Well, that didn’t disappoint.
Not even forty-eight hours after a Europa League fixture in Germany against Schalke 04, Athletic Bilbao gave a massive, inspired performance at the Camp Nou, all while fielding a starting eleven more resembling understudies for a dress rehearsal than a first-choice squad. Although Barcelona defeated Athletic, the Marcelo Bielsa-managed Basque side managed 45% of the possession for the game, a figure unmatched by a side visiting the Catalan giants for almost two years.
The opening lineups of both teams saw departures from their midweek European fixtures: Marcelo Bielsa brought Fernando Llorente, Fernando Amorebieta, Iker Muniaín and Ander Herrera to his bench, and Pep Guardiola sat Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández and Seydou Keita, though the latter certainly isn’t a fixture at the beginning of Barça’s league fixtures.
The Starting XIs
Barça came out in their 4-3-3 and Athletic, given their man-marking defence and the forward runs of Dani Alves and Adriano, resembled a 4-3-3 as well, though the pushing ahead of Óscar De Marcos when in possession also gave them more of a 4-4-2/4-2-4 look, an attempt by Bielsa to remove Guardiola’s wanted spare man at the back.
Having a spare man at the back is a shared preference for each manager, and with Jon Aurtenetxe marking Alexis Sánchez and Andoni Iraola on Cristian Tello, that spare man for Athletic came from one of Javi Martínez and Borja Ekíza. And with Lionel Messi’s preference for starting and moving from the right, this spare man was usually Martínez.
Save for one clumsy challenge on Cristian Tello that resulted in a Barça penalty, Martínez played one beast of a game, accumulating eight clearances (five more than any other Athletic player), two of Athletic’s three blocks, both of Athletic’s offsides won and countless cutoffs of Messi’s slaloming runs. Martínez also found the time to tie for Athletic’s interception lead with six. The importance of the penalty kick Martínez conceded cannot be overstated and certainly drags down the centre-half’s contribution, but other than that, Martínez turned in an otherwise standout performance.
Athletic’s spare man, and Barça’s centre-backs pushing ahead
The keeping of a spare man in defense while man-marking elsewhere means that, invariably, one player has to mark two of the opponent. For Athletic, this usually means their striker is responsible for both of the opposition’s centre-backs. Against sides with even one mildly-lumbering centre-back with even barely below average distribution, this is hardly a problem. Against Javier Mascherano, a holding midfielder turned ace centre-back, and Gerard Piqué, a centre-back more than capable of meaningful, contributing forays into the opposition’s half, this is quite troublesome.
When Llorente’s replacement, the always-entertaining Gaizka Toquero, would close down on one of Barça’s centre-backs, the other would himself be staring not at a mark like his other nine outfielders but at open space, space that Guardiola would instruct him to make use of. It was an early and often occurrence for Mascherano or Piqué to drive forward with the ball from their own half into Athletic’s, deep enough as to warrant a defender leaving his mark to pick up the marauding centre-half. The only Barça player with more successful dribbles than Piqué was Dani Alves, and although none of the runs resulted in a goal, the Barça centre-backs played key roles in the blaugrana attack.
Another danger of Athletic’s man-marking scheme comes from when they turn the ball over and, as a result, have defenders out of position. This led to Barça’s first by way of Andrés Iniesta’s right foot:
Positions upon Sánchez picking Gomez
When Sánchez picked the ball away from Ibai Gomez from behind in the 40th minute, Iniesta’s marker, Ander Iturraspe, was in the unenviable and understandable position of being completely out of position with regards to his chief defensive obligation through zero fault of his own.
Positions after Sánchez finds Messi
Sánchez, after passing to Messi, then did what any good Barça forward does when the break is on: run over the top, trying to drag a centre-back with him to create space for the Argentine. Gomez stayed on Sánchez after being dispossessed, but the Chilean’s run drew Ekíza to his right just enough for a charging Iniesta to get clear onto goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz after a note-perfect pass from Messi.
The goal was the result of an unfortunate meeting of Athletic’s two defensive principles: man-marking kept Gomez on Sánchez, leaving Iniesta free, and keeping a spare man at the back meant Ekíza’s first priority wasn’t the running-from-midfield Iniesta but the over-the-top run of Sánchez.
For the second half, Bielsa brought on the promising and excelling Iker Muniaín and Ander Herrera, unsurprising and positive moves that almost paid off immediately, with Barça ultimately being saved by a Thiago clearance. After Martínez conceded the aforementioned penalty that Messi converted, Athletic also unsurprisingly didn’t shut up shop and again were ultimately denied by another clearance, this time from Piqué, and this time off of the goal-line.
Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao played ninety minutes of breathtakingly relentless football with a technical quality rarely achievable under even normal conditions. Even simpler, it brought the following out of Pep Guardiola:
Bielsa is a gift to the sport. We are not aware of what he is providing for football coaching. With teams like his, football will live forever.
Athletic has given us all a lesson, playing such an intense game less than 48 hours after the game against Schalke.
This has been a good warning for the cup final next month. Athletic pushes you to your limits.
May’s Copa del Rey Final. Barcelona versus Athletic Bilbao. Pep Guardiola versus Marcelo Bielsa. It won’t have the theatrics of a possible El Clásico Champions League final, but it might end up the best advertisement for the sport the current campaign will have to offer.