After the draw against Atlético de Madrid last week Barca returned to their winning form on Saturday. The Catalans beat Athletic Club in a fierce battle as Ernesto Valverde returned to the stadium where he was loved and adored for years. The visitors introduced a quite new formation and showed how they can place four or even five midfielders on the pitch at the same time. The hosts produced their best performance with Kuko Ziganda so far with an impressive pressing game.
The starting elevens.
Athletic Club played the match in a 4-2-3-1 formation which has been quite common for them in the past years. This was often transformed into a 4-4-2 in the defensive phases for many reasons that we will later. The defensive unit was formed by Bóveda, Núnez, Laporte and Lekue with the two fullbacks running up and down by the sideline all the time. In the midfield the head coach opted for two defensive-minded players, by name Iturraspe and San José. In the attacking four Williams and Córdoba were responsible for the winger tasks, while Aduriz played as a typical no.9 and Raúl García as a second striker.
FC Barcelona decided to use a 4-4-2 this time, with the most frequently used back four, Busquets playing in front of them. But this time the winger tasks were sorted differently, mainly reminding the spectators of the last 20 of the Atlético game, where André Gomes played as a left midfielder. On the right Rakitic was tasked with helping Roberto on the flank, and Paulinho played as a box-to-box midfielder, arriving a lot into the box.
Athletic press high at the beginning
In the past years teams developed a formula that was quite practical against Barcelona if they wanted to avoid conceding a lot and making it tough for the Catalans. It consists of an intensive offensive third pressing in the opening 10-20 minutes of the game, when Barca haven’t really figured out how to outplay it. In this period of the match the teams often create scoring chances in front of Ter Stegen’s goal and can force Barcelona into kicking the ball over their midfield.
Athletic Club did the same on Saturday as they could maintain the press started in the first minute for quite long and were able to create great opportunities for themselves. Ziganda’s team formed a 4-4-2 against the ball and when the center backs received the a pass from a teammate, they started their movement.
The whole pressing reminded me of Atlético’s best years with Simeone, where the main goal of the pressing was preventing Barcelona from using the central zones of the pitch via cutting the passing lanes towards the key figure of the Catalan midfield, Sergio Busquets. They used the two strikers quite close to each others narrowing the space around the Spanish midfielder and when a center back got the ball, the closer attacker moved out of his original position and put diagonal pressure on the receiver, while keeping Busquets out of the defender’s affordable passing range using his body positioning. The other striker remained close to Sergio, so playing out of the pressure through him became impossible for the visitors.
This meant that if they still wanted to penetrate through the middle, they should have used the two other centrally playing midfielders, Paulinho and Rakitic. However, Athletic Club positioned themselves in a narrow shape, so the host midfield line were able to reduce their receiving time, thus preventing them from turning with the ball, so vertical passes to them offered no options for progression.
This left the visitors only two possible patterns with their basic positioning:
- passing to the fullbacks and hoping they can run with the ball by the sideline
- kicking it long and trying to find the attackers behind the hosts’ last line
The first option wasn’t really successful as the home team could shift well in the ball’s direction when it went to the sides, so Barcelona quickly renounced this opportunity.
The second one was a bit better, as Bóveda often followed André Gomes to the halfway line, which opened up space on the right side of their defense. So Suárez would often drift wide and start a run from there, but the ball was rarely accurate, so Barcelona had to look for a better solution.
Barcelona dominate the first half
After the first twenty minutes Barcelona started to gain control over the match, which was due to a tactical change by Valverde. To properly understand it, we need to have a quick look at the nature of Athletic’s defensive formation.
In every defensive formation there are exploitable open spaces between given players, and every attacking setup aims to gain advantage from these pockets of space. In a 4-4-2 the space behind/next to the forwards is this area, so if we want to break through a defensive side that uses this shape, our first point of consideration should be this.
Open spaces in Athletic’s formation.
There are many ways of exploiting these gaps, Judah Davies wrote a piece about BVB’s version earlier, which used the two diagonally dropping eigths there, now we have a look at Barcelona’s version.
As the intensity of the home team started to drop after the opening 20 minutes the visitor center backs had a bit more time on the ball, while Ziganda’s team moved back to a 4-4-2-0 mid-block, which left the above mentioned spaces abandoned. After Barcelona realized that this could be a solution for their problems, the two center backs split and the player on the ball started to progress to this area. To maintain their positional stability and avoid being vulnerable to counter attacks, Sergio Busquets dropped between Piqué and Umtiti.
