Barcelona tactics

Athletic Club – FC Barcelona: Aduriz’s Late Wondergoal Punishes Messi-Less Barcelona (1-0)

During the first half, Athletic’s defensive scheme easily stopped Barcelona’s rigid and disjointed possession game, reducing them to only two shots. In the second half, Rakitić’s entrance and the shift to a 4-2-3-1 formation improved Barcelona’s buildup, which allowed them to control the game. As the match looked set for a well-deserved draw, however, Aduriz stunned the audience with a spectacular bicycle kick and earned Athletic the win.

Tactical analysis and match report by José Pérez.

Last season, Athletic saw a spectacular recovery under the leadership of manager Gaizka Garitano. The team successfully implemented a simple but incredibly effective counterattacking style in a 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1 formation, that took them from relegation spots to being only one goal away from qualifying for the Europa League. 

With Athletic’s Basque-only player policy limiting their available transfer market pool, it was a quiet summer for the club, with no major transfers and big changes in the squad. A couple of players from the youth squad were promoted to the senior team and a few veterans (Markel Susaeta, Ander Iturraspe, Mikel Rico) were let go. Thus, it seems that in the 2019/20 season, Garitano will not make any significant changes to his successful 2018/19 game plan.

In defense, Athletic are good at shifting between intense pressing phases and a deeper defensive block. A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block. In attack, they rely heavily on their wing play to get the ball upfield, as well as counterattacks that take advantage of their pressing and Iñaki Williams’ intelligent, fast runs.

Barcelona, in sharp contrast to Athletic, made big moves in the transfer market by signing Ajax’s midfield wunderkind Frenkie de Jong and Atlético de Madrid’s superstar forward Antoine Griezmann. These signings helped quell their demanding fans’ anger over a tumultuous end to the 2018/19 season, when Barcelona lost the Copa del Rey final and were knocked out of the Champions League in spectacular fashion.

The arrivals of de Jong and Griezmann significantly change Barcelona’s tactical DNA, and coach Ernesto Valverde’s biggest challenge is integrating both players into the team’s collective structure. In the case of de Jong, this means figuring out what his specific role in Barcelona’s buildup phase will be and which midfielders complement him best. In the case of Griezmann, Valverde must figure out the complex problem of finding an attacking structure that allows Griezmann and Messi to complement each other well

Athletic’s midfielders cage de Jong and disrupt Barcelona’s buildup phase

Athletic came out to the pitch with their usual shape, which looks like 4-2-3-1 in possession and 4-4-2 medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. out of possession. The goal of keeper Unai Simón was well defended by the young center-back partnership of Yeray Álvarez and Unai Núñez, with the latter replacing injured starter Íñigo Martínez. Fullbacks were Ander Capa on the right and Yuri Berchiche on the left. Midfield featured a double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. with Dani García and the young and upcoming Unai López, who this season is being given a bigger role in the team’s midfield structure. On the wings, playmaker Iker Munían played on the left while Oscar de Marcos – usually a right back – replaced the injured Ibai Gómez as right winger. Up front, Raúl García did his usual act as the team’s curious number ten – sometimes acting as a midfielder, sometimes as a forward – alongside star striker Iñaki Williams.

In the absence of the injured Messi, Barcelona’s first LaLiga lineup of the season was a curious 4-3-3 formation, featuring unexpected starting appearances for Sergi Roberto and Carles Aleñá in midfield. In front of keeper Ter Stegen played a defensive line with Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet as center-backs, and Nélson Semedo and Jordi Alba as fullbacks. In midfield, Frenkie de Jong played as sole holding midfielder, with Roberto and Aleñá playing very aggressive interior midfield roles, positioned relatively high up the pitch and closer to the forwards. 

Up front featured a trio with Luis Suárez in the center, being flanked by Griezmann on the left and Ousmane Dembelé on the right. Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé started with very rigid positions on the wings, not moving inside and leaving the center lanes to Aleñá and Roberto. Due to injury, Suárez was subbed off early for Rafinha in the 37th minute.

With Barcelona keeping the ball most of the time (72% possession vs Athletic’s 28%), the game became a battle of Athletic’s pressing system, attempting to keep Barcelona from playing the ball forward. During the first half, Athletic decidedly won that battle, as their pressing disconnected Barcelona’s players from one another, reducing their offensive output to just two shots. One shot saw Suárez hit the post after taking advantage of a mistake in Athletic’s buildup phase, the other shot saw Rafinha also hitting the crossbar from outside the box.

Barcelona’s 4-3-3 shape in possession against Athletic’s defensive 4-4-2 formation. Notice how de Jong is caged among four Athletic players and how this forced Barcelona to play through the wings.

Perhaps the key element of Athletic’s first half pressing dominance was how they blocked all passing lanes to and from de Jong, the pivot point of Barcelona’s buildup phase. With Athletic pressing in a 4-4-2 shape, attackers Raul García and Williams blocked the passing lanes from Barcelona’s center backs to de Jong. Meanwhile, Athletic’s double pivot blocked the passing lanes from de Jong to interior midfielders Aleñá and Roberto. And if de Jong tried to move around to free himself from this “cage”, Raúl García would follow him closely (see images below).

