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Behind Enemy Lines: SD Eibar

Thanks to corona times and a tough financial situation, Eibar and José Luis Mendilíbar face one of their toughest seasons yet. Will their pressing 4-4-2 and the magic of a young Bryan Gil be enough to avoid relegation?

Eibar v Valencia - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Background, Transfers, and Expectations

In the heart of the rainy Basque Country lies the small industrial town of Eibar. The town’s entire population of 27,000 inhabitants could fit three times inside the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, which makes it even more amazing that they have a team in the top division of Spanish football. In 2014, SD Eibar reached the Spanish first division for the first time in its history. Despite having no debts at the time of promotion, LaLiga ruled that the club did not have enough capital to compete in the first division, which forced Eibar to come up with a creative and massive successful global crowdfunding to raise two million euros in additional capital. Even though they have managed to remain in LaLiga for six years, they still rank among the bottom five teams in terms of budget.

The lack of money continues to be a huge problem for Eibar in terms of squad building. In the summer of 2019, midfielder Joan Jordán and right back Rubén Peña left for Sevilla and Villarreal, while Marc Cucurella ended his loan period. This summer of 2020, wingers Fabián Orellana and Pablo de Blasis, midfielder Gonzalo Escalante, and veteran goal scorer Charles Dias, all finished their contracts and left the club. All of them were either starters or key squad rotation options, and to add insult to injury the 2020 departures happened without leaving any cash in the club’s coffers.

Eibar simply hasn’t been able to replace all this outgoing talent, and the COVID-induced economic crisis makes things even worse. In an August interview, sporting director Fran Garagarza was honest and admitted that “this is the most complicated and slowest transfer market in my career as sporting director“. Thus, Eibar starts the 2020-21 season with six new signings, but five of them are loans: left back Kevin Rodrigues, right back Alejandro Pozo, midfielder Recio, wide forward Bryan Gil and striker Yoshinori Muto. The only new player they actually own is a tricky winger in Damian Kadzior, signed from Dinamo Zagreb.

With such a quiet transfer window, Eibar fans and management will surely consider themselves satisfied if they remain another season in La Liga.

The Eibar High-Pressing 4-4-2

Year after year, Eibar have managed to punch above their budgetary weight thanks to their trademark direct and high-pressing 4-4-2 formation implemented by coach José Luis Mendilíbar and his staff. Under Mendilíbar’s leadership, Eibar has consistently ranked among Europe’s highest pressing teams, as measured by passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA).

Their 4-4-2 shape is compact, shifts aggressively from side to side, and will often feature a defensive line almost at the halfway line of the pitch. Once they recover the ball, Eibar will try to progress through their wings with fullback – winger combinations or through long balls to their strikers, and then create chances through crosses.

This intense and physical playing style has been a staple of Basque football for many decades. The Basque Country features very “British” weather, with plenty of rain and overcast days. And just like their counterparts in the British Isles, these conditions forced Basque football teams to play with more long balls, crosses, and aerial duels in order to bypass the slow and muddy pitches. Perhaps inspired by the success of the Eibar model, other Spanish teams like Osasuna and Getafe followed suit in implementing these intense and high-pressing 4-4-2 defensive blocks.

After struggling a bit last season with the press, 2020-21 Eibar is back at full pressing intensity, with their PPDA numbers ranking at the top of the league once again alongside Sevilla’s. They also rank first in the league in terms of pressures in the final third.

While mostly going for the 4-4-2, Mendílibar will occasionally shift to a 4-2-3-1 setup with a single striker and an attacking midfielder. This depends on injuries, rotations, or opponents. However, even in these cases, Eibar will take on the 4-2-3-1 shape with the ball but then go back to the 4-4-2 block when they don’t have the ball and must defend. Mendilíbar also experimented with a 4-3-3 setup at the beginning of this season, but the plan did not work out as expected.

As far as names in this 4-4-2 lineup, Mendilíbar seems to have a very clear idea of who are his preferred players in the central roles. In central defense, Paulo Oliveira and Pedro Bigas will usually start. In central midfield, we see the energetic double pivot of Pape Diop and Edu Expósito. As the center forward pair, Kike García and Yoshinori Muto usually have the starting roles. The fullback and winger positions, on the other hand, have seen a bit more rotation throughout the season. However, one name is quickly rising above the rest of the wing options: Bryan Gil.

Rocking to the Beat of Bryan Gil

SD Eibar v Getafe CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

19-year-old Bryan Gil, one of the pearls of the Sevilla academy, looks like a footballer from the 70s. He sports a mop-top hairstyle that would make any Beatles’ fanboy jealous. His thin, elastic, almost “Cruyffian” body type allows him to be a tricky dribbler.

