La Liga has been filled with classic matches throughout the years. In the 2011/12 season, Pep Guardiola’s mighty Barcelona came up against Athletic Bilbao, led by Marcelo Bielsa. Guardiola hugely admired Bielsa, calling him the best coach in the world. The match was indeed a great tactical battle between the two geniuses, with impressive pressing schemes from both sides.
Athletic Bilbao (4-2-3-1): Gorka Iraizoz; Jon Aurtenetxe, Fernando Amorebieta, Javi Martínez, Andoni Iraola; Ander Iturraspe, Óscar de Marcos; Markel Susaeta, Ander Herrera, Iker Muniain, Fernando Llorente.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Víctor Valdés; Éric Abidal, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves; Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta; Adriano, Lionel Messi, Cesc Fàbregas.
Barcelona in possession
As expected, Barcelona mostly tried to play from the back. As a false nine, Fabregas was free to drop deep to create numerical superiority in the middle. Messi and Adriano were the wide forwards, though Messi and Fabregas would swap positions. At the back, Alves was mostly positioned much higher than Abidal, while the centre-backs were spread wide.
Bilbao reacted by pressing high in a 3-3-3-1 and created numerical equality against Barcelona’s midfielders by having Javi playing as an extra midfielder in high pressing situations. Herrera man-marked the pivotal Busquets, while the central midfield three kept close to Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas while still remaining relatively compact. The two wingers would maintain a good distance to both the nearby full-back and centre-back, meaning Bilbao’s attacking midfield three could shift towards the ball side flexibly. Llorente would wait and then press the centre-back receiving the ball.
Bilbao players were intense pressers, and the ball receiver would be instantly pressed by the designated presser. A back pass by the ball receiver would trigger further pressing from the designated presser with supporting movements from teammates to force long balls.
Here, we could see Bilbao’s midfield three. With most passing options covered, Piqué dribbled forward and found Cesc, who was instantly forced to pass back by De Marcos. Abidal, who received the ball, was also pressed upon receiving the ball and had to go long.
Barcelona reacted to Bilbao’s high pressing scheme by gradually using more long balls from the back towards the wide players. If they won the second ball, they could attack directly with Messi’s dribbles straight through Bilbao’s midfield when many Bilbao players haven’t yet gotten back to their position. These dribbles attracted a lot of opponents and could open up space for one of his teammates.
When Bilbao had to defend in their own half, the wing players man-marked situationally. Barcelona generally kept one player high and wide on each side (e.g. Fabregas/Messi on the right), and Bilbao’s nearby full-backs would follow them. Susaeta and Muniain went quite deep to stay compact with the central midfielders; Susaeta also had to track Alves’ runs closely. This was a solution to prevent Barcelona from having a free man on the ball-far wing, which they would make use of through a quick switch after overloading the ball-side.
In addition, Javi pushing up helped Bilbao maintain a 4 v 4 in the middle – Barcelona’s central midfield movements were tracked closely. They would be intensely pressed upon receiving the ball. Moreover, Amorebieta was just behind Iturraspe and Javi and would sweep out any danger that these players couldn’t stop. He completed a game-high six out of his seven tackles, and Iturraspe completed five tackles, while Javi made five interceptions. Llorente showed his good work rate by tracking back to help his side defend.
In the below image, Bilbao’s full-backs neglected the horizontal compactness and maintained their width. Busquets’, Xavi’s, Iniesta’s, and Messi’s central movements were all followed. Llorente forced the centre-back to pass to Alves, who was immediately pressed by Susaeta.
Overloads meant Barcelona had men around the ball should they lose possession – they could then counterpress effectively by strategically blocked good passing lanes and force the opponent to use his worst passing lane (often a pass onto the wing). This counter-pressing scheme helped them maintain a good structure and could combine easily upon winning back the ball.
The below example was a perfect illustration of the idea. Here, Alves forced the keeper to pass towards Aurtenetxe and then rushed towards the left-back, while Cesc left Javi to run towards the keeper, forcing Aurtenetxe to run forward. Alves’ parallel run (red arrow) blocked Aurtenetxe’s access to the other three defenders, while Bilbao’s three central midfielders were man-marked. He had to combine with Susaeta – who was near the sideline – and ended up losing the ball.
Seconds after regaining control of the ball, Barcelona had their men in pockets of space around the ball and could combine through Bilbao’s intense press.
For the majority of the match, Barcelona could not bypass Bilbao’s presses, which were wonderfully executed. In the 61st minute, he brought in the explosive Alexis Sánchez for Xavi, meaning Cesc filled in Xavi’s position – but would make much more forward runs. After Barcelona surprisingly conceded a second goal, Thiago replaced Piqué. Iniesta became the left-winger, and Villa shifted to centre forward. The numerical superiority in the final third help Barcelona totally control the final minutes, and they managed to get the equaliser from a scrappy goal.
Bilbao in possession
Like Barcelona, Bilbao favoured ground passes, though their style was typically more direct. Bilbao built-up in a 4-1-2-3, with Iturraspe often dropping as deep as a third centre-back. He also filled in for a centre-back should one leave his position. De Marcos and Herrera would roam into space to provide good passing options for the back three. The wingers would push quite high, looking to make runs into the space behind the defence.
Barcelona pressed high in a 4-1-4-1, with the wingers staying wide to mark Bilbao’s full-backs, while the three central mids covered passing lanes towards the front players. To deal with Bilbao’s back three, Xavi or/and Iniesta would push high to press. That meant Bilbao had to rely on De Marcos’ and Herrera’s movements, which were picked up by Busquets or a centre-back – thanks to good vertical compactness between them.
Here, Barcelona’s central mids were using their cover shadow as said above. Cesc forced a pass to Amorebieta, who was then pressed by Iniesta. De Marcos moved into the space that El Illusionista left behind and received the ball, but was instantly pressed by Mascherano, who pushed high and turned over possession dangerously.
When they got into Barcelona’s half, Bilbao would overload a side of the pitch to combine short, depending on the flexible movements of the three central mids. Barcelona would keep their pressing intensity but would overload the ball side to form a net around the opposition players, as demonstrated below.
As mentioned above, Bilbao looked to progress quickly in the visitors’ half, mostly through either wing. The ball-far winger and the two central mids (other than Iturraspe) would join Llorente to overload the area right in front of the box, as demonstrated below. From this position, they would look to combine quickly and shoot. Their first goal came from one such attack, with Herrera scoring from zone 14. Other than that, they really struggled to create any chances against a discipline pressing side in Barcelona.
This analysis showed that a draw was a rather fair result. Most impressive were both sides’ high-pressing systems, which worked quite well to negate the opposition’s ball progression. For the majority of the match, the two sides struggled to create any chances. Barcelona’s dominance in the final minutes was an exception, and they deservedly got a draw.
Both sides would go on to show their attractive brands of football throughout the season. However, Bilbao became exhausted towards the end and missed out on a UEFA Champions League spot.