The last round of this season’s La Liga saw newcomer Granada coming up against the everpresent Athletic Club. After a wonderful start to the season, staying at the top of the table for a few weeks, Granada was brought back to Earth. The COVID-19 break seemed to have brought their exciting form back, and they were needing some positive results in round 38’s key fixtures to find themselves in Europa League next season. Athletic was one of the sides taken out of a European spot by Granada and Villarreal, and there was hardly any chance for them to take it back after disappointing results post-COVID.
Granada (3-4-3): Rui Silva; Domingos Duarte, Gernán Sánchez, Víctor Díaz; Carlos Neva, Yan Brice Eteki, Yangel Herrera, Ramon Azeez; Antonio Puertas, Roberto Soldado, Carlos Fernández.
Athletic (4-2-3-1): Iago Herrerín; Mikel Balenziaga, Iñigo Martínez, Unai Núñez, Ander Capa, Mikel Vesga, Dani García, Iñigo Cordoba, Raúl García, Íñigo Lekue, Asier Villalibre.
Granada in possession
Granada used a 3-4-3 in possession. Using a 4-4-2 out of possession, Bilbao’s midfield four could match man-to-man against Granada’s counterpart and press them easily (and would do so with intensity). Bilbao’s front two moved to cut off the ball-carrying centre-back’s passing lanes towards the double pivot. The front six would try to shift towards the ball side and create an overload, and the ball-near forward would press Granada’s sided centre-back should he get the ball.
However, Granada is a side that can build up patiently. The sided centre-backs would spread wide and look to work the ball up the pitch through combinations/ball-carrying. They were very active in their side’s possession, while Germán, the other centre-back, barely touched the ball. When a sided centre-back carried the ball forward through his flank, the nearby wing-back would make a run high up the pitch to provide a good passing option to penetrate Bilbao’s narrow and compact shape. They would occupy the space left behind by the wingers, who usually move centrally to get close to each other and ex-Tottenham striker Soldado. Here, right-winger Carlos (Fernández) dropped deep and centrally to receive the ball. Duarte combined one-two with Yangel to get past ex-Atlético Madrid player García and moved upfield.
Duarte continued his run and found Puertas, who then sent the ball towards the run of wing-back Neva. He rushed towards the byline and sent a cross into the box. The right-winger and wing-back joined Soldado to attack the box.
Here, Granada tried to overload the ball side, mostly a wing, to facilitate short combinations. The front three and a few others stayed quite close but were in different horizontal and vertical lines (on the pitch) and thus created a few triangles to combine well.
When they tried to build up short, Granada mostly progressed through the left-wing. Neva pushed up quite high, forcing Lekue to defend deep – due to the winger being instructed to man-mark the opposite wing-back. This made Athletic’s defence look like a back five. Puertas or Soldado would then drop deep to occupy space in the left half-space and can form a lot of triangles with the other and Neva along with Eteki and Duarte, who would overload the ball side. Duarte is very important in Granada’s possession game: He would push high to connect with his teammates, and could also help switch the ball to the other side – typically to right wing-back Azeez – with his quality long balls.
Here, after short combinations on the left, Eteki tried to find Carlos with a through ball. Both Carlos and Puertas runs into the box.
With the wing-backs pushing high and usually one forward dropping deep, Granada could create a four/five-man line that would protect them in defensive transition. When losing the ball, Granada players in that line would focus on moving to block forward passing lanes instead of counterpressing intensely.
In this match, Granada mostly tried to absorb pressure and tried to hit the opponent on the break. The below table showed that they heavily leaned towards short possession sequence, showing a desire to be direct and focus on quick transition. This was more evident in the second half when they invited Athletic to come to their half and relied heavily on long balls to counter them.
The keeper and the sided centre-backs (Duarte and Díaz) are very strong on the ball and could help their side attack quickly through long diagonal passes (like the below image) to help a wide player instant get into a 1v1. This was an effective way to bypass Athletic’s defensive shape, which has been effective at stopping central progression and tends to overload the ball side.
Keeper Silva and Díaz attempted a lot of long passes (13), both completing roughly more than half of them, while Duarte completed 4 out of his 6 long ball attempts.
Díaz played a pivotal part in Granada’s third goal, with his passing once again helping his side quickly bypass Athletic’s solid structure and get a forward into a 1v1 with. Here, his lobbed through ball found the run of Puertas, who then beat Martínez with a turn and assisted Carlos, who made a central run into the box.
Athletic in possession
Depending on the wingers’ positioning, Granada would defend in a narrow 5-2-2-1 or sometimes a 5-4-1. Athletic players at the back were not too composed and were easily forced to go long. Granada front players usually tried to keep close distances to two opponents, as displayed in the below image. Right wing-back Azeez here was also ready to press centrally. With central passing options covered well, Athletic were often forced to go long or wide.
When Bilbao tried to progress through a wing, Granada would try to overload that side with aggressive movements from the ball-near wing-back and sided centre-back. In the below example, Azeez pressed Vesga, who was forced to pass back to left-back Mikel, then continued to press Mikel white cutting off his passing lane to Vesga. There was little space around the ball, and Athletic gave up possession one second later.
Should the opponent get into Granada’s half, the home side would retreat to a horizontally and vertically compact 5-4-1. The ball-near players would look to step out to press to limit time and space around the ball.
However, there were many instances where Puertas and Carlos were not active defensively and stayed quite central. This might have made Granada’s defensive structure less solid and vulnerable to quick switches, but Athletic did not make it count. This structure, however, could help the wingers instantly form a triangle with Soldado in transition, which would facilitate quick counters. In these situations, the wing-backs also rushed forward to exploit the flanks. The below image showed Granada forwards’ positioning right after the hosts’ winning back the ball.
The centre-oriented 5-2-2-1 worked better in the second half due to Athletic’s introduction of left-back Yuri Berchiche and left-winger Muniain, who would almost always move centrally from his wide position. Muniain gave Athletic more control in midfield but made them vulnerable to attacks through their left flank, where Yuri also pushed quite high.
The below image displays the situation seconds before the above image. Athletic players were very aggressive in their positioning, especially the full-backs. Muniain was making a run into the box.
We could also see Athletic’s main attacking tactic. The wide players would try to combine before one of them sent a cross towards the forwards. The right-sided players were Athletic’s most prolific crossers of the night.
In the above example, upon his side winning back the ball, Soldado instantly exploits huge space on his right. Yuri and Muniain couldn’t recover in time, and the incident ended with a goal for Granada.
This analysis showed that Granada deserved to win this match. After getting a rather unconvincing opener, they set out to defend well and really hurt Athletic on the break, winning 4-0 in the end. They deservedly earned a Europa League spot for next season.
Meanwhile, Athletic seemed exhausted after a series of matches in the last two months. They held on to possession well, but once again lacked the creativity needed to unlock a solid defence. Their usually good defence was easily torn apart in the second half. They have missed out on a European spot.