup final featured a clash between Bilbao and Barcelona. In what was Pep Guardiola’s final game as Barcelona head coach, the Catalan coach ironically faced one of his idols, Marcelo Bielsa. Having in mind that maybe the best era of football has even come to an end that evening, Guardiola’s side lit up a firework on the pitch to thank their coach and decided the game early on, winning 3-0.
Bilbao lined-up in a 4-3-3 formation, having the best squad available for this game. Javi Martínez had a pivotal role in this team throughout the season, which lead to Bayern Munich buying him for 40 Million Euros a couple of weeks later. Oscar de Marcos and Iker Muniain accompanied him in midfield. Along with Markel Susaeta and Ibai Gómez on the wings, Bilbao had a technically skilled offense that season. Fernando Llorente up-front completed an overall solid team.
Barcelona, on the other hand, did not have the full squad at their disposal. Dani Alves suffered a broken collarbone and was out for the game. Martín Montoya replaced him. Eric Abidal was also out for months during that period due to a liver tumour. Thus, the left-back position was occupied by Adriano. Furthermore, due to Guardiola’s goalkeeper rotation in the cup games, Pinto played instead of Victor Valdés.
Bilbao tried to disrupt Barcelona’s build-up
As Barcelona were known for their incredible possession game at that time, the main aim of their opponents was mostly to prevent Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández to dominate the game. This is easier said than done though.
Here, we see an example of Bilbao’s approach. Busquets is man-marked closely by Muniain. The wingers are ready to press the centre-backs. This is crucial, as we will see later. Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano played an important role in progressing the ball into the midfield area. With Fernando Llorente moderately pressing Pinto, the goalkeeper decides on a high ball to Montoya. As can be seen in the image, Susaeta already anticipates the pass and can easily press Montoya when he receives the ball. Anyway, the pass is played badly and goes out of bounds.
Throughout the game, Bilbao focussed on marking the centre-backs as well as the central midfielders. Montoya and Adriano are left wide open. In the centre, Bilbao have created a 3vs3. Xavi recognizes this and enlarges the triangle by stepping backwards.
In another example, Xavi moves sideways to find the open space. Initially, Lionel Messi fell back as well to create an overload, but Bilbao reacted by putting a fourth players into that area. While Iniesta pushed high then, Xavi uses the open space in the right half space.
The most extreme example can be seen in the image. With Messi in the midfield area next to Xavi and Iniesta, and Mascherano next to Busquets, it is like a five-man-midfield momentarily. Bilbao reacts to this building a six-man-chain behind Llorente in what seems like a 3-6-1 for a short instant. In the last line, three defenders remain as rest defence against Alexis Sánchez and Pedro Rodriguez.
Centre-backs dribbling forward pose huge problems for Bilbao
To progress the ball and get it to their midfielders, Barcelona used an approach that is widely neglected nowadays, yet could prove to be beneficial if teams implement it again. When Piqué and Mascherano found open space, they would progress the ball dribbling even into the opponent’s half.
Here, we see Piqué beating his man and thus effectively overplaying four Bilbao players. With that, Oscar de Marcos is in a compromising position in midfield, as he needs to attack Piqué without losing track of Xavi. Positioning intelligently, Xavi steps out of the cover shadow though and receives the pass. He then has tons of open space in front of him.
A similar example is provided here, with Mascherano having the ball. Llorente cannot really follow him, but Bilbao are lined-up in a 4-2-3-1, so that there are three players in the next line who should, in theory, be able to stop Mascherano. However, Muniain decides to let Mascherano go and stays with Busquets. The space opens up and seconds later Mascherano is already near the halfway line.
Similar to the previous example, it is again Xavi’s man who ends up in a compromising situation. Xavi again receives the ball and has again a lot of open space to exploit.
Again and again, Barcelona used this approach to create overload and progress the ball. In that sense, a clear weakness for Bilbao was the lack of aggressiveness from their forwards, especially concerning Llorente.
It was too easy for the centre-back to overrun him and create problems for the next line. Thus, Barcelona also had no risk of losing the ball in such a critical area and could continue doing this.
Individual class in the final third secured Barcelona’s win
When Barcelona were able to progress the ball into the final third, it would mean danger for Bilbao.
Like in the image above, Bilbao meant to prevent Barcelona from coming near to the target in an aggressive manner. Especially when Messi received the ball, at least two or three defenders were always nearby. Since the Argentinian is able to beat that many players still, danger occurred rather often. Apart from that, we see that Barcelona had a lot of other attacking options. If Messi was able to get the ball into the right half space to Xavi, the Spaniard would then shift the attack over onto the left half space where Iniesta is waiting. From there, Barcelona could easily take advantage of the open space. This attacking pattern with shifts from one half space to the other were often seen.
Also, Messi had the option to play a vertical pass to Sánchez, who could then lay it off to Montoya. Barcelona could then break through on the wing. However, this option was used rather rarely in this game.
The main reason for it was Montoya’s timid behaviour. We often saw Dani Alves bombing down the wing under Guardiola. Montoya on the other hand played it rather safe. Here, after a pass from Piqué to Pedro, Montoya stops the run and stays near the halfway line.
With that option not being used by Barcelona, a lot came down to individual solutions through the centre. Looking at the third goal, we see that Bilbao were quite unlucky.
