FC Barcelona welcomed Athletic Bilbao to the Camp Nou last week after two disappointing results against Girona and Leganes where Barcelona dropped five points. With a Champions League game away to Tottenham in midweek, Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde chose to rotate his team and rested a number of key players including Messi and Sergio Busquets. Despite the change in personnel, Barcelona stuck with the same 4 – 3 – 3 that they have used throughout the season so far.
Barcelona (4 – 3 – 3): Ter Stegen // Semedo – Pique – Lenglet – Jordi Alba // Sergi Roberto – Arturo Vidal – Ivan Rakitic // Coutinho – Dembele – Suarez
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Athletic Bilbao (5 – 3 – 2): Unai Simon // Oscar De Marcos – Inigo Martinez – Yuri Berchiche – Balenziaga – Dani Garcia // Mikail Susaeta – Benat – Yeray // Inaki Williams – Raul Garcia
Coach: Eduardo Berizzio
In the first half, Athletic Bilbao in some ways tried to mirror Girona’s approach and played in a 5 – 3 – 2 shape; the difference though was that unlike Barcelona’s Catalan neighbours, Eduardo Berizzio’s men pressed Barcelona very high up the pitch and usually marked all of Ter Stegen’s central short passing options including the centre backs and the three midfielders.
This usually meant committing at least five players to the high press and the ball sided defenders being willing to track the dropping runs of the three Barcelona forwards. This usually meant that the only ‘free’ options for Ter Stegen were the full backs who could only be found by playing chipped passes but already had their space constrained by the presence of the touchline and the Bilbao could press them from multiple directions as they were trying to control the pass and the Bilbao players already maintained a pressing distance to the full backs. Unfortunately for Barcelona, Ter Stegen was not his usual accurate self and chipped a lot of his passes straight into touch and Barcelona had a lot of difficulty building up properly in this way in the first half.
To break this, Barca tried some movements, usually involving one of the forwards dropping into the space vacated by Bilbao’s pressing to receive a chipped pass from Ter Stegen with a defender at their back, it was up to them to resist the pressure and bring Barcelona up the pitch usually by playing with the free full back on his side who would then proceed to combine with the winger and the arriving #8. Barcelona were also willing to try Manchester City style route one football with a long ball from the goal kick. In the event, Barcelona’s best route for breaking out of their half was by using the dropping forward and combining with the midfield, in this regard, Sergi Roberto did very well in the #6 position as he played well under pressure and helped Barcelona escape some difficult situations and force Athletic Bilbao back. When La Blaugrana did go into the final third, they depended mostly on combinational play between the #8 and the wide forward and sometimes the overlapping fullback to break through. In the event, Atletic Bilbao did very well to congest the centre and shut down the spaces where players like Coutinho like to operate, their five-man backline affording them horizontal coverage all across the pitch and with only Coutinho as a needle player for Barca, they were not unduly forced to become over compact and open up space on the far side for the full-backs to exploit. At the other end, their direct play using the physical strength of Raul Garcia and the direct running of Inaki Williams caused Barcelona a lot of problems and they created the best chances of the half.
In the second half, Barcelona took increasing control of the game as they went after an equalizer to avert a first home defeat of the season. Eduardo Berizzio on his part having seen his team expend so much energy closing down the Catalans in the first period set them up to be slightly more conservative as the half wore on. Athletic Bilbao no longer pressed so aggressively and instead gradually retreated into a mid-block to defend the lead. Trying to salvage something from the game, Ernesto Valverde brought on Messi for Arturo Vidal, Sergio Busquets for Sergi Roberto and Munir El Haddadi for Ousmane Dembele. The changes were accompanied by a switch in system for Barcelona as they moved to a 4 – 2 – 3 – 1 with Rakitic as the second #6 beside Busquets and Messi playing behind the lone striker Suarez, the system allowed Barcelona to control the counter attacks better as Rakitic could always cover the overlapping Jordi Alba whenever he went forward, though the Croat didn’t have the best of games offensively, his defensive work rate remained stellar and allowed Barca to manage the game better. Busquet’s presence meant increased press resistance and a smoother progression in the initial build-up phase and Messi being Messi meant that Athletic Bilbao would have to commit more bodies to the central areas to try and stop him and Coutinho from causing danger, this meant more space in the wide areas and Barca’s full backs especially Jordi Alba moved to exploit it.
In the end, Barcelona were able to grab an equalizer after substitute Munir converted from Messi’s low cross, Barcelona were below par in the first half and frequently struggled to find solutions at both ends of the pitch to the questions that Athletic Bilbao posed. The result is a disappointing one for La Blaugrana as they’ve now taken just two points from a possible nine in La Liga and have thus failed to take advantage of Real Madrid’s slip-ups in that time. Even more worrying is the amount of goals that they have conceded this season when last season they boasted one of the strongest defences in Europe and now they have had a lot of problems with their transitional defending. Perhaps these are just teething problems as the team adapts further to the new system that the coach is implementing. In any case, Valverde needs to find a solution and he needs to find it fast.