Barcelona – Athletic Bilbao 2:0
Athletic Club looked to get a result away at the Camp Nou and Barcelona sought to continue its run as the only team in La Liga to have a 100% record. Barcelona celebrated the 300th National Day of Catalonia (September 11th) and wore the Senyera kit to commemorate the event. Both teams tried to achieve their goals through aggressive pressure, but Lionel Messi’s magic coupled with the overall greater pressure-resistance and ball movement of Barcelona is what made them come away with the 2:0 victory.
Narrow Defenses and Wide Play
Barcelona played with their usual 4-3-3 shape under Enrique, while Athletic Club played a narrow 4-4-1-1 shape. Athletic Club’s goal was to take advantage of the narrowness of Barcelona’s shape. On defense, they compacted the center and pressed very aggressively in a man-oriented zonal marking system in midfield. Athletic Club played a high line while not pressuring high, trying to control the center of the field against Barcelona instead.
Both in offensive transition and when in possession the main purpose of Athletic Club’s attack was to move the ball into wide areas and expose the space behind the defense, mainly behind Barcelona’s fullbacks. Due to the narrow nature of Barcelona’s 4-3-3 under Enrique, it can be a burden for Barcelona to shift towards the wings during switches of play. In the first half of this match Athletic Club was allowed to switch the ball either through midfield or their defensive line making Barcelona’s 3 central midfielders have to shuffle across the entire pitch to apply pressure. Even though Barcelona was able to aggressively shift across almost every time, there was still enough time and space for the player who was receiving the ball on the switch to look up and play a diagonal in behind Barcelona or a pass down the flank of the field. Athletic Club’s best chances of the game came through the combination play stemming from the spaces that were opened in the wide/halfspace areas when switching the ball.
The positional play (juego de posicion) that was blurred under Tata Martino has improved under Luis Enrique for Barcelona. Barcelona’s fullbacks pushed up the field while Messi situationally dropped into midfield. With Barcelona’s wide central midfielders under Enrique and the two narrow but vertical wingers they formed a 2-6-2 shape when in possession of the ball. The domination of the midfield for Barcelona was apparent as the two central defenders would outnumber Aduriz and progress past the first line of the Athletic Club defense into the midfield. This movement along with the wider 6 players in midfield for Barcelona stretched Athletic Club’s midfield and opened many spaces for Barcelona to enter through.
Due to Athletic Club’s narrow shape Barcelona also had to move the ball wide before they began to stabilize their possession, for the most part. Barcelona’s famous ball control and one touch passing was on show in this match. Along with that, Barcelona’s counterpressing (pressing in transition) was also very good and created even more control for them in the game. As soon as they lost the ball they were usually able to win it back immediately or force Athletic Club into a long inaccurate pass. Even though Athletic Club was aggressive and compact in their pressing, they were poor tactically. Barcelona was able to manipulate Athletic Club’s man-oriented pressing (especially with Rakitic overloading the right side) and open spaces or free their players.
The wide central midfielders of Barcelona played a massive role in this match. Barcelona also had an easy time switching the ball across the field, though this continued throughout the entire game. Munir and Pedro occupied the back four of Athletic Club while Montoya was marked by Munain. Rakitic would drift very wide and Rico would not be willing to follow him because that would open space in the middle of the field. Messi dropped deeper without a central defender following him, leaving Rakitic free on the side. This was the key to breaking the pressure of Athletic Club, and most of the best chances for Barcelona stemmed from these situations.
Rakitic was always found as the free man in the wide areas. He played many long diagonal passes in behind Athletic Club’s high line, and many of them were very dangerous and could have resulted in goals on another day. Playing with a high line while not pressuring the ball player when he is in a high position on the field is very unstable and dangerous, and Athletic Club managed to survive that situation many times. At times even Messi would end up the free man through combinations and he played some dangerous long passes into space as well, creating a great chance for Munir and one for himself.
Be that as it may, Barcelona’s main goal was to penetrate Athletic Club’s midfield through the halfspaces. Many times Messi received the ball past the midfield of Athletic Club as the free man after a player left the center of the field in order to pressure Rakitic. Barcelona would then move the ball inviting pressure until they opened the interior zone and were able to play Messi through. Busquets played Messi the vertical pass the most amount of times, and the two even combined before Messi’s run and assist to Neymar for the second goal.
Second Half Changes
At the start of the second half, Pique came on for the injured Mascherano. Later Neymar and Sandro came on for Munir and Pedro respectively. For Athletic Club, Cabrera came on for Benat, Gomez for Susaeta, and Viguera for Rico. Barcelona’s substitutions would prove to be the difference.
In the second half Athletic Club no longer looked to play the long diagonals in behind Barcelona’s defense from wide areas. Instead, they looked to penetrate the Barcelona defense inside wide areas through combinations and then cross or cutback the ball. This change in strategy aided Barcelona as it gave them more time to shift their defense across and congest the near by spaces. The change in Athletic Club strategy coupled with Neymar and Sandro coming on in the second half is what tipped the balance of the game even more in Barcelona’s favor.
Neymar did a much better job than Munir or Pedro of sitting in front of the midfield 3 when the ball was on the far side of the field, preventing any switches through the midfield. This kept Athletic Club on one side of the field even when they tried to escape pressure. Sandro come on for Pedro and added a lot of energy to the pressing game. When the ball moved near side he would press very aggressively on the flank instead of blocking a back pass while the central midfielder (Rakitic) shifted across the field to pressure the flanks. This movement forced Athletic Club not only wide, but backwards as well. Messi blocked any switches through the back line and Sandro continued pressing the defenders, forcing them to play passes inside towards the compact central midfield of Barcelona. This is what caused the first goal. Sandro pressed a Athletic Club defender into playing a vertical pass into pressure and Busquets intercepted it and played it to Messi who then played Neymar through the unorganized Athletic Club defense for the goal.
Barcelona’s narrow 4-3-3 naturally forces the ball to move into wide areas, but when they are able to control the wide areas as well as force the ball into the compact central areas to win the ball they play incredible defense and set themselves up for many great chances on goal through transitions.
In the end Barcelona was able to maintain their 100% record in La Liga while they celebrated the National Day of Catalonia. Both teams pressed aggressively but Barcelona was the better of the two, especially after the changes. Barcelona is developing very well and it will be exciting to see how much better they get. Remember, Suarez hasn’t even joined in yet!
I’ll leave you with an interesting quote from Pep Guardiola on Luis Enrique and Barcelona from this past UEFA Elite Club Coaches Forum in Nyon:
“Of course he can match me at Barcelona, I think very highly of him. He will do a better job than I did, it is important for Barcelona to have its own identity again, a philosophy that we all recognize. I think we will see just that under Luis Enrique.”
– Pep Guardiola