Barcelona – Athletic Club: Barcelona Win Late Against Tough Athletic Club (1-0)

Athletic Club gave a stubborn defensive display in their 4-4-2 system here, as Barcelona dominated possession with a cohesive structure but struggled to find the crucial goal. It was eventually a debutant who found the breakthrough, as Marc Guiu scored shortly after being introduced as a substitute by Xavi. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

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Barcelona arrived into this game with a squad weakened by injury, as the likes of Jules Koundé, Frenkie de Jong, Pedri, Raphinha, and Robert Lewandowski were all unavailable. Xavi lined his side up in a 4-2-3-1 system, with a back four of João Cancelo, Andreas Christensen, Iñigo Martínez, and Alejandro Balde. Oriol Romeu, and İlkay Gündoğan were the deeper midfielders, while Gavi was the number ten. Ferran Torres, Fermín López, and João Félix were in the forward line.

Athletic Club recovered from their opening day defeat against Real Madrid to go unbeaten for the next six games, but their run was halted at the end of September by a crushing 3-0 defeat against Basque rivals Real Sociedad. Facing his former club, Ernesto Valverde lined his side up in a 4-2-3-1 shape here, with Óscar de Marcos, Daniel Vivian, Aitor Paredes, and Yuri Berchiche in the back four. Dani García and Iñigo Ruiz de Galarreta partnered in central midfield, while Oihan Sancet was the number ten behind a front trio of Gorka Guruzeta, Iñaki Williams, and Nico Williams.

Barcelona control possession

The pattern of the game saw Barcelona having most of the ball, while Athletic attempted to repel them with a 4-4-2 mid-block and release the likes of Iñaki and Nico Williams in transition attacks. This kept Barcelona at bay for much of the game, especially in the first half, where Athletic had most of the attempts at goal.

Barcelona had a double-pivot in possession, in which Gündoğan would often move into the left halfspace, with Romeu more central. Gündoğan’s movement into deeper areas in the left halfspace was the trigger for Balde to push further up on the left side to hold the width, while Félix would indent into an advanced position in the left halfspace.

Barcelona used a false nine in the absence of Lewandowski. Félix and López swapped between the false nine and left-wing roles throughout the game. The two roles occupied similar positions on the pitch anyway, since the nominal left winger would tuck inside. 

Barcelona had good occupation of the space between the lines. 

Meanwhile on the right, Torres played closer to the touchline while Gavi went between the lines in the right halfspace as well as drifting more central. This left Cancelo with a more reserved starting position in order to balance things on this side, either staying deeper in a more conventional fullback position or tucking into the right halfspace.

Barcelona were rarely able to force Athletic to defend in a low-block, since the away team made an effort to keep pressure on the ball and keep the defensive line high. This opened up space in behind for Barcelona though, which they were able to make use of a few times in the match.

In the first half, their better moments came through buildup in the center or on the right, followed by a switch of play towards Balde on the left, whose speedy overlaps could find space behind the Athletic right-back.

A late breakthrough

Athletic’s own possession phases were fairly brief. When they did have the ball, they often shifted more in a 4-3-3 shape, as García went into a number six position, with Ruiz de Galarreta to his left and Sancet in the right halfspace. Iñaki Williams and Guruzeta rotated between the right wing and striker positions. Much of their attacking went towards getting Iñaki Williams in behind in the right channel, or getting isolation situations for Nico Williams on the left. They struggled to create good chances though, despite a decent volume of shots.

Barcelona’s pressing was quite aggressive. They often went into a 4-4-2 shape, as Gavi would be level with the striker or just behind him marking García. They were generally able to turn the ball over quite quickly, with Athletic preferring to go direct.

Barcelona moving into a 4-4-2 shape to press high against Athletic’s buildup. 

Xavi was the first to make substitutions in the second half. Lamine Yamal and Ronald Araújo replaced Romeu and Christensen. This meant a deeper role for Gavi due to Romeu’s departure, as he dropped in alongside Gündoğan. Yamal would play on the right, with Torres as the false nine and López at number ten.

Athletic continued to be a stubborn opponent, although Barcelona did create some better chances in the second half. Barcelona became increasingly attuned to seeking the spaces in behind the Athletic defense. Although they were naturally more comfortable playing intricate central combinations, they were unafraid to hit early passes over the Athletic defense if the opportunity presented itself.

Two more substitutes were introduced by Xavi with just over ten minutes to go. Marcos Alonso replaced Balde, and teenager Marc Guiu made his senior debut, replacing López. Guiu would play as a more conventional striker, with Torres at number ten.

Guiu was able to make an immediate impact, as he scored within a minute of coming on. It was assisted by Félix who was a constant threat from the left halfspace, this time threading a throughball to once again try and exploit the space behind Athletic’s defense.

After the goal, Barcelona dropped into deeper defending in a 4-4-2 shape, as they looked to hold onto their lead. Athletic were unable to mount serious pressure on the defense though, and the toughest work that Barcelona’s back four had to do was clear a few crosses. Overall, Barcelona were able to see the game out without too much trouble.


Barcelona had to work hard for the three points here but overall it was probably deserved. The possession was well-structured as the likes of Félix and López took up good positions between the lines. Gündoğan also found himself very well-placed in the left halfspace to exert his influence in the buildup. On the defensive side, Barcelona gave away very little, and repelled attempted counter-attacks competently.

Athletic gave a good display here as underdogs. They showed good energy and tenacity to keep stay in a mid-block throughout the game and prevent themselves from getting forced back. The flipside of this was that there was sometimes space in behind the defense though, and this was eventually the aspect that Barcelona were able to exploit to find the decisive goal.

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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