Barcelona ended up winning easily in this confrontation between two sides with similar philosophies.
It was set up to be an interesting encounter between two of the most entertaining sides in Europe but in the end Barcelona ran out comfortable winners. In an intriguing match-up of two great proponents of the pressing game, it was the finished article that came out on top over Marcelo Bielsa’s work in progress.
Athletic, quite unfairly, had only 48 hours rest following another phenomenal performance in the Europa League beating Schalke 4-2 on Thursday night in Germany. Barca, on the other hand, had an extra days rest and their greater experience with playing in Europe in midweek showed.
Adapting to a physically and mentally demanding new system and long European campaign have made Athletic’s league form woefully inconsistent. In weekend La Liga matches following midweek Europa League ties Athletic’s record reads an unimpressive; played 11: won 3: drawn 4: lost 4.
Perhaps being so critical of Bielsa in his first season in charge slightly amiss but Barca schooled his young project on how effective a side in this style this can be. Barca patiently picked off the tired Athletic for a fairly easy victory.
Pep Guardiola made a few changes from the tie with AC Milan. Adriano replaced Carlos Puyol at left-back in the only defensive change. In midfield, Thiago replaced the more defensively minded Seydou Keita and Christian Tello came in for the rested Xavi with Andreas Iniesta playing in a deeper role in order to take on his playmaking duties.
Athletic made four changes from midweek. Borja Ekiza replaced Fernando Amorebieta at centre-back, Inigo Perez and Ibai Gomez were in for Ander and Iker Muniain in midfield, and the doubtful Fernando Llorente was replaced by Gaizka Toquero.
The first half was all one way traffic. Athletic tried their usual pressing game but Barca were often too skilful and quick in possession and it lacked its usual chaotically destructive quality. When they had possession of their own, Athletic were often wasteful and Barca own pressing was much more effective at winning the ball.
When Athletic did manage to break-up the long periods of Barca possession they seemed over eager and hurried in attack and would often lose possession in their own haste more than any other factor. This is where these two sides’ philosophies differ most. Whereas Barca are capable of playing slow, patient build-up play focused through the middle, Bielsa’s Athletic play with fast breaking attacks aimed at creating two v one situations on the flanks with direct running, on and off the ball, combined with short, quick passing.
It is a style which Bielsa’s fellow Argentines, with disdain, refer to as “vertical” football. This is vertical, not as in aerial but, as in the most direct route to goal which, in a country were build-up play through a designated playmaker (or enganche) is part of the culture, is a term of derision aimed at Bielsa.
In dealing with Lionel Messi, Athletic opted to have either of the centre-backs stick tightly to him whenever he dropped into positions typical of the false nine role. This worked to a certain degree as they frustrated the little Argentine by squeezing the space in front of the 18 yard box. Chances, however, were still readily created as Gorka Iraizoz, saving expertly from a quickly taken Messi free-kick, and Jon Aurtenetxe, with a clearance of the line, prevented the score from exceeding 1-0 at half-time.
Realising that the game was slipping away from him, and having had zero shots in the first half, Biesla made an attacking move and brought on Muniain and Ander in place of Perez and Gomez. They did little to chance the flow of the game except by adding fresh legs to chase Barca down. As the game progressed, and space became more readily available as the play stretched, Barca chances were aplenty and were probably worth more than their two goal win. Barca finished with 20 shots on goal whereas Athletic manged just four and took until the 79th minute to have a shot on target. Which was a measure of Barca’s control over proceedings.
In the end, Barca gave a demonstration on how to play the pressing game to the young upstarts on Athletic as they outscored Athletic 32-21 in interceptions (usually a decent gage of how effectively a pressing team won possession). When only counting the interceptions of midfielders and forwards the total is an astounding 24-6 in favour Barca’s. With this statistic we begin to see how much more efficiently Barca’s pressing as an entire team was compared to Athletic. It shows how they were able to press much further up the pitch and win the ball in more dangerous situations than Athletic.
For Barca it was largely the same story, although they had much less possession than usual at 55% compared to an average of 69% in La Liga (a testament to Athletic’s work rate without the ball), it was a comfortable victory. Athletic again showed tiredness after playing in Europe and continue to be inconsistent. They were efficient enough at winning the ball but wasteful in possession so the pressure was never lifted off the defence. If given the time to adapt to Bielsa’s ways, this should improve but they were given a lesson by a team in a mould they wish to emulate.
Stats from whoscored.com