Athletic Club – FC Barcelona: A goalless draw in a match with more drama than football (0-0)

Athletic Club and Barça played out a goalless draw in a match without pace or chances. The most notable aspect of the match was the injuries to De Jong and Pedri, which upset all of Xavi Hernández’s plans less than two weeks before the second leg of the Champions League round of 16.

Tactical analysis and match report by Xavi Sánchez.

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These are days of glory in Bilbao. Fifth in LaLiga, seven points clear of the sixth-placed team and finalists in the Copa del Rey, Ernesto Valverde’s side are enjoying a historic season. And they are doing it through fierce and intense football, with a forward line that presses, steals and scores, and a defence that does not concede a single mistake. Through this mix of wild football, Athletic Club is one of the most in-form teams in Spain. This week they booked their place in the final of the Copa del Rey with a 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid. Still nursing a hangover from the celebrations, Valverde has made massive rotations for the game against Barcelona, keeping only four players from the eleven that managed to beat Atletico.

Xavi’s Barça are still on the road to finding themselves. Once it has been confirmed that the defensive solvency and goal-scoring efficiency they had last year has disappeared, Barcelona are trying to return to the path of glory through an orderly and harmonious collective game. In Napoli saw a pretty good first half, which was confirmed in the next LaLiga fixture against Getafe, with Xavi Hernandez’s side thrashing Bordalás’ side 4-0. Seeing that his team was getting back on track, the Catalan coach has decided to keep the same team, varying only between Lamine Yamal and Raphinha and Joao Félix and Pedri.

The backs of the fullbacks, Barça’s Achilles’ heel

After a good start from Barça, where they managed to dominate possession and even generate danger through Cancelo, positioned as a left winger in attack to free up Pedri in midfield, Athletic managed to turn the situation around by attacking Xavi’s team’s weak point: the back of their fullbacks.

With Cancelo playing as a winger, Iñaki Williams had the whole lane free to attack down the right flank. However, Valverde’s team focused on attacking the back of Koundé, who is not at his best. Always pinned down by left winger Berenguer or left back Imanol, there was always a player attacking the back of the French fullback and managing to cross from the back line. Even the playmaker Unai left the central lane to attack Koundé’s back. Athletic played all their game on the right flank, managing to generate dangerous situations, but without being able to finish them off.

15th minute: Athletic Club’s attacking sequence. Both Imanol, Berenguer and Unai attack the back of Koundé, looking for the back line and crossing towards the striker Guruzeta. If Barça defend this situation well, they switch play to the right flank, where Iñaki Williams wins the back of Cancelo, who in attack plays as a winger and struggles to get back in defence.

More drama than play

However, the first half of the game was marked by injuries to De Jong and Pedri. The Dutchman had the misfortune to twist his ankle when he fell in a jump, while the Spaniard seems to have relapsed from his recurring muscle injuries.

The two teams, like two exhausted boxers in the last round who decide to take the fight to the points, decided not to attack each other any more. A kind of truce that made the match slow and boring. With no chances for either team, the only motivation to keep an eye on the game was to see the changes Xavi Hernandez was making to an increasingly weakened midfield. Gündoğan, who seemed a permanent fixture at the top of the box, had to drop to the base of the play alongside Christensen. Raphinha had to leave the flank to move to the edge of the box alongside Fermín. And so it was that Barça lost control and quality in the midfield, with two accelerated players who were unable to control the ball with quality. Lamine Yamal was the player who had a strong performance, being the player who completed the most dribbles along with Cancelo.

Without ambition

But not even the fearlessness of young Lamine Yamal could change the face of this drab team managed by Xavi Hernández. Even with the chance to move into second place in LaLiga, just six points behind the leaders after Real Madrid’s draw and Girona’s defeat, Barça were unable to find the motivation and desire to go out and win the game. “We have lacked ambition. It’s incomprehensible,” declared Xavi Hernández after the game. Barça did not have a single shot on target in the second half.

The substitutions came late and did little to shake up the game. João Félix gave the team more quality and control in the final third of the pitch, but Barça still lacked depth and movement behind the Athletic defence. Valverde’s side felt comfortable in this game where nothing was happening, and in a late surge in the last five minutes of the game managed to sink Barça, generating more danger than Xavi’s side had generated in the entire second half.


Athletic Club earned a valuable point against a superior opponent and playing with a team full of substitutes after winning the Copa del Rey semi-final. Ernesto Valverde’s side consolidate their place in the European places, increasing the gap to eight points places. Athletic have managed to make San Mamés a veritable fortress, where they have won ten games, drawn three and lost just once, against league leaders Real Madrid.

Xavi Hernández has a lot of work to do if he wants to leave the club with a good taste in his mouth. With less than two weeks to go until the second leg of the Champions League round of 16, Barça need to rebuild their midfield to make up for the significant absences of De Jong and Pedri. And as well as re-shuffling the entire midfield, Xavi must find solutions to his alarming lack of attacking resources. With eleven games remaining in LaLiga, Barça are still third and missing opportunities to catch Girona and Real Madrid. They urgently need to improve before the final stretch of the season blows Xavi’s reputation and the club’s stability out of the water.

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