Contrasting offensive styles as Athletic draw with Hertha
In the opening day of the group stage of UEFA Europa League the Olympiastadion hosted an encounter between theoretically the two most solid teams of the group. While both teams displayed a man-oriented defending, their attacking approaches were quite different creating an interesting clash.
Athletic handled their positional attacks controlling the possession from a structure initially favouring wing occupation with high and wide fullbacks as well as wingers starting wide. The wingers were also involved in the half spaces mainly during the attacking process. This was especially the case of the youngster Cordoba, probably due to the dominance of the left sector in the Basque team’s build-up.
Although usually the main actor in the building up passing was Laporte, both midfielders Vesga and San José were also involved positioning behind Hertha’s forwards to manipulate them, give passing options and create space for the centre-backs. At times one of the midfielders dropped deep creating a situational back three. Although due to the passive approach of the German forwards in the first half it was usually not needed, and they were able to provide passing options in the half spaces behind the first line. When the ball was in the attacking half, the role of the central midfielders was to a great extent about providing support behind the ball, and they rarely moved forwards to provide options to combine.
From the beginning Athletic focused their attacks mainly in trying to exploit Hertha’s man-orientations, connecting behind the second line of Hertha through vertical passing in the left halfspace and central corridor. The targeted player was generally Aduriz, but also Cordoba and Muniain alternatively attacked the spaces between and behind Hertha’s midfielders providing both vertical and diagonal options to connect from the first line.
The Basque team tried to maximize these passes to accelerate the attacking dynamic in two main ways. Aduriz was mainly used to lay off and, if possible, opening directly to the wing for the forward run of Balenciaga, who, then, executed a quick pass through the halfspace looking for the runs of Cordoba or Muniain. Conversely, if the receiver of Aduriz’s lay off was Muniain in central spaces, the quick dribbles of the skilful attacking midfielder were an overwhelming threat for the German defence. Athletic’s best chances arose from these situations where Muniain was able to make filter through passes to the diagonal runs of Williams and Aduriz, as well as being involved in quick combinations near to the box.
It should be highlighted Muniain’s role making a parallel to Isco’s in Real Madrid. The basque player was very active dynamically filling the spaces providing passing options near the ball, and starting dangerous dynamics from his quick dribbles in central positions linking with the wingers in the diagonal runs.
As a side note, Athletic ensured their dominance in the first half with an inconsistent but effective counterpressing at times disabling totally Hertha’s counterattacking possibilities.
There were, however, some issues for the Basque team when a quick lay-off was not affordable due to the wing-oriented positioning of at least three players at any time along with the safety positioning of both midfielders. In these cases, the first receiver had to pass backwards again, or was pressured and gave up the possession.
Furthermore, the right sector of the attack was almost totally isolated during the first half making switches hardly valuable during the attack. This was due to the skillset of Williams and Lekue, the quick access after a shift from Hertha due to the short distances caused by the man-orientations. Furthermore, Athletic’s structure where both central midfielders were behind the ball and the attacking midfielder was totally oriented to the left sector, thus the timing in supporting the ball on the right was always late.
HERTHA LACKS OF SUCCESS IN THEIR INITIAL APPROACH
Hertha based their attacks on direct long balls looking for Ibisevic, to then catch the rebound and establish a more controlled attack in the opposing half from the second ball. To facilitate these attacks the German team started, if possible, with circulation along the first line to force Athletic to press forwards. They would then play long trying to get a cleaner second ball with three attacking midfielders focused in the central spaces for this purpose. This strategy was not consistently successful in the first half as Hertha’s passing accuracy in the last third was not good enough, particularly due to the quick recovery runs to adjust backwards from the players surpassed after the long ball. This allowed Athletic to regain stability, challenge the second balls and avoid being outnumbered in the wing spaces, especially on the left wing where Kalou was defended tightly by Lekue and Williams.
Due to this Hertha was not able to exploit the various flaws in the man oriented defending of Athletic’s wingers and fullbacks in their own half in the first half. Athletic’s flexible man orientations forces the wingers to adjust backwards and follow the opposite fullback, especially after a shift where the midfielders are too far to close the half space.
This sort of adjustment could be sub-optimal for several reasons. From one side, it leaves the half space open during certain periods, which could be exploited by attackers through quick combinations if they have good timing of movements and accurate first touches. Secondly, even if the fullback adjusts forward in the half space, the space left forces the back line to adjust towards that side, and thus a diagonal pass towards the opposite half space could be enough to create a big chance if the receiver is able to make the pass. Thirdly, if the layoff from the winger is accurate enough to connect with the fullback with a dynamical advantage it could be worse than a direct connection centre back-fullback (see the Alternative Defending picture) which could be attacked by the fullback with better timing and momentum. Lastly, since it forces the winger to defend too deep making a longer run to adjust, his ability to take part in the transition moment is going to be seriously constrained, since he will need to cover again a long distance.
DOMINANT SECOND HALF FOR THE HOME TEAM
In the second half the game changed profoundly creating several quick attacking sequences without stable dynamics for either side, especially the Basques. The context favoured the home team which created the best chances of the game and managed comfortably the resulting successive transition situations.
Even though Hertha kept focusing on a similar attacking strategy, in the second half the long passes after provoking the pressure were more successful creating dangerous situations for several reasons.
From one side, Athletic’s forwards were not as quick in the recovery runs after having pressed the building up, which Hertha exploited to gain the second balls more easily and create quick attacks through the wing runs of Kalou and Weiser especially. These actions were strong also with the pairing between Ibisevic with Etxeita in the aerial duel, which was highly profitable for the Bosnian forwards. Unlike the first half, the duels with Laporte were more effectively defended by the French defender.
The second balls that arose from these duels were followed by advantageous runs into the depth from Kalou and then quickly switched to the opposite sector from where Weiser executed low-diagonal crosses into the box.
These attacks through the wingers were successful due to the lack of quick backwards adjustments from Cordoba and Williams leaving the Hertha’s wingers in clear advantageous situations against Basque fullbacks.
Another reason to explain the German dominance in the second half can be found in the variation of behaviours against the ball. Hertha moved their shape forwards, with a more aggressive first press and getting earlier access towards Athletic’s first carriers while blocking the central passing lines and matching Athletic’s situational back three by moving Kalou higher in several situations.
Faced with this situation, the Athletic defenders weren’t able to connect with the central midfielders, nor make third line passes and they are forced to play long passes rather than building comfortably until the halfway line. From the long balls towards Aduriz especially, the Basque midfielders suffered to catch rebounds or winning second balls, partly due to the good intensity of the German defenders. However, this was also due to the larger distances to cover for the attackers which had a secondary effect in isolating the wing players even if they were able to regain the possession.
Furthermore, in the situations where they were able to catch a second ball, Athletic tried to create vertical and fast attacks, but the inability to complete them provoked an unwanted effect, they weren’t able to join together neither in the opposite half when in possession nor in the own half out of possession.
Altogether, this factors allowed Hertha to win second balls easily – especially remarkable Duda and Darida’s performance in this regard –engender successive attacks fitting the profile of their attackers and creating pressure pushing into their own half the away players without any chance of counterattacking effectively.
It was a game that certainly will not be remembered for its brilliance and captivation. After a first half where the away team was more comfortable but still not able of converting and a second half where the same occurred to Hertha. Both teams seemed, as the away coach admitted later, to be satisfied with the draw leaving open the alleged challenge for the top of the group.
I would like to thank JD for his valuable feedback and help with the corrections.