Despite Athletic’s pressing, both Griezmann and Dembelé stayed on their fixed positions on the wings, instead of dropping deep to provide more passing outlets to their defenders and midfielders. Combine this forward behavior with Frenkie getting caged by Athletic’s midfield, and it becomes clear why Barcelona played very few passes through the center of the pitch during the first half. They were forced to play mostly through the wings, with Semedo and Alba leading the team’s buildup phase and progressive passing, trying to connect with Dembelé and Griezmann on the wings.  This can be seen in the passmap below.

Athletic’s counterattacking and wing play shines during the first half

Having successfully disrupted Barcelona’s possession game and forced them to play on the wings, Athletic created the ideal situation for their own preferred counterattacks: fast attacking transitions on the wings. The script for these counterattacks was clear:

  1. Athletic midfielders and fullbacks would steal the ball from Barcelona’s wing players.
  2. Try to create quick passing combinations to move forward through midfield, as Barcelona tried to scramble back into their defensive phase. 
  3. Once close to the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. unleash passes into space for Iñaki Williams, who was running behind Barcelona’s defensive line.

As we can see in the passmap below, Athletic’s right side was particularly active in these tasks, with Capa and De Marcos combining often with their midfielders to try and launch counterattacks. This happened because Barcelona often tried to end their attacks through Jordi Alba on the left side, and this is where Athletic often managed to steal the ball.

Rafinha and Rakitić improved Barcelona’s possession game

In the second half, Valverde had a very clear idea on how to fix his team’s issues: introduce Ivan Rakitić. The Croatian midfielder replaced Carles Aleñá after halftime and essentially formed a double pivot alongside de Jong. Athletic could easily cage a single pivot, but not a double one. Now, if Athletic tried to press de Jong, Rakitić would drop deep and provide a convenient passing lane to keep moving forward. And de Jong would do the same if Athletic tried to press Rakitić instead.

To make things even better, Rafinha, who was playing on the right wing, showed more initiative than Griezmann or Dembele to move away from the wing and drop deep to provide further passing options to de Jong and Rakitić. His movements were key to allow Barcelona to progress further through midfield and into the final third. 

Barcelona’s 4-2-3-1 shape in possession against Athletic’s 4-4-2 pressing block. With the double pivot and Rafinha’s movements, Athletic cannot cage de Jong anymore.

Valverde noticed Rafinha was thriving in this role and made further changes to encourage this behavior. In the 76th minute, Valverde replaced Sergi Roberto, who was playing as a curious number ten in this 4-2-3-1, with winger Carles Pérez, and then moved Rafinha to the number ten position. Here, Rafinha had further freedom to move around and provide the passing options his midfielders needed. 

Athletic resists Barcelona’s attacks, and then Aduriz appeared!

Barcelona’s improved possession game allowed them to outshoot Athletic in the second half, with nine shots compared to Athletic’s five, and eight of those shots being in Athletic’s box! However, Athletic’s defense of their box was outstanding, with their defenders managing to block several of those shots in the box and preventing them from reaching the goal. 

Athletic had barely managed to produce good shots from open play throughout the second half. Barcelona’s improved possession game prevented their counterattacks, so they had to depend on set pieces and shots from outside the box. Garitano brought in fresher legs (Oihan Sancet for de Marcos and Beñat for Unai López) to keep defending and hope the team could resist until the end game. 

However, the football Gods are cruel and whimsical. Even if Barcelona were creating more and better chances in the second half, it was Athletic who would score their one good chance. And what a way to score it, too. 

The legendary 38-year-old veteran Aritz Aduriz replaced Iñaki Williams in the 88th minute, and in his very first touch of the game, he struck a cross with a stunning bicycle kick, using the inside of his foot to send the ball across Ter Stegen’s goal with pinpoint precision. The gods had decided that Barcelona would lose this time.


This game showed the difference between a team who had a very clear and well-defined game plan that optimized for their players – Athletic – and one that did not – Barcelona. 

For Athletic, the only conclusion is “keep doing what you’re doing, man”. It looks like the game plan from last season is still working well enough this season. Both from a tactical and mental perspective, Athletic competed well against a rival who was superior on paper. They overcame Barcelona tactically in the first half through a good pressing game. In the second half, their defensive phase managed to resist Barcelona’s domination for long enough, allowing Aduriz to have his one golden chance to decide the game.

As for Barcelona, it looks like Valverde still has a lot of figuring out to do, even though his second half tactical solutions improved the team significantly. Griezmann and Dembelé had very little relevance in this game, and that’s not sustainable in Messi’s absence. It’s true that the pair often failed to show enough initiative, but it’s also true that Barcelona’s collective structure did not optimize well for their skillset nor encouraged them to participate more in the team’s buildup phase.

All match plots can be found below.

José Pérez (31) writes and talks about anything football-related: players, tactics, analytics, the relationship between football and society. Whenever he is not working on high-power lasers, he tries to keep up with all big five European leagues, but focuses particularly on La Liga. Outside of Between the Posts, you can find him arguing with people and posting analyses on Twitter or answering questions on Quora. [ View all posts ]


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