In this tactical analysis, we take a look at the tactics observed in the matchup between Athletic Bilbao and FC Barcelona.
The Blaugrana travelled to San Mames to face Athletic Bilbao, with both sides within seven points of each other. After the 90 minutes passed, the gap was now 10 points as Barcelona got all three. The 2-3 win is not the most accurate description of the match. Barcelona were the dominant side for a large majority of the 90, with several impressive individual performances. In this analysis, we look at the matchup between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao and discuss the tactics.
Athletic Bilbao’s recent system
Under Gaizka Garitano, Athletic Bilbao had lined up in a 4-2-3-1. Though, with ex-Valencia manager Marcelino Garcia now at the helm, little to no changes were to be expected as he was only appointed on the 4th of January, giving him minimal time to implement his ideas.
Taking a look at Bilbao’s tactics this season, the wings have been crucial to the side. With the full-backs as well as wingers possessing a fair bit of pace, they look to take the opposition on. Attempts at central overloads were seen often but failed just as often with the usual high backline being caught off-guard.
As the side attacks somewhat fluidly, the wingers come in narrow sometimes looking to receive the ball between the opposition’s full-back and centre-back, and sometimes stay wide. Inaki Williams and Raul Garcia have been the threat down the right as they often switch positions to destabilize the opposition defence.
The high backline forces the defenders to always be on a tightrope. Striking a balance between playing the offside trap while cutting off passing lanes is very tough. If Marcelino’s tactics at Valencia are anything to go by, we were to expect a well-balanced 4-4-2, which is exactly what we got. In his system, compact defending and quick counters were seen often. Of course, he has to work with different player profiles at his new club naturally leading to slight tactical tweaks at the very least.
Marcelino’s Bilbao System
With a 4-4-2, Marcelino deployed a team that could be a 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1, if needed anytime during the match. Something exciting about this Bilbao side is how well the player profiles match what the new manager has demanded from each team he has managed. Pace down the wings, a good striker partnership, and a squad well-versed in zonal marking. In this match, they went with a position-oriented zonal marking system, the only difference this and the ball-oriented zonal marking seen at times in the match is due to the independent pressing system of the front two.
The two players up front had the job of preventing passes to the base of midfield, or in general towards the centre. Here, the ball is being brought out of Barcelona’s defence. The passing option that Koeman’s side would usually prefer is a pass to the pivot, or to the interiors to attack vertically through the middle. Bilbao were in a compact 4-4-2, completely willing to give Barcelona’s full-backs space.
Because of Inaki Williams blocking the passing lane to the middle of the pitch, the only short-passing options without risk are back to the defender or on the wings to the full-back. As a part of their tactics, Bilbao would press down the wings often once the ball was in their half.
When building-up from the back, Bilbao would look to play short passes, but not exclusively. The full-backs would look to move up the field when the ball was with the central-defenders. Often, passing lanes wouldn’t be readily available. In such situations, a midfielder would drop back, and the centre-halves would stretch. Due to this, they would get better passing options down the wings.
However, there was one problem that the Basque side faced often. When distributing to the wide midfielders or the full-backs, the said players would be too high up the pitch to provide a good passing angle. This led to several interceptions from Barcelona, especially through Dembele.
As we see in the image below, though the Basque club has players who can receive, only a few of them can receive the ball up the field. On the far side, Dembele has been highlighted as well because due to his positioning, the full-backs would need to come short to receive or stay very high up the field to escape his cover-shadow.
From Ronald Koeman’s lineup, which only had Antoine Griezmann in for Martin Braithwaite as a change from the last match, a 4-3-3 was expected. In this formation, which is a welcome change from the frequently problematic 4-2-3-1, the interiors are the team’s core. In this case, these two players, Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez would look to find space behind the lines in the channels.
The full-backs would move high up the field, looking for overlaps. In the case of Sergino Dest down the right, a lot more space would be available with Lionel Messi usually drifting in towards the middle. Almost to the point that the American would be isolated. However, Ousmane Dembele started as the right-winger, with Messi down the middle. The Argentine had a free role, which he made full use of, displayed by his exemplary passing.
The Catalans looked to sustain attacking play while attempting to unlock Bilbao’s defence in the final third. To do this, Pedri was key. The 18-year-old midfielder was crucial in the attack, especially the combinations with Messi. Barcelona have greatly benefitted from the kind of roaming-playmaker player profile that Pedri provides. In Bilbao’s zonal marking, this is exactly the kind of player who can be a problem as we see in the next section.