Born in the town of Barbate, at the very southern tip of Spain, Gil’s father had to drive him 300km five times a week to the Sevilla training ground. He has risen through the ranks of Sevilla’s youth development as well as Spain’s youth sides, and it seems he’s finally ready for this breakthrough season in La Liga.

Gil has been one of the most prolific chance creators in this La Liga season. He is ranking among the top 10 or top 15 in the league in many relevant metrics: dribbles attempted, shot-creating actions, passes into the penalty area, key passes, expected assists. Mendilibar has used him either as the no. 10 in the 4-2-3-1 or as the left winger in the 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-2 setups.

If you watch the compilation below of his recent game against Valencia, you can see some of what makes him such a productive attacker. He’s a good dribbler, who right now averages 3 completed dribbles per game out of 5 attempts. He has a good eye for an assist and a great left foot to go with it, which is why now he’s Eibar set-piece specialist. Combine his dribbling and his passing skill, and you get a player who’s really good at beating his man, getting to the edge of the box, and delivering precise crosses and cutbacks.

Current Form

Source: Transfermarkt

After a rough start to the season and some failed experiments with a 4-3-3 shape, Eibar are back in business. Their pressing and defensive game works well, and they are ranking 6th in the league in fewest expected goals against and 4th in fewest shots conceded.

And the defense better be working well, because the offense is a lot more predictable. Averaging 26 crosses per game, they are the team who cross most frequently in the league. However, if we look at the quality of the shots Eibar create (expected goals / shot), they rank at the bottom of the league. Target men Kike García and Sergi Enrich can only do so much when the chances created are so predictable and low quality, and they usually score in about 1 out of every 3 games. Meanwhile, new signing Yoshinori Muto does not seem like a good fit for a crossing-heavy style of play. With a good defense and a predictable offense, Eibar struggles a bit to win games but at the very least they are not losing them. They have only lost in 1 out of their last 9 league games.

Their performances in the last four games (Getafe, Betis, Valencia, and Real Sociedad) have been particularly promising because at least the volume of their attack has increased. In all four games, Eibar managed to outshoot their opponents and averaged a very healthy 15 shots per game. Since these shots usually come from open play crosses and set pieces, they are not the highest-quality chances, but both Kike and Enrich have been good at fighting defenders in the box and getting into the receiving end of those crosses. With a bit more luck and efficiency, perhaps more goals can start going in. However, at least the high volume of shots shows that Eibar’s pressing is succeeding at breaking up the opposition’s play, achieving some territorial dominance, and putting Eibar wingers in crossing positions.

These last few games have also seen more good performances from Bryan Gil playing in the left wing role. For example, Enrich’s goal in the latest game against Real Sociedad came from a situation where Gil nutmegged an opponent and then produced a pinpoint cross into the box.

Matchup against Real Madrid

Mendilíbar has to deal with several injury absences in the squad. Defenders Cote, Paulo Oliveira, Esteban Burgos, and Rober Correa are out of the matchday squad, as well as striker Sergi Enrich. This means that Eibar will likely lineup with Alejandro Pozo as the right back, Bigas and Sergio Álvarez as the center backs, and the multi-functional Anaitz Arbilla as the left back. Midfield will surely feature the double pivot of Diop and Expósito, while the wings will feature Takashi Inui on the right wing and Gil on the left. Up front, Muto and Kike García.

Real’s 4-3-3 shape being pressed by Eibar’s 4-4-2.
Source: Share My Tactics

On Real Madrid’s side, Zidane has recovered most of his squad from injury, with only the key absences of left wingers Vinicius and Hazard. We expect the usual names in the defensive line (Carvajal - Varane - Ramos - Mendy), while at the front, we will likely see Rodrygo, Benzema, and an in-form Lucas Vázquez. The question mark in midfield is whether Luka Modrić will be rested, with Valverde taking his place instead.

As far as individual duels, watch out for that Carvajal vs Bryan Gil in defense. Carvajal has come back from injury in good shape, and he will be a tough opponent to beat for the young winger. If Carvajal can win most of those duels, Eibar will struggle to produce really good chances.

SD Eibar SAD v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

On the offense, Eibar’s press will be a big test to Real Madrid’s passing circuit, and it will be interesting to see how Ramos and Kroos deal with it this time around. Mendy has also struggled a bit under pressure, so him having a good game with the ball will be vital for Real to keep possession. With the good movement of Mendy and Rodrygo ahead of the ball and the creativity of Ramos and Kroos with the ball, perhaps Real can find solutions to pass through Eibar’s aggressive defense. If Modrić plays, there’s also a chance Real’s attack will not be so heavily biased towards the left side.

Real Madrid v Athletic Club - La Liga Santander Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

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