Athletic performance from Bilbao: Valverde’s pressing

“The hardest thing about an easy match is making a weak opponent play poor. A poor player isn’t poor because he tends to kick the ball in his own goal. It’s because when you put intense pressure on him, he loses control. So you have to increase the tempo of the game and he’ll automatically give the ball away.”- Cruyff 

“It will be a nice and hard-fought tie. San Mames is a tough ground, we’ll have to be 100% or they’ll walk over us.” This was Busquets’ words before the game. He knew. Barcelona’s hopes of claiming a second ever sextuple took a massive hit at San Mames in a 4-0 win to the home ernesto-valverde-cropped_1qj4qx8himvxp1dwdrx24w2xx3side.After a physically demanding 120 minutes against a very good Sevilla side on Tuesday, Barcelona again had to go again, against Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao side. Barcelona had one of their best performances in recent years vs Sevilla at 4-1 before it all went downhill. A mixture of complacency, poor substitutions and most significantly Sevilla’s switch to a high press and quick long balls down the flanks led to Barcelona’s demise.

Athletic were lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Iraizoz started in goal. A back four of De Marcos, Etxeita, Laporte and Balenziaga. San Jose and Benat formed the double pivot, with Eraso in a more attacking position ahead of them. Sabin and Susaeta played the wide positions with 26-goal striker from last season Aduriz leading the line.

Luis Enique had to make a lot of changes to the squad due to that exhausting game just a few days ago. The Barcelona manager made five changes from the team that emerged victorious in the UEFA Super Cup. Ter Stegen kept his place in goal but was guarded by Bartra who hasn’t been good lately and the myth that is Vermaelen, who made only his second Barca start. Pique had a Messi-like sort of impact in the most impressive defense in Europe last season so his departure from the starting eleven was a huge blow to Lucho. Alves who has had an interesting role over the past eight months kept his place on the right with Adriano replacing Mathieu in left back. Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta has been Barca’s foundation in the club’s most successful spell, unfortunately for the Catalans neither started. Xavi of course has left. Iniesta and Busquets rotated. Mascherano played in Busquets’ position as single pivot with Sergi Roberto and Rafinha as interiors. Pedro took Neymar’s position on the left with Suarez and Messi playing in their usual position.

There were two distinct forms of pressing used by Athletic in the Supercup. There was full pressing which begun right from the beginning of the game. They looked to win the ball high up the pitch and prevent Barcelona from entering their rhythm. There was also some sort of partial pressing or shadow pressing. This mainly occurred when Barcelona bypassed Athletic’s first wave of pressure. Athletic were sat in their defensive shape and looked to control and cover spaces.

Right from the first whistle Athletic looked to take advantage of Barca’s sluggishness. Barcelona without Busquets, Pique and Iniesta struggled to control the center of the pitch. Rafinha and Sergi Roberto’s skill-set differ vastly from what Iniesta and Rakitic offer. Where as the two veterans like to control possession and circulate, Roberto and Rafinha are more vertical in their movements and passing.

In the opening stages you see Athletic pressing in twos and threes trying to disrupt Barcelona’s circulation very high. Athletic played with a mid-high block and looked to squeeze the pitch as much as possible. The idea was to allow Barcelona minimum time on the ball right from the off to prevent them from entering their rhythm. “If you don’t have the ball you must make it as small as possible”. Pressing has become a major tactical trend in recent times because of it’s many defensive and offensive benefits. From a defensive point of view, a team that presses high tries to keep the ball as far away as possible from their goal by cutting the threat earlier, while offensively winning the ball high can lead to a quick route to goal as we saw with the third Athletic goal.
high press begThis scene is right from kick off. Barcelona pass back and are quickly pressed aggressively by Athletic. Susaeta immediately applies pressure on Adriano who’s forced back to play to Vermaelen. When the ball was shifted to a wider area in Barcelona’s build-up, Eraso who was deployed behind Aduriz was quick to prevent an open passing lane to Mascherano by staying close to him. San Jose man-marks Sergi Roberto, the near side midfielder while Benat on the other side remain tight to maintain horizontal compactness.2Athletic applied pressure right to the goalkeeper Ter Stegen. This is a continuation of previous scene. Aduriz presses MatS who has just received a pass from Vermaelen. The German goalkeeper is one of the best with the ball on his feet so pressing him was effective in reducing his accurate long balls to the forwards. Aduriz blocks a passing lane back to Vermaelen while putting pressure on the goalkeeper. Susaeta also watched Adriano closely behind him on Barca’s left side. Eraso was tight on Mascherano as well preventing a pass option to the Argentine. One common theme was Eraso staying tight on Mascherano as Barca’s lone six creating a 4-4-1-1 shape with two banks of four behind remaining very high and compact.