The battles that decided the war
The key to breaking down a zonal marking is to play the ball around the opposition patiently and wait for openings. If not, individual talent and making the most of 1v1s remain the options. In Barcelona’s case, the 1v1 talent of Ousmane Dembele has been the only outlet for the latter. What really made the difference was the free role of Messi and Pedri’s playmaking.
Both these players were very fluid, moving the opposition’s structure around. Many goal-creating opportunities originated from the quick combinational play seen between Pedri and Messi. Though Bilbao’s zonal-marking system suited their playstyle, this partnership has been visible for a significant time now.
Bilbao were playing on the transition. Marcelino’s side would look to commit multiple players to the attack while trying to pin Barcelona’s players and look for a runner. As we can see in the image below, there were many similar situations where Bilbao’s forwards would run wide with a runner through the middle.
This is a simple tactic, but it forces the opposition defence to have good communication. If Barcelona’s defenders don’t decide which player to track and which player to leave amongst the confusion caused by Bilbao’s regular overlaps and underlaps, they would be vulnerable. This led to most of the chances that the Basque side got.
The matchup between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao is one of the few ones this season that can be said to have multiple positives for Barcelona. Most of these, such as the new roles of the interiors benefitting Pedri and Frenkie De Jong, or the partnership between Pedri and Messi, are just affirmations of what we have seen recently. But it’s these affirmations that could play a part in Barcelona’s season turning out to be much better than how it started out to be. A strong performance from the team sees the Blaugrana move up to third in the La Liga table.
Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?
Work rate is a crucial element in a successful football side, but which Barcelona players have put in the most effort this season?
While FC Barcelona has always been renowned for their technical ability and tactical intelligence of its players, their work rate on the pitch has also played a key role in the club’s greatest triumphs.
The concept is simple, but that does not detract from its importance. Players who track back to win the ball, make bursting runs to create space and passing angles, and constantly apply pressure out of possession are incredibly valuable.
While it may be impossible to quantify a player’s effort with full accuracy truly, the available data can still reveal some prominent trends. With that in mind, which Barcelona players put in the highest amount of work rate statistically?
First things first, time to establish a methodology. Using data from FBRef, the dataset will be filtered down to outfield players who have played five or more 90’s in one of the big five European leagues in the 2020/21 season. That means each player has at least a decent sample size under their belt, so there will not be anyone with only a few ten-minute appearances off the bench.
Then, which metrics can be used to quantify effort best? With the data available, it seems like the most viable option is to try and identify box-to-box players. For that, we can use the different areas of the pitch in which players take their touches.
Each player’s percentile rank for touches per 90 minutes in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, middle third, attacking third, and attacking penalty area was found. The average of those five percentiles became each player’s “attacking average.”
These averages were then scaled between 0 and 100 for the final “Offensive Coverage Rating.” This is how the top five came out for all clubs:
- Raphaël Guerreiro (Dortmund) – 100
- Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 97.5
- Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 94.3
- Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) – 92.7
- Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid) – 92.4
Elsewhere in the top 20 are names like Andrew Robertson, Reece James, Luke Ayling of the intense Leeds United system, Ander Herrera, and Frenkie de Jong. There seems to a solid set of players who work their way up and down the pitch, either down the flank as full-backs or as energetic centre-midfielders.
How does the Barça squad stack up in particular?
As previously mentioned, the full-backs are the main standouts. The never-ending stamina of Jordi Alba is especially on display. Frenkie de Jong sits as the top non-full-back by a solid distance, reflecting his ability to drop deep in the buildup and provide dangerous runs forward.
A bit lower down the list, though, things start to look a bit weirder. It should be noted that this methodology can be a bit biased towards centre-backs. They rack up many touches in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, and middle third in a possession-based system, and the additional touches they get in the attacking penalty area off of corners and free-kicks can drive their scores pretty high.
Looking at Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite all the way at the bottom brings up another limitation. While we can track players who are active in many different areas of the pitch, we can not do the same for players who move and work a lot in the same area.
Watching Braithwaite and Griezmann definitely shows how active they are making runs in behind or across the attacking third, but because they do not drop off very often to pick up the ball, they rank low in the team.
However, those top names prove this offensive coverage metric is able to quantify box-to-box play in possession. Additionally, incorporating defensive metrics will clean things up even more.
On the other side of the ball, the process is very similar. The same players and methodology will be applied, only this time with pressures instead of touches.
