Bielsa and Bilbao: A tactical analysis of Real Madrid 4 – 1 Athletic Bilbao

How would the Argentine’s balls-out tactics hold up against Real Madrid?

The second-most played fixture in the history of Spanish football provided an enthralling spectacle on Sunday evening. This was in no small part down to Athletic’s manager; the almost universally liked (and almost certainly bonkers) Marcelo Bielsa. The Argentine has instilled a sense of confidence and adventure into a club which famously has never been relegated from Spain’s Primera División, but whose style has hardly been easy on the eye over recent years. While a climate which usually seems most akin to that of the west coast of Ireland certainly doesn’t offer ideal conditions for attractive football, on the basis of this showing Bielsa’s idiosyncratic attacking style is beginning to rub off on Bilbao.

Real Madrid last week suffered yet another defeat at the hands of Barcelona. Despite their five point lead at the top of La Liga, the pressure seems to be on Los Merengues; especially with Barca completing their most impressive away win of the season (which isn’t saying much) with a 1-4 win against Malaga in the early kick-off. Jose Mourinho named a fairly experimental side for this tie, with Varane and Granero getting some long-awaited game time. It’s testament to the strength of Madrid’s squad that they were able to name such a stellar line-up even after making 6 changes from the Barcelona game.

STARTING SHAPE

Bielsa's Chile c.2010

With Chile (and indeed during his spell with Argentina), Bielsa used an innovative and exciting 3-3-1-3 formation, utilising the fast, technical players at his disposal and pressing extraordinarily high up the pitch without the ball. The key to this is the “un enganche y tres punta” (one playmaker and three forwards), allowing the team to commit real numbers on the break. The nature of Bilbao’s squad and footballing tradition has seen him alter the shape of his side to a 4-3-3, but maintaining the same basic principles of speed and aggression in attack and defence.

Muniain, who is blessed with seemingly endless energy reserves, shuttles in between attack and defence largely on the left flank, with Da Marcos playing narrower to allow Susaeta to operate as an advanced winger. Herrera and Iturraspe generally patrolled the midfield, with the former also free to advance on the counter.

In defence, Bielsa chose to use centre-backs in all four positions, although one of these was Javi Martinez, normally a central midfielder but who certainly possesses the physical attributes to play in this deeper role. The use of defensive midfielders in purely defensive roles is also something Bielsa is known for advocating, using their pace to cover the greater spaces left by his attacking midfield players.

The starting lineups

Mourinho, on the other hand, in stark contrast to his selection of Xabi Alonso, Lass and Pepe in midfield against Barca, went with a midfield two of Alonso and Granero. Granero’s willingness to join in in attack meant that the formation veered between the original 4-2-3-1 and a 4-1-1-4, which led to much of the openness we saw in the first half.

Madrid’s embarrassment of riches allowed them to go with a front four of Benzema, Ronaldo, Ozil and Kaka, with the latter three interchanging positions throughout the match. Sergio Ramos was moved inside to provide some experience alongside Varane, while Marcelo’s recall after a run of very poor performances against Barca gave Madrid an extra attacking threat from fullback.

THE FIRST HALF

Bilbao made an aggressive start, playing a high line against Madrid’s attack in order to stop Ronaldo and Benzema turning to face goal when they were in possession. The use of four centre backs across the back line was also very effective in preventing Xabi Alonso from playing longer passes out to Ronaldo on the left wing, and to Ozil and Kaka on the right – both Iraola and Amorabieta did well to turn this into an aerial battle rather than letting the wingers gain possession on the floor.

The most striking aspect of the early exchanges was both teams’ bravery in attacking with numbers. With the sides set up to counter-attack, the midfield territory was made largely redundant. Granero did his best to get on the ball in more advanced positions around the area but in truth he had neither the pace nor physical presence to impose much on the game, despite a good early shot from range.

After 12 minutes, a foiled Madrid attack down the left allowed the Bilbao keeper Iraizoz to take a quick throw to Javi Martinez. He in turn gave the ball to the advancing Herrara, who paused before playing a perfect return pass out to Martinez on the wing. His superb cross found Llorente on the edge of the six yard box, who volleyed emphatically home.