Sánchez received the ball 18 metres from the post. Bilbao are positioned solidly and have a four against three advantage. But Sánchez, with his weaker foot, is able to find the gap and score.
As the opening goal by Pedro came early in the game from a muddle after a corner-kick, Bilbao will conclude that there was not anything they could do to prevent these goals from happening.
Barcelona’s second goal on the other hand proved why they were in fact the better team on that evening. While Barcelona’s defenders did not make any mistake when pressured in the build-up, Bilbao’s defenders did. To be fair though, Barcelona’s pressing game was much more intense than Bilbao’s.
Great pressing and counterpressing game crucial for Barcelona
Looking at the emergence of the second goal, we see that Messi pressed left-back Jon Aurtenetxe, who somehow managed to not lose possession. He got the ball to Fernando Amorebiata, but instant panic caused a disastrous long ball by the centre-back.
Busquets was able to intercept the pass and play it to Messi with one touch. Messi has the class to lay it into the centre, again with one touch, to Iniesta who is wide open.
An instant later, Iniesta is able to play the pass through a tiny corridor between four players and serve the ball for Messi to finish. World class execution of how to punish a mistake.
Again and again, Barcelona were able to retain possession thanks to their great counterpress.
Here, Busquets plays a bad pass to Pedro, but immediately attacks the opponent. Thanks to the small distances between the players, Barcelona have a lot of players already near the ball. Xavi recognises that Busquets tried to prevent the pass onto the wing, so he makes a few steps into the centre and finally intercepts the pass to Muniain.
Again, thanks to a good positioning by the midfield trio, but also due to the great anticipation of the pass, Barcelona are able to retain possession. Under Bielsa, Bilbao were also a team relying on possession game, but in this game, they were not able to hold the ball. Here, playing it out to the right-wing with the connection through Martínez in the centre should be the way to go for Bilbao. That is where good players and great players differ.
Another example can be seen in the image below.
Piqué steps out and does not let the pressure go. He opposes de Marcos and is ready to regain possession. Busquets recognizes this and immediately moves back into the back line to cover for Piqué.
Bilbao’s possession game was highly disrupted by Barcelona’s pressing
In the build-up, Bilbao tried to widen the space with their full-backs pushing high. Martínez as holding midfielder was the only one occupying the centre.
Often, Barcelona used a diamond shape to prevent passes to Martínez while also having access to the shorter passing options which were the centre-backs.
Messi also would press much more intensely than he did in later years, making 20 metre sprints to pressure the goalkeeper.
Martínez initially tried to fall back between the centre-backs to build a back-three in the build-up, but with Messi being so active they soon let that idea go.
When Martínez received the ball, Barcelona tried to make sure that he does not turn and progress the ball into the second third.
Here, Iniesta moderately pressures him, but with Sánchez nearby, Martínez decides that it is safer to play with the goalkeeper. Messi again makes the run to put pressure on the goalkeeper.
Probably the best example of how clever Barcelona were pressing can be seen here.
Martínez again receives the ball from the goalkeeper. This time, Iniesta does not want to prevent him from turning, but rather wants to steer him into Bilbao’s left attacking half. In order to that, Iniesta attacks Martínez from the side and forces him to go left. Xavi and Montoya prevent progressive passes into the second third, so Martínez only has the left half space to go to.
He plays it out to the left-wing and Barcelona are able to isolate Aurtenetxe. In an optimal scenario, Barcelona’s right back would press frontally so that they could win the ball there. But apparently, forcing a long ball seemed sufficient for Guardiola.
The same applies to the following example.
Iniesta again presses moderately, but thanks to the use of his cover shadow he is able to prevent the progressive pass. Messi and Sánchez are also nearby Martínez and build a defensive triangle with Iniesta. The only solution for Bilbao, again, is the long ball.
Bilbao’s offensive actions did not bear any danger
When the long ball came Barcelona were able to defend it properly though. While in theory Llorente should be able to win a lot of aerial duels, Piqué had no problems with him. It made sense hence to attack the smaller Mascherano. Likewise, Mascherano did a terrific job though and defended brilliantly.
Even in situations like in the image above, Mascherano was able to prevent Llorente from controlling the ball and keeping the attack alive. As Bilbao had to play so many long balls, they relied on Llorente holding the ball until the team moved forward. Barcelona were able to not let that happen.
Apart from that, there were some glimpses showing us that Barcelona could become vulnerable if Bilbao were able to execute their short passing style.
Here, as an example, Bilbao are positioned fine having one player open on the wing and one player between the lines being able to turn and attack the back line. Unfortunately, Bilbao were not able to create such situations more frequently.
Also, crosses to the far post were potentially dangerous, like in this example. Here, Bilbao were almost able to score a goal. However, again, they were not able to create these kind of positions more often. In the end, this was not enough to pose problems for Barcelona.
A clash between Guardiola and Bielsa is often promising from a tactical point of view. In our tactical analysis, we have seen how Guardiola was able to beat his idol. Barcelona were better overall, having a great structure both in possession and in pressing/counter-pressing. Especially the latter was crucial for them in order to not let Bilbao find to their usual game. The goals, however, were a product of pure individual class. For Guardiola, it was a great ending to his journey at Barcelona. Bielsa, on the other hand, would go on to do another season at Bilbao. Even though he has not won a title, he surely left his fingerprints in the land of the Basques.