StatsBomb, who collect the data displayed on FBRef, define pressure as, “…applying pressure to an opposing player who is receiving, carrying, or releasing the ball.” These pressures are just broken down based on the thirds of the pitch, not the penalty areas too, so only three metrics go into each player’s “defensive average.”
Once again, those averages are then scaled between 0 and 100, creating the “Defensive Coverage Ratings.” The top five performers in these ratings were:
- Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro (Lazio) – 100
- Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria) – 98.1
- Leonardo Bittencourt (Werder Bremen) – 98.1
- Morgan Sanson (Marseille) – 98.0
- Maxence Caqueret (Lyon) – 97.2
Midfield workhorses like Fred and Adrien Silva, along with high-pressing forwards such as Diogo Jota are common throughout the rest of the top 25.
Given that Barcelona are a possession-heavy side, and one that often presses at a lower intensity, one would expect these defensive work-rate ratings to be a bit lower. Still, though, which players stand out?
Pedri comes out as the clear leader. Impressively, the teenager’s score is one that would be respectable in any side. Let it serve as just another testament to his work rate and ability to perform a variety of different tasks on the pitch.
With Sergio Busquets in second, even as he ages, he is still one of Barça’s most active players in terms of closing down the opposition. In third is another newcomer, as Sergiño Dest’s tendency to press aggressively puts him much higher than most of the other defenders in the squad.
The tallies for the other members of the backline are quite low because they defend in a more reserved nature. This can also be attributed to the fact that Barcelona give up fewer opportunities than many teams.
With both of these two ratings in place and some solid results for top-ranking players, it is time to combine them.
Here in the endgame, we will be combining all eight metrics to create one “Overall Coverage Rating.” That means touches in each third, touches in both penalty areas, and pressures in each third are all included. This way, we can see the players who cover most of the pitch overall.
The top five is comprised of:
- Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) – 100
- Ander Herrera (Paris Saint-Germain) – 99.3
- Bruno Guimarães (Lyon) – 97.6
- Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid) – 96.7
- Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 96.2
Idrissa Gana Gueye, Dani Carvajal, Joshua Kimmich, Renan Lodi, Arturo Vidal, Maxence Caqueret, Ezgjan Alioski, Pedri, Reece James, Mason Mount, and Mateusz Klich are among the top names as well.
Now, for the final Barcelona squad rankings:
The numbers still involve the same intricacies as those discussed for the separate offensive and defensive ratings, but at least the top five names seem to match an eye test evaluation of the squad.
Pedri has joined the team and impressed everyone with his work rate and movement. He will track an opposition runner back to the defensive third, win the ball, combine in midfield, and then get forward to be an outlet for Messi.
While not as youthful and agile, Busquets still serves as a metronome in the possession and an active defender. He will move and reposition to rack up touches in the deeper thirds and engages in defensive duels very often.
The right flank has been slightly ignored at times this season, leaving Dest isolated, but the American always brings energy. He has all the skills and the mentality to be a great modern full-back.
Dest’s counterpart on the left, Jordi Alba, performs a much greater portion of his work offensively. His countless runs down the left wing have made him a key target for through balls and switches of play over the last few seasons.
Lastly, Frenkie de Jong backs up his reputation as an all-round midfielder. This season, the Dutchman is settling in more at the Camp Nou, and his surging runs forward to the penalty area have been awe-inspiring as of late.
Rivaldo (on De Jong): "It is being shown that near the area it seems that he is capable of playing better as an offensive midfielder and that he can even play a role similar to what Messi does when the Argentine is away. This is great news for Koeman." pic.twitter.com/r8aIrdMWSg— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 15, 2021
Griezmann and Braithwaite are probably the hardest done by these metrics. However, their energy, work rate and volume of runs they can provide off the ball is noticeable when watching them play, and invaluable for Barcelona.
There is no perfect way to quantify how hard a player works in-game, especially with these limited statistics. What this attempted to do, though, is focus on effort in terms moving to a variety of areas, being as involved in the match as possible, and doing so in different ways.
While not perfect, this methodology was successful in identifying some of the busiest players in the side. It should serve as a reminder of the value these players, like Pedri or de Jong, can offer beyond even their brilliant technical ability.
Given that 32-year-old Sergio Busquets and 31-year-old Jordi Alba were also near the top, it is a reminder of the potential replacements the club will be forced to make eventually. How long can these two continue to exert energy at this level? Could younger players be doing even more in those roles? How will Barça fill those holes when they move on? These are questions that need answering.