This transformed the formation into a staggered 3-5-2, we might call it a 3-4-1-2. André Gomes dropped between Williams and Iturraspe, Jordi Alba progressed by the sideline and Paulinho moved to the other side of Iturraspe. This created an overloaded situation with 4 Barcelona players being against 2 home footballers. Such occasions can easily cause decisional crisis for the defensive players, resulting in leaving a pass option open.
The left-sided in the end gave Alba and Gomes time on the ball when they progressed on the flank and offered the possibility of quick one-twos against Bóveda. But this also meant that the the right defensive side became Athletic’s focal point, so Messi became more accessible in the middle, so he could combine in bigger-than-usual spaces.
In the first half Athletic Club tried to threaten Barcelona’s defense through quick, totally vertical attacks, thus trying to avoid Barca’s mid-block. The Catalans pressured the two central backs with man-marking, while the midfield was protected in a zonal defensive style. So basically when Kepa had the ball he had no options for a ground pass, which meant he tried to aim at the strikers with a long ball, over Barcelona’s press.
At the top the four strikers prepared for receiving those long balls with synchronized movements. One of the two central men dropped from his basic position and attacked the ball, while the three other guys positioned narrowly to collect the ball after the header. This often caused a gap in the Barcelona defense if a defender followed the dropping striker. However, Ter Stegen’s great saves meant that the home team couldn’t exploit these chances at their full potential.
The hosts improve in the second half
As you could see it above, Barcelona managed the first half very well, even against a such organized Athletic Club. But the second half was more about the home team than the league leaders, because of the following reasons:
Ziganda’s side saw that if they press Barcelona with high intensity, they will probably make more mistakes in their general play, and as they had time to rest in the half time, they started pressing them high with renewed strength. The concept of this phase was quite much the same as in the first half, with the exception that they did it with an even greater intensity. So the center backs were attacked with a run from Busquets’ side while keeping the midfielder in the attacker’s cover shadow. But this time the ball-far striker didn’t stay deep with Busquets, but moved closer to the other center back, which would make the back line circulation riskier for the visitors and put a higher amount of pressure on the Barcelona build-up.
Theoretically this would leave Busquets in an abandoned area behind the two attackers, but the far-sided defensive midfielder would move out of his position and mark Sergio closely, so the central parts of the pitch were kept out of Barcelona’s attacking possibilities.
And what about the other escaping options of Barcelona? Athletic decided to man-mark Barcelona’s middle third players tightly, which meant that the two wingers stayed close to the fullbacks, the strong-sided defensive midfielder would get Barcelona’s ball-near eight out of the game, and a center back would leave his position to pressurize the other Barca midfielder.
This left Barcelona long balls as only option for the time of the high pressing, which again lasted for around 20 minutes.
But offensive third defending wasn’t the only thing Athletic improved in, they also started to upgrade their possession play, which was needed against a more stability-focused Barcelona side. As we know, Barca like to defend in a 4-4-2 shape on their own half, just like Athletic did. However, the nature of Messi and Suárez mean that the ball-carrier defender won’t be pressed ruthlessly, so he can progress with the ball. This means that a wing overload is quite easy to achieve with a center back drifting out wide, and the ball-near pivot helping the wing players. This created a diamond structure on the flank around the side midfielder of the Catalans. The positional superiority of the home players meant that Barcelona lacked access to the more advanced players, who could then receive the ball freely and turn towards the goal.
Another promising thing about Athletic was their synchronized wing dynamism, as the synergy between the wingers and fullbacks was very strong. The double wing occupation meant that they were able to constantly create a decisional crisis for the defensive fullback. The attacking team had the fullback overlapping the winger, who then could easily dribble inside, with his marker dragged away. If he wasn’t, getting the ball to the fullback meant a great crossing situation, which is very dangerous based on the home players’ heading skills.
Barcelona again showed that they are good in mental strength as they could renew their powers and score a second, deciding goal in the last minutes, but the game highlighted that they still have problems if the opponent decides to press them hard. However, the individual qualities of Barcelona means that they can solve these problems easier, and let’s don’t forget, they have Messi.