Athletic Bilbao hosted Eibar in this week’s La Liga round 17 fixture. Bilbao’s winning streak ended at three after last week’s loss to Real Betis, but they have always been known for their solidity at the San Mamés colosseum. Meanwhile, Eibar had suffered four losses in a row going into this match, and were desperately trying to get out of the relegation zone.
In this match, both teams showed their intensity and determination. Both were better out of possession than in possession, and thus limit each other’s attack quite effectively. The match became a series of countless duels and eventually ended 0-0.
Athletic Bilbao (4-2-3-1): Unai Simón; Yuri Berchiche, Iñigo Martínez, Yeray Álvarez, Ander Capa; Dani García, (c) Mikel San José; Iñigo Cordoba, Unai López, Iñaki Williams; Raúl García.
Eibar (4-4-2): Marko Dmitrović; Álvaro Tejero, Pedro Bigas, Pacho Oliveira, Rober Correa; Takashi Inui, Edu Expósito, (c) Gonzalo Escalante, Pedro León; Kike, Sergi Enrich.
Bilbao in possession
Bilbao used a 4-2-1-3 in the first phase of build-up. They would try to build from the back with the centre-backs and the double pivot. To get past Eibar’s two-men front-line, one pivot would at times drop to become the third centre-back, while the other occupied the space between the opponent’s first two lines. This 3-1 structure generated a lot of passing lanes to play through the opponent’s first line of pressing.
However, San José was not too eager to stay deep for long, but would quickly move high, closer to Unai, leaving Dani and the back four against Eibar’s front four. In theory, Bilbao still had the numerical advantage in their own third, but keeper Simón and the back four circulated the ball quite slowly and were uncomfortable at combining short to beat Eibar front four’s smart pressing. They could not hold the ball for too long and often had to progress by a long ball forward.
Eibar tried to press high in a 4-2-4, with the wingers pushing high to close down Bilbao’s full-backs should any of them get the ball. The home side’s higher central midfielders were marked by Eibar’s double pivot. The Eibar strikers stayed close to Bilbao’s deepest pivot (often Dani). When an opponent’s centre-back get the ball, the nearby striker would step out to press while using his cover shadow to isolate Bilbao’s pivot. The other striker would stay between the ball-far centre-back and pivot, looking to press either of them if needed. A back pass towards the centre-backs served as a pressing trigger for Eibar. Their forwards’ final third pressing was not particularly intense, but was good enough to force long balls from Bilbao’s players at the back.
Eibar’s timing and coordination were great, meaning Bilbao’s back four often had to pass back to keeper Simón. When San José didn’t come deep to help, Bilbao couldn’t find a way to get past this high press other than going long. In these situations, Bilbao’s long balls towards the centre weren’t particularly effective, as their front three had to win the second ball battles against Eibar’s back four. A better option was switching the ball to the other flank, where the opponent didn’t have a numerical advantage.
Bilbao’s long ball option relied a lot on R. García, who is technically a midfielder and often drop deep to receive long passes. He was quite dominant in the air, winning 13 out of his 20 aerial duels.
Before Bilbao’s set-pieces from deep or keeper’s long distribution, their outfield players would occupy a small area to win second balls, and could counterpress immediately should they don’t get the ball. Their front three’s close positioning made up for their numerical disadvantage against Eibar’s defence. A long ball towards an Eibar pivot was the usual option, with R. García dropping to beat them on the aerial – it would be harder if he had to duel with a centre back.
The game became somewhat an aerial battle, with a lot of intense pressing actions from both sides to win the ball back.
If Bilbao progressed into Eibar’s half, the visitors would retreat into a mid-block 4-4-2. They tried to be very compact vertically (good distances between the three lines) but not always horizontally. Their centre forwards would stay between Bilbao’s deeper pivot and then moved around to block passes into him. Their double pivot marked Bilbao’s other two central midfielders. If passing lanes towards Bilbao’s were successfully blocked, a forward would step out to press the centre-back with the ball. The wingers would be rather wide, waiting to press the full-backs if the latter received the ball. This was somewhat similar to the way they pressed in the opponent’s third.
Eibar’s vertical compactness gave Bilbao’s centre midfielders little space to operate, making it very hard for the home side to progress effectively. In the below example, San José gave the ball away after being pressed by three nearby Eibar players: a pivot and the two forwards.
Bilbao attacked in a 4-1-2-3, with Dani the sole pivot, while San José roamed higher to help the attack. They failed to have any long possession sequence to penetrate Eibar’s 4-4-2. Their short combinations were quite poor to say the least, there were a lot of unsuccessful long ball attempts, and they mainly tried to attack with crosses from the wings but to no avail.
Eibar in possession
To quickly regain possession, Bilbao pressed high in a 4-4-2. Their double pivot took care of Eibar’s counterparts, their wingers closed down the full-backs should they get the ball, and Unai joined Williams to press the centre-backs.
Eibar defenders are not pressing resistant, and thus would launch long balls towards their centre forwards. Looking at the team’s passmap, we could see that the proportion of passes in their own third was only 16%; there was hardly any passes between the keeper and the defence. They mainly progressed through the right channel with Róber and León, and through route one towards the strikers. Róber and León was Eibar’s main source of attack with their crosses, but only two out of their 15 crosses combined were accurate.
Bilbao’s midfield tried to stay compact and overload the ball side, thus made it hard for Eibar – who’s not good with short passing – to combine short.
During their goal kicks or set-pieces from deep, Eibar tried to keep a very compact shape. The long pass would head towards an area occupied by the side’s midfield four and forwards. Their front players were not dominant over the mighty Martínez and Yeray: Enrich only won 50% of the aerials, but was still the one who had the highest aerials won percentage of Eibar’s front six.
As both sides couldn’t hold a long string of possession, the game was filled with long balls and aerials. After the first 40 minutes, there were 0 attempts from both sides, and their pass accuracy stats were quite bad (56.3% for Bilbao, 46.1% for Eibar).
Second half changes
Right at the start of the second half, Ibai Gómez came on to replace the uninvolved Córdoba. Bilbao. Bilbao’s direction of attack became more balanced: they could rely on Ibai’s crosses on the left (most crosses of the night with 9 though only played in the second half), or Williams and Capa’s dribbling and crosses on the right. Asier Villalibre replaced Unai in the 64th minute; Bilbao changed into a 4-2-3-1 in attack, with R.García the central attacking midfielder and Asier the striker.
As R.García roamed deeper, he improved Bilbao’s possession play. He often combined with Capa and Williams on the right: two of them would occupy the half-space and pull the opponent narrow; the other could receive the ball out wide, with enough time and space to cross.
After Bilbao’s change of formation, their crosses from the right were of higher quality. With movements as described above, Capa assisted Ibai with a cross from wide. The goal was ruled out for offside though. The match eventually ended goalless.
In the end, this analysis proved that a goalless draw was a fair result for both sides, given both had issues offensively and impressive pressing schemes. Gaizka Garitano’s second half changes brought life to the home side’s dull attack, but they were not lucky and clinical enough to score at least one goal. Things are still going fine for them though, and they will be content to keep staying in the middle of the league table.
For Eibar, this is an improved result after four consecutive losses, but they must have more creative offensive ideas to score and get the important wins they sorely need. If they don’t, it won’t be a surprise if they get relegated at the end of the season.
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