The goal came from the type of counter attack which typified the first half but Madrid’s shape and adventure had undone them on this occasion. Marcelo’s march forwards in attack had left a vast space in the left of defence which Martinez received the ball into, and Xabi Alonso was unable to cover this gap as we might normally expect. Normally Alonso is responsible for dictating the tempo of play from a quarterback role, relying on a more mobile partner (Lass/ Khedira) to cover the fullback areas, in much the same way as Javier Mascherano did at Liverpool. While Alonso initially read Martinez’ movement along the flank, his instincts took him back inside and left the powerful Bilbao player unmarked to supply Llorente.

Bilbao went on to exploit this area of the pitch several times, with Susaeta offering good service from the right wing and Sergio Ramos drawn out to close him down, allowing Llorente to dominate the physical battle with the less experienced Varane. Madrid were poor in their attempts to organise an offside trap, although they were not helped by Muniain and Herrera winning the ball high up the pitch, demonstrating astonishing industry and pace in launching attacks.

Da Marcos and Llorente were both guilty of missing clear chances later in the first half which would have left Bilbao in a much more comfortable position at the break. As it was, they went in level after Marcelo’s enterprising forays up the flank showed their positive side. Madrid overloaded against Iraola on Bilbao’s right hand side and a clever inside run from the Brazilian fullback left him with an easy chance to score.

REVERSAL IN FORTUNES

The second half began with an immediate attack from Madrid, and Bilbao did not touch the ball before conceding a soft but utterly unnecessary penalty after a clever dummy from Kaka saw him receive the ball in the inside channel. Ronaldo dispatched with aplomb, and Madrid visibly improved now that they led. Kaka himself was proving to be the difference between the first and second half performances, picking up the ball from Alonso in much deeper areas and running powerfully at the Bilbao defence. This did not appear to be a specific tactical shift; more so that the Brazilian was simply keen to find and utilise the pockets of space available. It is some time since I have seen Kaka perform to this level, with his dynamism reminiscent of his early performances for Brazil. His involvement lent Madrid more cohesion in midfield and allowed them to maintain possession much higher up the pitch than before.

Mesut Ozil drifted in and out of the game, but his break forward from midfield drew a foul from the covering De Marcos, who was rightly sent off. While Benzema did finish the chance, the whistle had already gone and Ronaldo stepped up to score his second. A two-goal and one-man deficit spelled the end of Bilbao’s hopes for the game, and while they continued to press with endeavour after a defensive reshuffle, they simply didn’t have the numbers or energy to sustain this counter-attacking style.

CONCLUSIONS

The eventual 4-1 scoreline, distorted by Callejón’s late goal against very tired legs, was by no means a fair reflection of the balance of play. It did, however, demonstrate Madrid’s ruthlessness and quality in attack. Bilbao will surely rue their missed opportunities, as with their customary defensive organisation it is by no means unlikely that they could have defended a 2 goal lead for the second half, especially with eleven men on the pitch. In the end, Kaka led a massive improvement in Madrid’s final third play, and they were able to take control of the game.

It is hard to criticise Bielsa’s brave approach, given the margins by which this game was won and lost in the first half. Iker Muniain was excellent throughout, somehow appearing to play in two or three positions with Bilbao down to ten men and barely seeming to tire. His picardía, pace and dribbling could soon see big offers if he continues to progress at the current rate, and – just as with Fernando Llorente – he would offer an interestingly direct alternative to tiki-taka for La Furia Roja, perhaps meaning that an international call-up might not be far away. Javi Martinez also excelled in an unfamiliar centre back role, offering typically accurate and quick distribution alongside defensive vigilance. With these just two of an extremely promising crop of talented youngsters, this is an exciting time for Bilbao.

It is thanks to the type of diversity, innovation and imagination shown by teams such as Bielsa’s Athletic Club that Spanish (and Latin American) football is so often tactically interesting much further beyond the top sides than its English counterpart.

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Chile tactical diagram from the inimitable Zonal Marking

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About Ben Milligan

Writing about football, everywhere, for his own amusement. You can read it too, but don't expect it to make sense all the time.
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