On the eve of Leo Messi’s birthday, Barça downed Athletic Club 1-0 at the Camp Nou. The three points were salvaged by a goal-hungry Ivan Rakitić and good off the ball movement. After a drab 0-0 draw away at Sevilla, Barça really could not afford to drop any more points; yet, for the longest time, the game looked destined to finish as a draw. Athletic had set up an effective 4-4-2 deep block and Barça’s narrow attack had no answers. Even then, Barça managed to outplay Athletic Club and ended up with an xG of 1.96 to Athletic’s 0.63.
Quique Setién lined up the team in the usual 4-3-3, which then became a 2-3-5/3-2-5 in possession. That extra centre-back was usually Sergio Busquets. To counter Athletic’s deep 5-3-1, Quique Setién used three narrow attackers to occupy the box, namely Arturo Vidal, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann. Messi and Arthur were the deeper operators here, and were working to open up passing lanes. This was effective to start with. Messi & co were able to effectively ping balls over the defensive line and in behind. The numerical superiority allowed for crowding of the box, which threw off the Athletic defence.
However, with neither full-back very involved, the central channels were often too overloaded, which negated the initial reasoning for box occupation. Out of possession, Barça were often in a 4-4-2, with Griezmann and Vidal tailing off to the wings. This shape was not often rigid, however. Most of Athletic’s openings were coming off counters and defending was often more instinctual.
Therefore, the usual problems persisted for Barça. With the full-backs not really holding width effectively, Barça were often left with no circulation options in wide areas. Moreover, with Vidal and Arthur having poor games, the midfield did not offer much, even though Vidal wasn’t playing as a midfielder, per se.
Garritano lined his men in a 4-3-2-1/ 5-3-1 shape, with Lukue often man-marking Jordi Alba out wide. The setup was aimed at exposing Barça on the break. Iñaki Williams was a lone man up top and was aiming to take advantage of Barça’s numeric overload in the opposition half. Midway through the first half, Bilbao began to use Barça’s crowding to their advantage. Garritano fully shifted into an out of possession 5-3-1, with more emphasis on individual marking. This allowed Athletic to match Barça for numbers through the middle and then easily sweep the ball in transition. They did make use of this; however Barça’s 1v1 defending was usually adept enough and no big chances were really conceded. In fact, Athletic’s insistence on countering in numbers often left them, perhaps ironically, open on the counter. With the Athletic attack and midfield scrambling into position, Barça were often left with unmarked full-backs in attacking transitions.
Setién’s overall game plan was sound. He learned from previous encounters, especially against deep blocks, and got the offensive right. Individual performances were what held the scoring back. With Suárez, Vidal and Arthur all poor, many moves were squandered. Luckily, unlike last week, Setién timed his substitutions well. The addition of Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig largely rectified the problems of width and space occupation between the lines. With Arthur and Vidal as two extremes on the midfield spectrum, Barça once again lacked a midfield presence between the second line and the defense. The timely addition of Puig and Rakitić rectified that. Puig, in particular, was excellent in that role. His meandering in pockets of space allowed Messi to operate slightly higher, as well.
Setién did make some mistakes. Keeping Suárez on for the full 90 made little sense. Yes, him and Vidal were meant to stretch the centre-backs but Griezmann was looking far more effective last night. He was more mobile and offered movement. Suárez on the other hand was lethargic at best. Taking off Griezmann was not smart, even though Ansu himself was great.
Next, Barça take on Celta at the Balaidos. Setién can feasibly stick to the same approach. He should, however, shuffle the personnel. An Ansu start would be very welcome. The Cantabrian coach is on the right track, then. He just needs to be less afraid of upsetting the apple cart.
Easy to say. Hard to do. Especially at FC Barcelona.