Athletic 2-2 Barcelona: Bielsa stifles Barca by telling his players to stick tightly to opponents

November 7, 2011

The vague first half line-ups - though with Athletic tracking Barcelona all over and the Barcelona players trying to shake them off, positions were very loosely-defined

Marcelo Bielsa’s tactics managed to hold Barcelona to a draw in an exciting match at the San Mamés.

Bielsa went with a 4-3-3ish shape, with Javi Martinez at centre-back, and Iker Muniain out on the right – a slight surprise, given the winger has started on the left for much of the season.

Pep Guardiola picked a 4-3-3, but with a front three featuring a deep-lying forward, a central midfielder and a wing-back, as David Villa was left out.

This was a match that could have gone either way – Barcelona had four times as many attempts as Athletic, yet needed a last minute goal to snatch a draw.


It’s impossible to consider this match without mentioning the weather. Torrential rain in the north of Spain meant that the pitch was damp at the start, and almost unplayable in parts towards the end of the game. It clearly had an impact upon short passing, and this naturally hampered Barca more.

Tactics, though, is about adapting to particular circumstances. On a pitch that didn’t suit their natural game, it’s Barcelona could have been a little more direct. Their opening goal came from an unusual route – a cross and a header, although with a considerable difference in height between the sides, and no true striker on the pitch, it’s obvious why they didn’t want to suddenly become Stoke.

Atheltic, on the other hand, had the towering figure of Fernando Llorente, who could both challenge in the air, and hold the ball up. They also had a manager who is known for soaking the training pitch when rain is expected for the upcoming matchday. They would have been prepared.


They were also very well prepared in tactical terms. Bielsa, the ultimate advocate of a pressing game, had a specific plan. He pressed Barcelona high up the pitch at goal-kicks and forced Victor Valdes to kick the ball long, which was a bit of a problem with none of the five most attacking Barca players more than 5′9. This broke up their rhythm from the back.

In open play, the pressing was slightly more reserved high up the pitch- Llorente worked very hard trying to close down the centre-backs, but was rarely joined by another midfielder in doing so, for Bielsa wanted to retain a spare man at the back.

That might seem a sudden jump in positioning – from talking about what was happening high up the pitch, to what was happening at the back. The reason for that was simple – in defence and in midfield, Bielsa asked his players to track their man all over the pitch. Because of the switching of Barcelona players, it wasn’t always the exact same battles throughout the game: Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas, for example, were frequently in each others’ roles, and there was also some rotation in midfield.

It was man-marking in action, most obvious by the way the centre-backs were happy to come a long way out of the back to track Messi or Fabregas, sometimes into the midfield zone. The full-backs would come infield, and on other occasions would find themselves in extremely wide positions, particularly Andoni Iraola getting tight to Adriano. There was always either Fernando Amorebieta or Martinez sweeping up at the back, usually covering a huge amount of space, and often a considerable distance behind the rest of the back four.

It’s to Athletic’s immense credit that they rarely needed last ditch tackles, though. Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez were marked closely and had little impact upon the game, whilst Messi is much less involved when used in his old right-sided role. Against both Sevilla and Athletic, the use of him on that flank has not helped Barcelona.

Athletic’s wingers did a good job on the Barca full-backs. Eric Abidal looked scared of Munian and therefore played conservatively, whilst Markel Susaeta played deeper, tracking Dani Alves and also giving him the slip in the lead up to the opener. Athletic were more direct in possession, which suited the conditions.


Guardiola gradually brought on more attacking players as the game went on. On roughly 60, 70 and 80 minutes he brought on Alexis Sanchez for Xavi (forward for midfielder), David Villa for Adriano (striker for a wing-back playing in the forward line) and then finally Thiago Alcantara for Gerard Pique (midfielder for centre-back).

Crucially, and perhaps wrongly, Guardiola never looked to change Barca’s system significantly (with the exception of the final few minutes when he threw men forward) – players simply dropped back. Man-marking means that Athletic weren’t entirely bothered about being pulled out of shape, but Barca could have tested this more. What if they’d gone with four attackers, for example, like the system they used at the start of 2010? Bielsa would have wanted to retain his spare man, and would have had to bring on a substitute, or been forced to deploy someone completely out of position.

Another solution would have been to bring the defensive players forward into attack. Pique and Javier Mascherano had opportunities to move higher up the pitch with the ball and potentially open up Athletic – although Llorente did a good job in tracking them. Still, you’d expect more rotation from the best total footballing side around, with the two centre-backs both capable of playing in midfield, and Busquets able to drop back.

The two questions for Athletic were fitness and discipline. The former wasn’t a problem and the latter only came into the equation in the final minute, when Amorebieta got his second yellow. The resulting free-kick led to the goal – via a  defensive error – so it could have been a factor in the result.


“We’ve never played against a team who were so intense, so aggressive, and has denied us so much space,” said  Guardiola after the game. He and his players didn’t really know how to react or adapt to let their technical quality shine through; they simply aren’t used to facing a side like that.

Is this the blueprint for beating Barca? Well, no – first because Athletic didn’t win (and even if they hadn’t have conceded the Messi goal, their own second came from calamitous Barca defending and was something of a fluke).

More to the point, few other sides would be able to play this way as easily as Athletic did – because this is close to the usual style Bielsa wants, they were able to adapt. Others who try and replicate it might be ripped apart.

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