The opening stages was characterized by intense Bilbao pressing. Barcelona’s midfield control and circulation suffered a lot without the legendary Busquets and Iniesta. Barcelona’s positional game in midfield was very poor and Athletic capitalized. 442 (1)
n this scene, Bilbao allow a passing lane for Vermaelen to Roberto. As soon as the pass is made, Benat quickly closes the youngster down from behind. Susaeta is in position to press both Vermaelen and Adriano. Oscar de Marcos is also tight on the Barcelona left back while Eraso is in position to intercept a pass back to Ter Stegen. Four Athletic players are tight and very oriented towards the ball.5Barcelona were able to play through Athletic’s pressure in the beginning though. The Catalans maintained their composure and continued to circulate the ball in deeper areas despite Bilbao’s intensity. After Barcelona passed their wave of pressure, the Basque club quickly dropped into position in a very compact 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape3Bilbao kept a very compact block both vertical and horizontally. The front two looked to control central space by shadowing Mascherano and blocking a pass to him. The four midfielders largely remain tight and compact in a bid to prevent Athletic from finding space in their defensive block. Benat and San Jose largely stayed tight to Rafinha and Roberto in the middle of the park.

The last thing you’d want to do after a demanding game just a couple of days ago is to face Athletic who have been one of the best pressing sides in Spain over the last few years under Bielsa and now Valverde. In Athletic’s brilliant season two years ago, their pressing and intensity was crucial. Valverde led a very intense team to victory against Tata Martino’s Barcelona with a very impressive tactical display typified by their aggressive pressing. They topped that victory last night with another masterclass. A very athletic performance from Bilbao destroyed a lethargic Barcelona side who succumbed to their heaviest defeat in the Luis Enrique era.


9 thoughts on “Athletic performance from Bilbao: Valverde’s pressing

  1. why is athletic club Bilbao performing so poorly even defending their lead is becoming close to impossible? am Bilbao fan from Kenya and these current results r disappointing.


  2. Pingback: #Link11: Erste Spiel gleich Scheiße | Fokus Fussball

  3. Also, one thing I forgot to add: perhaps the clarity of your analysis of the screenshots would be improved if you used circles, arrows, and labels to highlight which players you’re referring to; it gets slightly difficult to identify them by name.


  4. Your posts are always worth looking forward to, and I must congratulate you on the level of detail and analysis in your work. I would ask you to construct tactical analyses like this more often, but perhaps that would detrimentally affect the time and effort you clearly put into each article, such is the level of detail.

    You should watch the episode of Monday Night Football where Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher, and current Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe analyze the first leg of the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League semi-final clash between Barcelona and Bayern Munich, specifically the section where they talk about how Guardiola used a high pressing system with man-to-man marking across the pitch, and how this was exactly what Marcelo Bielsa had used against Guardiola’s Barcelona two or three years before that. One very interesting thing point out during that discussion was that Bayern failed partly because of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar taking advantage of the very high defensive line used by Bayern Munich, partly because the man-to-man marking was intended to be effective in neutralizing Barcelona’s midfield (considered the key to their game during the Guardiola era), whereas Luis Enrique’s Barcelona side has become so adept at playing out from the back with ter Stegen, Pique, and Mascherano, and completely by-passing the Barcelona midfielders during the build-up play (how many of Barcelona’s chances created and goals scored during the two semifinal games came from long diagonal balls to the strikers?), and mainly (in my opinion) because Guardiola used Schweinsteiger, Xabi Alonso, and Philippe Lahm as his midfielders for the high-pressing man-to-man marking strategy. Due to their age, lack of energy, and average physicality (mainly Lahm), they were not suitable for the pressing game.

    This basically proves that even the most ingenious and innovative tactical system can be doomed to fail if the personnel are not right. Even great players like Alonso, Schweini and Lahm can be “wrong”.


    • I’ll look for that analysis online, thanks for the input in your comment. Regarding the Barca-Bayern match, Pep was wrong to use man-marking and to his credit did well to switch before 20th minute. I’m personally not a fan of manmarking particularly against a Barcelona side who have a lot of 1v1 dribblers and can easily destabilize the defense through dribbling. Also Barca under Lucho aren’t elite at playing out the back against very aggressive high pressing teams. That’s one weakness of them imo. Having Ter Stegen in the CL helped massively due to his accuracy in long balls particularly in bypassing oppositions press.


      • Yeah exactly, Lucho’s Barcelona team have the capacity to be vertical in their build-up, which was totally lacking in the Guardiola era. Well, not “lacking”, since the 2008-9 and 2010-11 sides were among the five or six best in history!


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